By Joe Arruda
The question was: “Why? Why do you do what you do?”
Most players wrote “family” and/or “friends.”
But Connor Neshe’s response was different. His was a little more thoughtful, more significant.
The first-year stood with his teammates and coaches, holding a piece of computer paper with green writing that read:
“To wake up better than the day before.”
A statement that they will never forget.
A statement of motivation that was not foreign, coming from the person who held that paper.
Though he does not physically remain with them, what he wrote will. The philosophy so delicately articulated maintains of relevance in the hearts and minds of each and every person he touched.
On the desk of his teammate, Jack Anastopoulos, there is a picture of Connor. Woven into the middle of a group of his teammates, he is holding up that white piece of paper showcasing the phrase that Anastopoulos will never forget. Anna Woosley, the assistant coach for the women’s tennis team, had the picture printed for every member of the program. Springfield tennis head coach Mike Louis has the picture posted on a memory board in his office.
“I think understanding that message, ‘to wake up better than the day before,’ that is the approach that I think we’re all trying to take in our hearts,” Louis said. “For me, it is just trying to support our players as best as I can, support our coaching staff as best as I can, to be there, to be as present as I can for them. Family, as a new father, just trying to be the best father and husband that I possibly can for my family. Be the best individual that I can; finding those ways to challenge myself, to be uncomfortable. If it’s, ‘Man, I really don’t want to get this workout in today,’ well, do it. Just little things like that.”
“The best way to tribute and honor his legacy… is within our hearts and within the actions of how we treat each other and those that we interact with on a daily basis,” he continued. “Just trying to appreciate the moment, trying to celebrate, trying to bring in joy and help others be a little more joyful in their day.”
Connor’s attitude wasn’t only recognized by his coaches, but also by his teammates.
Hieu Ton added, “Connor will be remembered as a positive and supportive teammate. I’ve never met someone so dedicated to tennis like he was. Always looking to be one percent better every time he steps on the court. He impacted me to always be better than I was yesterday. Looking to always get that next ball no matter what.”
In his first collegiate practice, Connor pulled his hamstring, which kept him from ever competing at the college level. But, that did not keep him from supporting his teammates and providing an energy from outside the caged-in court.
“As a teammate, he showed up every day with so much energy and enthusiasm, inspiring me to always give my all and want to improve every day,” first-year teammate Greg Baker said.
“He supported me through my tough games, sets, and matches with all positive energy,” said Michael Kendrick, another first-year on the team. “This helped me a lot and will continue to help me stay positive in matches. Although it never got to be complete, his legacy will be carried on by the team for many years to come.”
“Connor was always a great voice to hear on your court, especially in tough matches. His tennis IQ was very knowledgeable and he always had great input to help me better myself during my matches,” Anastopoulos added.
Connor Neshe devoted himself to the sport, and he knew that he wanted to play tennis in college years before that time came. He was healthy, and when his injury could have brought him down, his work ethic only got stronger.
He would say to Louis, “Coach, I can get on the court, I can get on the court. I can’t move very well, I can’t move the way I want to, but I can do other things, so let’s just get started.”
His mindset was one often seen in a scripted feel-good movie – that kid who would do anything to help his team, and to push himself through a sidelining injury.
“He stayed on task as best as he could in terms of like, ‘Okay, this is not how I envisioned this, starting my college career, but I’m going to get myself better. I’m going to work with our ATs, I’m going to work with our strength coaches, to try to at least maintain, get healthy, and try to push myself in all the areas that (I can),’” Louis said.
“To his credit, he was able to get himself back on the court. Not in a time where he was going to be able to contribute in matches, and in the lineup, but he got back on the court with some practices left and he just wanted to get better.
“He wanted to look for that extra time that he and I could get on the court, whether it be before practices or after practices, to just work on the things that he felt like he needed, work on the things that we both felt would help him in the future. And he was focused, he was committed, and he stayed on task. He was very organized in that way about his day, and the athletic pursuits that he wanted to work towards.”
Anastopoulos recognized this quality too, adding, “I will remember Connor by his worth ethic, he showed up to practice 30 minutes early and stayed 30 minutes late to get his body and his game in the perfect condition to play his best on the court.”
In his short time on campus, being at Springfield for less than half of a semester, Connor made a point to utilize all of the wellness facilities as much as he could. He devoted his time to being healthy, whether that was physically or mentally, and people noticed that.
“Connor was a loving young man who loved tennis and training in general. He loved hanging out with friends, and I almost never saw him walking alone,” Fabian Jensen, a sophomore on the team, said. “His hard work is what impacted me the most. He was always ready for 6:30 a.m. morning session 30 minutes early. I cycled with him some of the times before we started. He was my ‘wake up’ buddy, so we went early sometimes. He was always happy and always knew what to say.”
The second he stepped foot on the Springfield College campus, Connor knew that’s where he was meant to be. In the recruiting process, the tennis coaching staff saw Connor as a well-rounded individual with an upside in tennis.
“We in the athletic department and us coaches, we all talk about the ‘Springfield kid,’ we’re all trying to find ‘Springfield kids,’ and Connor was exactly that,” Louis said. “Last year being my first year in the role of head coach at Springfield, you often hear that term tossed around and you think you understand what a Springfield kid is. Connor was that kid that made it real life for me.
