May 12, 2013
He would be named Asaph. In January of 1987, Evelyn Schwapp found in the Old Testament the name of King David's chief musician, one appointed to raise the sounds of God's joy. She had been a member of the Glory Chapel choir in Hartford and more than anything in the world Evelyn loved to raise those joyful sounds.
"Asaph missed his mom so much, he was only 9 when she passed in December 1996," said Loretta King, Evelyn's sister, who along with her husband, Clarke, would take in Asaph and his brother Andrew and raise them as their own. "He would say to me, 'Aunt Loretta, why did my mom have to die?' I would try to explain it to him. And he'd just say, 'I miss her so much.'
"I would say, 'Do you dream about her, Asaph, do you?' He'd say he did. And I'd say, 'Is she alive in your dream?' He'd say yes, and I'd say, 'That's her. She's showing you she's OK.'"
Over the years, Asaph Schwapp called his mother's singing voice his warmest memory of her and said he couldn't believe his own voice was so bad.
"He never allowed that to stop him," said his oldest brother Alvin, managing a warm laugh only 48 hours after Asaph had died Wednesday at age 26 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I liked his singing voice," said Amanda Finestone, the woman Asaph would come to love so much the past three years. "He would always joke that it was because I was hard of hearing and he was going to take me to Miracle-Ear.
"When we first met, he'd constantly quiz me on songs on the radio. I could match him. There would be times he'd go, 'How can you possibly know this?' I'd be like, 'How do YOU know this?' Asaph loved every kind of music."
The 2004 Connecticut Gatorade high school football player of the year, who would go on to play fullback at Notre Dame and briefly with the Dallas Cowboys, Asaph lived with Alvin Schwapp and his family in Simsbury the past year as he battled cancer. While on Pandora, Alvin would occasionally play songs he knew his kids wouldn't appreciate. Out of nowhere, Asaph would blurt, "That's Conway Twitty."
"How the hell did you know that?" Alvin said. "I was just playing a joke."
He would be named Asaph. And if he was to raise the sounds of joy, he seemed to know better than any of us that he would need to know not only his music, but everyone's music.
He was a terrific football player, to be sure, able to lift the sides of small buildings. When he was healthy and 250 pounds, Schwapp bench-pressed 530 pounds, startling even by Notre Dame's standards. A few months ago, his body ravaged by cancer, he could still bench 300. In recent days, Andrew talked about Asaph's absorbing a draining round of chemo, only to go out and squat 500 pounds.
A National Honor Society member at Weaver, he was proud of his degree from Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, ranked by Bloomberg as the top undergraduate business school in the nation. As a blocking back he had rushed for only 98 yards over four years, yet he insisted to me a few years ago that if he were to repeat the recruiting process he would pick Notre Dame 100 out of 100 times. After he played his last down with the Hartford Colonials of the UFL, Asaph would take a job downtown in 2011 with Merrill Lynch.
By every standard, he was a Hartford success story. Yet football and academics do not tell his full story. City and suburban, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, South Bend to north Hartford, Asaph Schwapp's ability to connect with people was something to behold. From the day David Heuschkel, then public relations director of the Colonials, told me I've got to come out and interview this guy, and Schwapp gave me a tour of his city and his life through the story his tattoos, I could see this.
The greatest tragedy of all is Asaph Schwapp was just warming up. In the years to come, he was going to be a great leader around Hartford. From the tattoo sleeve on his left arm dedicated to the city to his 24-7 willingness to speak to youth groups. As Alvin Schwapp said, he has never met anyone outside of politics who said they loved Hartford so much.
"I used to tell him he was an icon, a perfect person and player, a great example," said Rob Fleeting, who coached Schwapp at Weaver before moving on to Windsor. "Especially with inner-city kids, they always try to challenge each other. Not too many say 'I want to be like' the guy from their own school. But every running back we had would say, 'I want to be like Asaph.' They still say it today."
They still say it at Notre Dame, too. Clarke King remembers how quarterback Brady Quinn, now in the NFL, went up to him to tell him how much he admired Asaph. And when Schwapp died about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, the number of messages on Twitter from Quinn and so many former Notre Dame teammates and coaches was overwhelming. No upperclassman had ever treated the younger guys with more respect.
What had the Kings instilled in him?
"Be honest," Loretta said. "Be yourself."
There was power and profoundness in four simple words. Little Asaph was listening.
Amanda Finestone met Schwapp in June 2010. She had attended the University of Hartford and was working for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford. Schwapp was making a promotional appearance with the Colonials.
