Buss: Remembering Woody Hunt

It seems a week doesn’t go by without news of someone losing their life to addiction. And with each new tragedy, my thoughts return to my old friend Woody Hunt.

He fought valiantly. But he was just 36 years old when lost his prolonged battle to addiction 14 years ago.

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The 37th annual Woody Hunt Memorial Junior Tennis Tournament takes place May 27-29 and June 3-4 at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills Estates, California. The club might be familiar to avid tennis fans as the place where great champions like Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras honed their skills.

Most of you probably haven’t heard of Forrest “Woody” Hunt IV. Let me tell you the story of the man this tournament commemorates.

Lives of quiet desperation

Henry David Thoreau once observed that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. To an addict, no greater truth has been told.

To be beholden in both mind and body, knowing full well it is killing you, yet feeling like you’ll die if you don’t get some – soon. It’s just no way to live.  But this is the daily reality for those in the throes of addiction. Nobody sets out to become an addict; by the time they realize they have a problem, it’s often far too late.

If only actually quitting were as simple as making the decision to quit.

Unconditional support

Woody and I grew up at the now-defunct Rolling Hills Plaza Racquet Club in Torrance, California. I was two years his senior; we were tennis peers but never direct adversaries. That likely enabled us to become the best of friends. We looked out for each other throughout the ups and downs of competitive junior tennis.

Our unconditional support would carry over into our adult lives.

I gave Woody his first beer at age 13. I took him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at age 30. The early days of sobriety weren’t always pretty. Self-reliant tennis players like us weren’t used to asking for help.

We knew little about admitting defeat. To surrender to anything was seen as weakness. We used to joke about how much we hated quitters.

By the time we reconnected at AA, the alcohol had long ago stopped working for both of us. So we quit. For us, alcohol had been the answer to all of life’s problems. We had to learn to live life without it.

Getting healthy, staying clean

Woody and I decided to go on a health kick in the summer of 1996. We were going to quit smoking, quit junk food – quit caffeinating our feelings away as so many do in those tumultuous first years. We were told by sobriety’s elders that it gets better. Our internal and external lives would settle down some day, they said. But we had to be patient.

Patience was a virtue with which neither of us was familiar.

We impatiently began running, lifting, eating well and slugging tennis balls a few times a week, trying to force better health upon ourselves. We soon got the harebrained idea to play a tournament or two together, just for kicks. We were both on the wrong side of 30 but what the hell, we thought; we still had a little game.

So we entered the Manhattan Open, held every summer at Live Oak Park in Manhattan Beach. For maximum physical discomfort, we entered both singles and doubles.

By the end of the week we were in the singles final against each other and in the doubles final as a team.

Encouraging moments

We attended an AA speaker meeting the night before the final. Woody and I sat side by side as the speaker dispensed his wisdom, strength and hope. For the better part of an hour, we tried in vain not to cry.

At the meeting’s conclusion, everyone in the room joined hands for the closing prayer. Upon releasing hands, Woody turned to me and give me a hug. He thanked me for being his friend all these years. In reply, I awkwardly sputtered that I loved him.

For the first time in a long while, I thought we were both going to be all right.

As we parted that evening, Woody blurted out that he really didn’t want to play me the next day. I didn’t want to play him, either. So we hatched a plan. We would play an easy exhibition in the singles, split the prize money, and save ourselves for the doubles.  

Woody vs. Barry

With our friends and family in tow, we met up the next morning. We were a couple of local kids, grown up now. We had done well, we’d had the wheels fall off, and we had gotten back up to stand once again.

As we walked to the court to warm up, tennis didn’t seem all that important for once. That day, we were winning the toughest battle of our young lives off the court.

Most in the crowd didn’t know our story. But they knew that whatever bad things had happened in our lives weren’t happening anymore. Woody and I entered the court laughing and joking, healthy and happy. It was something neither of us had done in an awfully long time.  

We had agreed to take it easy and split the money. But once they started keeping score, we had no idea how to actually do it. We played a couple of awkward points. At 30-15 in the first game, after a long rally, I called Woody’s ball wide on the sideline. I looked up to see him coming at me, veins bulging, yelling.

“Nice ***ing call, Buss!”

To which I replied: “Whatever Woody. Match on!”

Good days can be bad days, too

The day ended five long hours later. We survived the singles and won a tense doubles final. As we hobbled towards downtown Manhattan Beach with our winners’ checks cashed, we beamed with satisfaction. More importantly, we beamed about the fact that we did it all sober.

But we both knew great days like this can trigger a relapse just as easily as bad days. We both knew what the other was thinking. As the one who’d been sober longer, I felt I had to be the one who said no to our worst urges.

We walked into a liquor store. Woody was a little unsure why I was tempting us so, but I had a plan. I walked up to the counter and ordered … a pack of Marlboros and some matches. Woody let out an audible sigh of relief.

We were going to end this day as it started, sober alcoholics for one more day. We walked outside, I ripped open the pack and lit Woody’s cigarette and my own.

“Let’s go catch the sunset, buddy,” I said. To the pier we went, chain-smoking cigarettes as we celebrated the end of a beautiful, successful day.

From triumph, to tragedy

A month later, I had just returned from a vacation when I received an urgent message. Woody had been hit by a speeding car. Within minutes my girlfriend and I were speeding to the hospital trauma unit where his badly broken body lay. 

The scene still haunts me. Pins, tubes, doctors, nurses – all monitoring Woody as closely as possible. The accident had broken nearly every bone in his body, but his brain and major organs were undamaged.

Early indications were that he might lose his left leg. Miraculously, the doctors managed to save it. They put Woody back together fragment by fragment, held together with pin after pin.

A long, difficult, and painful physical rehabilitation followed. There were several radical, experimental surgeries to attempt to revive Woody’s right arm. It wasn’t broken in the accident, but he suffered irreversible nerve trauma. He was never able to regain full use of the arm.

Pain management soon led to pain addiction. The poor guy had so little chance. The ensuing six and a half years were quite difficult for everyone who cared for Woody. He was surrounded by a loving family and a large group of friends. He had the best medical care and the best support AA could offer.

But some burdens are too heavy even for Superman to lift. Woody gave up on December 21, 2002.

A full house, a difficult eulogy

I was asked to deliver the eulogy at Woody’s service. The church just kept getting fuller. All these people from his tennis past flew in from all across the country to pay their respects

There had to be 1,000 people there by the time I began to speak.

I don’t recall exactly what my words were. But I do recall saying that if Woody were standing up there next to me, looking out at the overflow crowd that came out of respect for the person he was, it would have been hard for me to believe he could have made the life choices he did.

He was loved – very much loved – by so many. And yet, a person deep in the throes of addiction can’t feel that love around them. 

Alcoholism and addiction are life sentences that, if not addressed, can become death sentences. Alcoholics and addicts are not bad people; they are sick people who often do bad things.

Some, like Woody, get a really bad dose and suffer a whole lot of bad luck. For them, we can only hope for the best. But we have to prepare for the worst, and pray every day that they get some relief.

Thinking of Woody

I have been in and out of recovery now for over 25 years Not a day goes by that I don’t have the urge to drink or use. Some days that voice is a mere murmur. Other days it is a loud chorus – relentless, powerful, not to be denied.

On the days that voice gets too loud, I think of my late friend Woody Hunt and how hard he fought. 

**An earlier version of this story indicated that it was the 36th edition of the Woody Hunt tournament, wrapping up May 7. In fact, it’s the 37th edition, and begins May 27. The information, and link to the tournament page, have been corrected.**

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