“The character, integrity, his positive attitude, and the way he always sought to challenge himself and to support his teammates really is that thread of a Springfield kid. As a teammate, from a coaching perspective, that’s the type of kid that you look at, that is who you want on your team.
“We always say when we’re recruiting we are trying to find those pieces that fit into our puzzle, and in my perspective, he did exactly that. He fit in, and he made himself a part of this program in that short period of time.”
His positive attitude and genuinely caring personality translated not only within the tennis realm, but was also clear in his everyday interactions. Connor made an impact on students in his classes, talking to them and sharing a smile with them each time they connected.
He would make sure his friends were okay. He would make sure his peers who were still strangers were okay. He would make sure faculty and staff members were okay.
Connor wanted everyone to be happy – he wanted to share the light that shined so bright inside him.
“Connor was a very nice kid, he always had a smile on his face and always had something kind to say. Whether it was cracking a joke and just starting a conversation, it was always so nice to talk to him because you could feel he was such a warm and loving soul,” said Tino Pizzarella, a floormate of Connor’s in Gulick 4C. “He gave off an entity or this light that was unmatchable. You could tell he was truly a good person inside and out.”
After the devastating news was shared of his passing on Sunday, October 20, students, faculty, and staff gathered in Marsh Memorial Chapel to remember him. They shared a somber moment together — some prayed, some just tried to wrap their head around the tragic event.
And then, some reflected. They shared memories that they had made with Connor in his short time on campus.
There were members of his orientation groups, students who shared classes with him, people who saw him in their dorm, and just random people who he would say ‘Hi’ to in passing.
“I think you look at this unfortunate event, but then you get all of these stories coming out that I don’t think people think otherwise to talk about,” Louis said. “I think there are so many more layers to Connor. I think the sky was the limit for him. He won’t be able to work towards those things, but he did everything he could on a daily basis to at least try to chip at the things that he wanted to try to accomplish immediately.
“I can come off pretty direct sometimes like, ‘That’s not good enough,’ or, ‘You’re doing great here, this needs to be a bit better, here’s how we can do it, what are your thoughts on this?’ So you work on that two-way communication with your players. His attitude was always like, ‘I love it, Coach, you’re just trying to make me better. I want to be pushed, I want to be challenged so let’s keep going.’ I think that’s a great perspective to have as a freshman, you don’t always get that.”
While Connor preferred to be pushed from a coaching perspective, he was the first to offer encouragement and positivity to his teammates as they played.
Teammate Lucas Van Deventer shared, “I had the opportunity to get to know Connor a lot. We would watch a lot of the matches together and his encouragement for players was always positive. That helped me to see that I needed to spread positivity to get our teammates to refocus and get back into the match.
“One memory I have with Connor is warming up with him at the Grass Invitational Tournament in Providence and he was so excited to be there and was pumping me up as we hit. He was coming off of his hamstring injury and he was smiling so much that day. It was awesome to see.”
“My favorite memory of Connor was during our grass court tournament and I hit a winner down the line and he yelled, ‘Federer!’ It showed a funny side of him that I wish I got to know better,” Anastopolous said.
All that encompassed Connor will forever be remembered by his teammates, and by all who came in contact with him. His work ethic and personality inspired others to be the best they can be, and he radiated positivity everywhere he went.
“Connor was one of the hardest working members of the men’s tennis team. He came to practice every day with the goal of being better than yesterday,” senior tennis captain Freddie Moffa said. “He impacted me personally by showing me how much fun someone could have while playing tennis. His first day back at practice coming off his injury he was all smiles and pumped to be back.”
“As a June Orientation leader, one can pick up on the qualities and personalities of people fairly quickly. Connor was actually one of the first students in my group that I talked to. Although quiet and reserved, he quickly opened up,” said one of Connor’s June Orientation leaders, Liz Chew. “I remember speaking to him within the first five minutes of his orientation group forming, and he said that he was ready for orientation and couldn’t wait to get onto campus in the fall.
“It is a truly rewarding experience to watch a person grow in a matter of hours, and Connor did just that. He was able to display his easy-going nature, and quickly made friends that day as well. It was evident that he was excited to join the Springfield College community. Although he was taken so early on in his life, it was clear that he enjoyed playing on the tennis team, being with his friends, and embodying the campus’ philosophy of Humanics.
“Although only being on campus for a short two months, he impacted the lives around him in such a positive way, and subsequently leaving behind a legacy that will not be forgotten. It was an honor to be Connor’s June Orientation leader, and I wish his family all the best as they raised a model student, athlete, and friend.”
Through the grieving, gloomy days on campus, and in his town of Framingham, Mass., Connor would encourage people not to be sorrowful. To go into their next day inspired to make it better than the previous one.
To wake up better than the day before.
***Connor Neshe’s service will be held Monday, November 4 at 1:30 p.m. at First Parish in Framingham Unitarian Universalist, which is located at 24 Vernon Street in Framingham Mass. Parking is available at Village Hall (across the green) or behind the Plymouth Church at 87 Edgell Road (right across the street) or along Grove Street.***
Featured photo courtesy of Dana Neshe