"Someone had asked me to go in their place at the last minute," Amanda said. "I saw him from across the gym. I noticed him looking at me. He had his jersey on and those enormous biceps. But then I noticed his eyes, amazing eyes, so soulful. Before he came over I thought he's going to be really obnoxious. But then he started talking, he was so interesting, showed such a genuine interest, was so well spoken.
"He asked me for my phone number. I never give my phone number out."
Amanda gave Asaph her phone number.
They would fall in love.
She talked about introducing a friend of hers to Asaph. When she did, she was stunned that they hugged. Her friend explained that when he went to Weaver some of the kids made fun of him, bullied him. Asaph didn't even know him, but went over, told them to knock it off. That was the end of the bullying.
"I knew I picked the right guy," she said. "He had a heart of gold."
In January 2012, they both thought they had the flu. Amanda got better. Asaph didn't. In February, he started losing weight quickly. He was having terrible night sweats, drenching the sheets, soaking into the mattress. Amanda would change the sheets in the middle of the night. His pulse was too fast. He grew too tired. This wasn't the flu. The doctor thought it was bronchitis and gave him an inhaler. The symptoms only got worse.
Asaph was stubborn. Early in March, he and Amanda were supposed to go out to dinner with her family. She told him they're not going if he didn't go back to the doctor. They went together. He was nervous, Amanda said.
The blood work showed that his liver function was off. He got a CAT scan and ultrasound and they showed that his liver and spleen were very enlarged. His doctor called.
"They thought it was cancer," she said. "They thought it was lymphoma."
Amanda broke down crying.
"I'm going to be OK," Asaph said. "I'm going to get through this."
That was on a Friday. They had an excruciating wait over the weekend for definitive results. It would be as bad as they feared. Within a month, chemo started.
"Last year, we were all so hopeful," Loretta King said.
Through the ups and down, he kept a brave, positive face for everyone. Even when he called Schwapp after he had gone back into St. Francis Hospital two weeks ago, Fleeting said, Asaph said, "I'll be OK. Everything's good."
Amanda is teaching children with autism while working toward her master's degree in social work at Simmons College in Boston. She had been pushing Asaph for a year to speak with a social worker and she set it up while he was at the hospital for a transfusion.
"Afterward when he talked about it, he was really upset about one question." Amanda said. "He was asked if the doctor told him he was going to die in a week, what would he do with his last week. He told her, 'I would spend it with friends and family.' And then he turned to me and said, 'But I wouldn't believe the doctor.'
"He was such an incredible fighter. We talked about how he had been fighting all his life. He fought for everything he had. That was his mind-set battling cancer."
And so Asaph Schwapp battled cancer with every inch of his being. Alvin, mobilized as a member of the Army Reserve, was called back from Fort Dix. Andrew, who had graduated from Texas A&M-Commerce and found an apartment with Asaph a few months ago, was already here. And when Asaph could fight no more, word went out Asaph would be taken off life support.
That's when something as wonderful as it was heartbreaking happened. In his final hours, he would be surrounded by all those friends and family. They descended on St. Francis. When he passed, 20 of them surrounded Asaph in his hospital room.
And they spilled out into hallway, into the waiting room, in the quiet room of the ICU. There must have been 100 people, Loretta King said.
"You just never expect a child to pass before you do," Clarke King said. "You don't question why. But sometimes you question 'Why not me?' I should have been the one first."
"I have seen great tragedy," said Alvin Schwapp, who saw combat in Iraq and is a retired Bloomfield cop, "But for me …"
A big man's voice cracked.
"He was a sterling example about what is possible in Hartford with some positive influence, determination and opportunity."
"We talked a lot about the afterlife," Amanda said. "One thing Asaph really believed in is how you live on through the memories of others. I see this now. Everyone loved him."
None more than Amanda Finestone. Alvin called her a saint, a blessing for Asaph and their family, a woman who cared for him to the end.
Would she have married him?
"Yes," Amanda said. And then she broke down in tears for a full minute.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do with my life without him. He was amazing."
Asaph and Amanda used to joke about their names. They agreed if somebody had only seen their names, they would have gone, OK, Jew and Jew. "And then you met us and say, 'OK, black and Jew,' Amanda said. "At our family Passover seder he knew more things [from the Old Testament] than we did."
In Psalm 73, David's Asaph wrote, "With you I shall always be; you have hold of my right hand." Above his right hand, Evelyn's Asaph had a tattoo of his mom's likeness. He is with her now. He hears her beautiful voice. The joyful sounds we hear are the memories he has left behind.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant