Tuesday, February 19 2019
Growing up in Massachusetts, the children from my hometown of Sherborn and the children from the adjacent town, Dover, merged into a single grade in Middle School. Our towns were small and intimate, and so for our social world to suddenly double was jarring and intimidating. Who were these other pint-sized strangers? For me, awkward and with a brand new set of braces slapped on, the tribal merge was hard to take. I don’t think I talked to any of the “new kids” for the first few weeks. What would I say?
Then one day, I was paired up for a geography project with a Dover-kid named Ryan Skapars.
I hadn’t had a friend over to my house that I hadn’t already known since kindergarten before, and to this day I clearly remember having Ryan over off the school bus to work on the project. A somewhat anxious kid, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to approach the task at hand. He was from Dover after all, which at the time to me might as well have been New Zealand. But Ryan was easy and confident, loud and likable. He wasn’t nervous about being at someone’s house for the first time, or what grade we might get on the project, or about anything at all.
Following his lead, we went on to produce a truly abhorrent attempt at conveying information about the Congo to our class. If I recall correctly, we made strange voices for poorly constructed hand-puppet animals from behind a cardboard-cutout stage, providing factually-suspect information about the landscape, exports, and climate of the region. It was like a demented and unrehearsed version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe. No one learned a thing, but it somehow went well, and we received laughter and applause. The energy and lack of inhibition that Ryan displayed as we presented got us a grade that we didn’t deserve and I’ll always remember it.
It was a lesson in confidence.
I have a lot of really fond memories of Ryan Skapars. Anyone that knew him does.
Ryan was the kid that somehow struck the right balance of being both disruptive and endearing in a classroom, to the point where the teacher couldn’t help but smile despite themself. At a time in my life when I wasn’t getting invited to a lot of places, Ryan somewhat unexpectedly invited me to a Super Bowl party at his house. Just being invited somewhere meant a lot and I made new friends at that party with some “Dover kids” who remain some of my very best friends to this day.
I remember being in the locker room after gym class in 7th grade and watching with laughter as Ryan relentless smashed a calculator to bits and pieces as our friend Zack sang Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage... I still laugh when I think of that moment.
Later on in high school, once we all procured drivers licenses, Ryan emerged as the preeminent car guy, always working on his Firebird, owning the road. I’ll never forget the time a group of us had gone to see Tom Petty. Ryan was prone to displays of exaggerated road-rage, and I recall him swerving through the gridlock of parking lot traffic as we tried to leave the venue, shouting colorful expletives at strangers blocking the way and leaning out the window to brandish and wave an oversized mechanics-wrench of some sort at anyone attempting to merge in front of us. I’d like to think he was putting on a show to entertain us, but he sure waved that thing around like he meant it.
Sadly, among his family and friends, there would come a memory of Ryan Skapars that none of us can ever forget.
Attending his funeral.
Ryan died from Fibrosarcoma in 2005, just twenty-two years old. When all of us, his childhood friends, graduated from Dover-Sherborn High School in 2001 and went off to college, Ryan was tasked with fighting against what was happening in his own body. His friends never abandoned him though, and many of them, especially guys like Matt Perdoni, Will Urmston and Andrew Myerson, went above and beyond in being there for Ryan, in person, right to the end.
After Ryan passed on, an annual football game among his friends was established in his memory and held the day after Christmas. Fourteen years later, that same game remains, most of the players who had been there from the outset having never missed a match despite living all over the country. Back in the day, Ryan was the punter on the Dover-Sherborn football team, and thus a punt-on-every-fourth-down rule was established. We always pick teams the same way, with each person throwing a shoe or hat or glove into a pile and Matt Perdoni closing his eyes and distributing the items into two teams to the left and right. Every year, the usual suspects bring along new friends and family to play in the Holiday Bowl, and in doing so, the legend of Ryan Skapars lives on and touches the lives of new people even fourteen years after he’s been gone. This past year, Matt, who makes sure this annual game keeps on happening and whose father Rock is often the referee, made official shirts for everyone that display SKAPARS on the back and feature his old number: #67. I can speak for everyone who plays in that game when I say it is chief among our holiday priorities.
It’s so important to all of us.
It’s February 7th, 2019 and I’m sitting on a couch across from Ryan’s older brother Derek. We haven’t seen each other since high school and while I never knew him like I knew his little brother, when you come from the same small town like we did, there’s a familiarity built in from the shared context of your youth. Plus, his girlfriend, Hilary, is there with us. She was in the same grade as Ryan and I and we recall a morning in 5th grade when she and I coordinated to wear matching outfits: DS-blue soccer shorts, our black D.A.R.E. t-shirts, and black Adidas sneakers. We really made a difference of some kind that day.
