John "J.P." Savoie: 1955 - 1983

Star athletes touch us aesthetically with their grace, strength, and coordination, but few of us watching are satisfied with these physical manifestations of what we, in a more equitable universe, might ourselves have become. We want to know more - a competitor's secret desires, his intellectual curiosities, his favorite foods, his ways with dogs and small children. And through this subconscious pursuit of holistic fandom, we are occasionally surprised - and humbled - to discover that beneath an athlete's programmed sporting skills lie his most overwhelming gifts of all. Righteously, such athletes become our heroes.

When a hero dies too soon, a surreal story is scripted; we see men and women built up and then broken down by forces of fate to mercurial to reckon with, and we may lose track of where reality ends and legend begins. Desperate for some sort of resolution, our minds dutifully undertake the task of sorting it all out, assigning the proper labels and characterizations, crafting stories - blunt gestures meant to ensure a powerful memory of a life itself too powerful for our clumsy language to describe.

In the early 1970's, the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam and Bishop Brady High School of Concord, N.H. was busy building a cross-country dynasty. When John "J.P." Savoie graduated from Bishop Brady in 1973, he was already a legend, widely regarded as the finest athlete ever to wear a Green Giant uniform; in the minds of many, he still holds this distinction. Savoie captained the basketball team and was eminently capable on the hardwood, but for purposes of this story, J.P. Savoie was a runner.

As a junior he finished third in the 1971 New England Championship, having led his mates to the New Hampshire Class I state championship the week before. After again leading the Green Giants to the state crown in 1972, he returned to the New Englands and, coming from 50 yards behind in the final half-mile, crossed the line a winner by a full ten seconds, setting a record of 12:11 for the 2.5-mile course. In the spring, he set a Class I State record by grinding out a 4:19 mile. All told, Savoie at one time held over 30 cross-country records throughout New Hampshire. J.P. Savoie, who spent fewer than three decades running and roving among us, was a winner of the first magnitude. Sports were only a part of that.

Fast forward to 1987, when, as a senior at Concord High School, I competed in the Capital Area Cross-Country Championship, then held at Bishop Brady every fall. A teammate's father captured the event on videotape - fortuitously, for this was the finest race of my high-school career; the details of my first-place finish were thus captured for the lifetime of a VHS cassette. So, too, was the ensuing awards ceremony, in which then-Brady coach John Goegel and a Brady theology teacher, Terry Odell, each shared a few words about a Brady athlete of yore; afterward Goegel presented Bishop Brady's top finisher, Chris Collins, with a special award named in that runner's honor.

Although the race itself was forever burned into my memory from the moment I parted the finish-line tape, the part of the story of J.P. Savoie I knew was, sadly, only faintly etched there; only in September of this year, after viewing the videotape for the first time, did I recall it at all.

Stay in place long enough, and circles will form. A high-school career that ended at Concord High in 1988 resumed at Bishop Brady in 1999, when I began coaching the school's cross-country team. This fall I began teaching mathematics at Brady as well, much like John Goegel, who in 1991 moved on to another school, but remains a friend and mentor. Also this fall, whimsical circumstances brought me together in close friendship with a longtime Brady theology teacher named Terry Odell.

At a spaghetti supper held at the school the night before our first invitational of the season, I, along with thirty Brady runners, several of their parents, and a few teachers, watched the videotape of me and my Concord teammates running in the Capital Area Championship. The kids laughed at the uniforms we wore and at our "'80's hair," but the room grew silent when the dozen-year-old visages of John Goegel and Terry Odell spoke in turn about the remarkable J.P. Savoie.

Harvey Smith was an English teacher at Bishop Brady in 1966 when he started the school's cross-country program. Although he was unable to get clearance to hold practices and races until October, the team he assembled still finished second at the Class I State Championship that fall. The following year, Brady won its first of seven consecutive state titles under Smith, who has since moved on to Concord High school and has racked up ten Class L state championships in tennis. This is a man who clearly knows something about winning and accomplishment. He recently said: "J.P.'s win at the New Englands was and is my greatest moment in sports and as a coach."

Several days after arriving in Providence, Savoie promptly came home, ostensibly for good, because he missed his family so badly. However, Smith convinced him to return to school. In 1976 he ran on a Providence team that won the NCAA Division I national championship. After graduating with a degree in business administration, Savoie returned to the area. He continued running, coached freshman basketball at Bishop Brady and played in the city softball league. He remained close to the Smiths and occasionally babysat their children.

In April 1982, without warning, J.P. suffered a stroke that robbed him of his speech and paralyzed the right side of his body. Two months later a brain tumor was discovered. Four months after that he married a woman he had net four years earlier at a Brady-Concord High basketball game, and his health gradually improved. He underwent experimental treatments and was even able to resume light jogging for a time. But eventually the tumor's growth accelerated, and in December 1983, J.P. Savoie died. Friends describe his final weeks as painful ones, and they were glad to see him finally set free. He was 28.

The English metaphysical poet John Donne wrote: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind." As others have noted, some men leave bigger gaps than others. Harvey Smith, who has worked with hundreds if not thousands of young athletes in his long career, recently said: "I never go more than two or three days without thinking of J.P. I'll be at a practice and something will remind me....out of all the kids, oh, he was just the sweetest." Seventeen years after J.P.'s death, Harvey Smith's voice cracked as he recalled a living treasure.

Savoie lived as complete a life as a young man could. He was in the Friends program at Providence and was a Big Brother in Concord. He acted in the Bishop Brady Summer Theater. In talking with those who knew him, I hear a common theme about his character: Giving. Caring. Terrific sense of humor. Honest. Forthright. J.P. Savoie plainly cared for the world around him, the people around him. The message we receive from his short but powerful journey on Earth is that there is no reason to wait for some ill-defined tomorrow when you can begin living and chasing your dreams today.

These are lasting values, and with no small measure of smugness and pride I claim that they may be found on cross-country teams more often than in any other school group. For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of coaching someone who, in addition to getting the most out of his running abilities, has represented Brady in countless ways. He was a member of the Granite State Challenge team, editor of the yearbook, a math team member, and a participant in the prestigious St. Paul's School Advanced Studies Program. During our unprecedented march to the Meet of Champions this fall, this co-captain embraced his role selflessly and with a single-mindedness not often seen in teenagers, or, for that matter, in adults. While not a runner of J.P.'s caliber, he always came up with his biggest races at the most crucial times, and was willing to brave the wrath of his teammates when he felt their own focus wavering.

After our 4th-place finish at that race I was surprised to find him despondent on the grass. He and his teammates had done something remarkable. He was upset because we had not done even better and felt he had let the team down. He was shooting for the stars, and instead, he landed on the moon. A senior named Michael Walsh was thus the recipient of the 2000 J.P. Savoie Award, which, I hope, will never skip another year. When I presented the award, I was overcome by the enormity of the moment, the season, the outgoing seniors and the gestalt of everything I have touched upon here, rendering my well-prepared speech a teary and broken exercise in verbal frustration. Strangely, I have no regrets. I did not need to unleash the perfect words to convey the meaning of an award and a life that speaks for itself.

It is no accident that in the four or five days I spent writing this, I not only averaged close to twenty miles of running a day, but consciously set aside just a little extra time for the struggling algebra student, the discouraged young runner, the friend I've ignored for to long; these things, admittedly, do not come as naturally to me as I might like. But they do come. J.P. Savoie is in another place now, but it must be a beautiful one, for he continues to touch all of us with the rarest of gifts.

- Kevin Beck, 11/17/2000