About six months before Eric Zaun’s death, on June 11, 2019, he attended a funeral. He stood in line with Chris Vaughan, one of his closest friends since childhood.
“It’s somber, you know,” Vaughan said earlier on Thursday, “but Eric’s cracking jokes, and he said that it didn’t have to be sad.”
Death does not have to be sad. Today does not have to be a sad day.
What happened exactly a year ago is beyond sad. Yet the majority of the first 24 years of Zaun’s life could not be described as sad. Adventurous, eclectic, innovative, inventive, indelible, absurd, fantastic, one of a kind — yes, those will do the trick. And they’re not nearly enough, either. But words were never really Zaun’s thing, anyway. Not that he didn’t know how to use them — he was educated and well-read and could string a few together just fine — he just lived his life in an actionable manner.
Why say you’re going to do something when you can … just … do it?
Why talk about doing a road trip with the boys down to South America when you can just buy an old clunker of a van that hardly works, get a few guys together, and wing it? (That van, as far as I know, by the way, was impounded, and I believe she’s still there, if anybody cares to pick her up). Didn’t have to be South America, or anywhere remotely exotic, either. Shoot, just call up Shane Donohue, pack up the van and head out to Ohio.
Zaun’ll make it fun. Don’t you worry, Shaner.
“I guess he was 20 at the time,” Donohue said, who was something of an older brother figure to Zaun, alongside Zaun’s real brother, Brian, who talks so much like Eric it’ll give you goosebumps when you hear him on the phone. “It was like an 11-hour road trip from Jersey to Ohio, which is the most boring road trip in the history of road trips. Driving through Western Pennsylvania for hours straight, there’s nothing to see, the most boring trip ever, and somehow, he turned it into the best time ever.
“I remember specifically, my face hurt so bad when I got home from laughing the entire time.”
It’s the best kind of hurt. One that anyone who came across him, let alone embarked on an adventure with him, knows all too well. Adam Roberts can barely get through some of the stories he’ll regale from their time in New Zealand, playing four events on the local tour there.
A ref had an issue with Zaun’s hands. Zaun had an issue with the ref having an issue. He rode the ref, to the point that the man reached into his pocket to brandish a red card. Zaun didn’t give him a chance. He snatched the red card out of his hand and chucked it. Sure, they were kicked out of the tournament, but they won the next one, which happened to be the championships of a widely respected tour.
The story you’d hear from Zaun, though, wouldn’t be about the win. It would be about the red card.
Ever heard of someone stealing a red card straight out of someone’s hands?
That’s the beauty of his life. There was, and ever will be, only one.
“It sounds cliché, but he was like gravity,” Donohue said. People changed around Zaun, in all of the best ways.
Prior to meeting Zaun, When Donohue would take road trips, he’d power through. Put in 20-hour days. Wouldn’t see the sites, or stop at random places in town. He had a place to be. Then he met Zaun. Like anyone else who has met him, everything changed.
“I never took enjoyment in stopping and doing all this ridiculous stuff, but once I went on trips with Eric, I was like ‘OK, this is awesome,’” Donohue said.
Now, on the route from Jersey to Ohio, Donohue has been to essentially every firework shop, Salvation Army, and Chinese buffet because “we can’t just go to any Chinese buffet,” Donohue said. “We have to go to the one that has crawfish. After it’s all said and done, you’re grateful for it and you love it. That was so much better.”
Anybody who came into contact with Zaun came out with a life that was remarkably better. Maybe they didn’t even realize it at the time. Maybe they thought it was totally obnoxious to be throwing footballs around Venice, or speed skating into snow volleyball matches, or wrestling as a warm up before finals in beach tournaments — and maybe some of those things are a bit obnoxious — but then you’d recall the memory. It’d be wrapped in that warm and fuzzy nostalgia, and soon you’d be crying from laughing so hard.
And you knew, when you recalled that memory, that your life just wouldn’t be the same anymore. The perspective through which you view everything had changed.
“We’d actually find ways to put ourselves in adverse situations,” Vaughan said.
How’d they do that, exactly? It’s easy, really. Anybody can do it. Just hop in a car, leave your phones at home, make a rule that you can’t look at a map, and try to get to Texas from Jersey.
“We had no phones, we don’t really know our way around, we’re pretty young and dumb, so it was good,” Vaughan said, laughing. “We had no plans of hotels or where we were going to sleep or any of that.”
The phoneless treks began in 2014, to Boston. Then came Texas, Canada, a few others. They all worked out just fine. Better than fine. They figured it out, because everything in life is, as Zaun proved and declared over and over and over again, “figureoutable.”
It was magnetizing to be around him. You’d find yourself talking like him, using these phrases that make no sense at all — “good scam!” “good for morale!” “Let’s go TK!” among others that aren’t fit for print on this family friendly website — acting like him on the court. It’s how Donohue found himself competing an entire tournament in a 1980s football jersey, the mesh ones that cut off just shy of the bellybutton. Zaun held up his end of the bargain, wearing a karate gi.
“I don’t know anybody who had that effect on the people that were around him,” Donohue said. “You catch yourself using these Zaunisms, we’d call them. All of a sudden you’re using these Zaun phrases you’ve never used before, and you’re just along for the ride. You’re in it. And I loved it. We used to call it Zaun and His Cronies. All these people would say ‘I think they’re starting to look more like Zaun. I’m starting to catch some more Zaun language.’ A small region of southern Jersey turned into Zaun territory.”
We were lucky enough to have him in California, where the Zaunisms spread. Where his appetite for fun and adventure and who knows what might happen next began to find its way into the lives of dozens.
If we are to truly embrace the spirit of that legendary Road Dog on this day, that’s what we’ll do: Take a trip. Call the boys and, as Zaun would say, “chop it up.” Have fun. Laugh.
That’s what Brian Zaun is planning on doing tonight. He bought six Nerf guns and the materials to mix enough Tom Collins drinks to make for one heck of an evening. He and his mother, Kim, drove around Camden, New Jersey, giving away ice cream in what has been dubbed the “EZ Pop-Up Ice Cream Giveaway.” They’re working on getting courts built in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Katie Spieler, Jon Mesko and I will be announcing the winner’s of the second annual Eric Zaun Scholarship soon (if you’d like to donate, please do so here).
It is sad, yes, that we no longer have Zaun to bring out the best in us. But what would be monumentally sadder is if we took this day and deprived it of the thing that Zaun brought so much of into the world.