In reminiscing, the subject of the football game played in his little brother’s honor also comes up, along with the fact that Derek has never joined us to play in it, something that I’d always wondered about.
“I didn’t want to intrude on ‘the friends’. Everyone dealt with his passing their own way. I’m honored that you guys still do this. It’s a big deal. It’s touching. It’s amazing. It’s a DS crew that knows the DS story. It’s so great. And it wasn’t exactly like I wasn’t going on purpose. It was really just that I wanted to let Ryan’s friends do it their way, you know? But recently, I started asking myself: what’s my way?”
“Oh, it’s been fun,” Hilary laughs, chiming in. “His way. Out of nowhere, I’ll hear ‘The next fighter! Fighting from the red corner!’ and then here he comes down the stairs and it’s like, ‘Alright bud. Let’s slow it down here.’”
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time for slowing down. Derek was a late acceptance for this upcoming May’s Haymakers for Hope event in Boston and as a result his trainer Jared at Bancroft Boxing hasn’t been wasting any time getting down to business.
“I’ve been at this for three weeks and he’s already thrown me into the ring fifteen times,” Derek tells me. “I’ve already drawn blood at the gym. Been hit hard in the nose three times. But Jared knows the deal. We’ve got a few months to get there. There’s no time to clown around.”
Having interviewed a large enough sample size of Haymakers fighters, I know that having sparred that much in the first few weeks is not exactly protocol. In both the literal and figurative meanings of the phrase, Derek has had to come out swinging.
“The second time they put me in the ring, I heard Jared say to his buddy, ‘Look at this guy on day five. He’s just going for it. He’s not scared.’ He likes that I’m not afraid to get hit. I’m like a wild animal. He always tells me that 90% of going into a fight at this extreme level is nerves. Once you can get past the nerves, then you can fight. So I’m going to do my best to have minimized the nerves. I don’t plan to freeze up. I don’t just want to fight for a good cause. I want to fight for a good cause and win.”
If there’s one thing I’m learning, if you’re looking for a lesson in confidence, find a Skapars.
I wonder if this inherent confidence stems from any sort of background in boxing or anything like it. I remember playing lacrosse with both Ryan and Derek in high school. On the field Derek was nothing if not scrappy and wild.
“I mean, as a kid I did Tae Kwon Do. But that’s all footwork and kicks. It’s a different style. And that ended when I was thirteen. I’m thirty-seven now. There’s a gap.”
“Then again, when it comes to fighting experience, there’s always just having brothers. I will say, as big as Ryan got, 220 lbs, six feet tall, I could always win. I could always kick his ass. And he was big. He was tough. I think just by being the older brother there’s power there, but yeah, Ryan and I would push and shove and all that. But it was always out of love. Who with a brother or sister doesn’t have those altercations? But it wasn’t frequent. We were normal.”
“That being said, there was one time. We were roughhousing one day. We were young. Maybe twelve. We were going at it, just back and forth. I wasn’t winning. He wasn’t winning. Just really going at it, pushes and punches. Then, Ryan runs up and kicks the lawnmower. This tube that connects the mower part to the bag that holds the grass flies off directly into my face. I had to get three stitches. I still have a scar to this day. So I guess that was a fight that I didn’t win against him. What with the lawn mower part being kicked into my face.”
As part of orientation for Haymaker for Hope, Derek had to make the trip into Dana Farber. He didn’t need to ask for directions.
“I feel like I’ve been to Dana Farber hundreds of times. There was I time that I’d be going there often. I’d fly in to be with Ryan at the hospital. But who wouldn’t have? He’s my little brother. It was hard to watch him go through the chemo. The fight lasted forever. He was winning for a while. When you are going through it you don’t want to think the unthinkable. So you just muscle through. I remember the doctor telling us that he had three months. All I could do was hug him and get him the hell out of the hospital. There were better places to be.”
“But he ended up proving that doctor wrong. He was going on a full year, but he never wanted to count that as a victory. He wanted to live. He wanted to live to the very end. It wasn’t until three months before that he actually believed he might not end up winning. He never gave up, but at a certain point there’s nothing you can do. He suffocated, because there was just too much tumor in his lungs.”
“But I have to say, Ryan really learned a lot from what he went through. His relationship especially with Matt [Perdoni] and Will [Urmston] really taught him what friendship was. It was important for our family to get to take a break, but also know that he was happy being with all you guys. Taking him fishing and stuff like that. That was important. I remember Andrew Myerson and his family planted a tree in his honor. And then for all you guys to have been doing this game for him. His friends really came through.”
“I guess that’s why the whole ‘letting you guys have the football game’ thing was so important to me. That was your way. Hearing about that game was really my inspiration for deciding to do this fight for him. ”
“This will be my way.”
Written By Chris Randa