By Rob Schabert, Sports Information Director
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- In just a few hours, the Tennessee Tech tennis team will gather at the campus courts for its annual end-of-season cookout, where head coach Kenny Doyle will announce the team's award winners, including the Johny Donnelly Maverick Award.
The celebration of this year's team -- winners of back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference regular season championships -- comes shortly after several of us in the Athletics Dept. heard the sad news of the passing of Heath Dwenger, 36, the first winner of the Maverick Award back in 2000.
Heath played on the Golden Eagle tennis team from 1997 to 2000, and was part of coach Randy Smith's 1999 OVC Championship squad. He received the inaugural Johnny Donnelly Maverick Award, named for a long-time fan who died at a young age from Muscular Dystrophy. The Award recognizes the "fight" in a player and his or her willingness to battle through obstacles, along with leadership and determination.
We got word from Brian Brooks, a former team manager and friend of the tennis program. Obviously, a good friend of Heath's (that's Heath with Brian at Brian's wedding in the first photo below), as well. Brian's email said a lot about Dwenger, and the fight he had battled after a serious motorcycle accident to his battle against leukemia.
"It really hit all of his Tech friends hard," Brooks said in a
followup email. "Thanks so much in advance if you're planning to
put something on the website about him. I know it would mean alot
to him and it would mean a lot to all of his friends that knew him
well in the Tech/Cookeville community and beyond."
The best way to spell out the news is in Brooks' own words:
"I realize that many of you may not actively monitor your
Facebook timeline, so I wanted to reach out to you via email to
deliver some bad news. It is with great sadness....that our friend
and brother, Heath Dwenger, passed away yesterday.
"As many of you know, he had battled some overwhelming circumstances over the past few years. He had the very bad motorcycle accident that he never fully recovered from, and then over the last couple of years, he's been battling leukemia. He was a true warrior and fought it hard. We all thought he had it licked for good, but unfortunately it returned in the last few weeks, finally taking his life yesterday.
"Volkan Salar traded some emails from his sister last night. She says that he went peacefully in his sleep and that the family was heartbroken but happy for Heath that he no longer has to suffer.
"I myself am heartbroken and still very shell-shocked when I read Volkan's email in the middle of the night last night. I couldn't go back to sleep as I lay there thinking about Heath and what he's had to go through. While I still have tremendous sadness losing a brother in Heath, I am trying to focus on the good times, the healthy times and memories of him.
"I remember the last time I saw him in San Francisco a couple of years ago. After everything he had gone through and was going through, he was the same Heath, happy, joking, up for anything and living life to the fullest. Even after his horrible motorcycle accident, he was anxious to get another one and start riding again.
"Then I remembered the good times at Tech. It shouldn't surprise
any of us that he fought these battles so fiercely and with such a
good attitude because that was Heath. I remember all of the days on
the courts and the track at Tech in August, with 100+ degree
weather. The team would be running their miles for time or doing
sprints and Heath would always be the last man standing, often the
first one crossing the finish line.....most of the time laughing or
with a smile on his face.
"Then there's the Heath that could party like no other. He would amaze us all by going out like a champ all night long and then waking up bright and early the next morning like it was nothing. He was a piece of steel with a smile on his face. He was a good friend that would sit and talk with you for hours about any subject and make you feel great to have him in your life. He always found the positive side of things. I will miss him for the rest of my days, but I'm choosing to be happy for him being able to finally rest from his pain and I'm choosing to remember the healthy, happy, fun-loving Heath that we all knew and loved.
"I am hoping Tech will post something on the Athletics site in memory of him in the coming days. He certainly deserves to be remembered. I don't have everyone's contact info, so if you guys want to let his other friends know, please do so.....especially Piotr, Razvan, Aldrin, Sam, the Donnelly's. I think Heath was the first or one of the first recipients of the Johnny Donnelly Maverick Award that was ever given. Another great memory.
".....Most of all, remember and pray for Heath and his family. Much love to you all."
Heath joined the team in 1996-97 as a walk-on from Celina, Ohio, and in four seasons he posted 27 wins in singles play and 23 in doubles, giving him 50 career combined victories. His best year came in 1997-98, as a sophomore, when he was 11-4 in singles while filling the No. 6 spot in the lineup. As a senior, he combined with four differnt doubles partners for a combined 10-8 record. Much of his success that year came when he was teamed with Daniel Chavarria from Bolivia, with a 7-4 doubles mark.
By the time he entered his senior season, the bio in the team's media guide said: Heath is a great motivational member of the squad...his game has improved tremendously in his three previous seasons...continued to show constant improvement during the '99 fall season...pushing for a spot in the lower portion of the lineup...should help provide depth in doubles play...working to become more consistent on his forehand...won the inaugural Johnny Donnelly Maverick Award last season for his dedication and overall efforts and leadership.
The son of James and Mariyn Dwenger, his full name was Heath James Dwenger and his birthdate was April 1, 1977. He earned his degree in mechanical engineering in December, 2000.