On February 19, Bob Callahan’s arms were weary from hugging people after he guided his Princeton University men’s squash team to a win for the ages as it rallied to beat Trinity and snap the Bantams’ 13-year stranglehold on the Collegiate Squash Association (CSA) national title.
Characteristically, longtime Princeton head coach Callahan deflected the credit in assessing the third CSA national title of his 31-year tenure.
“What it reminded me is that there is a key ingredient in all these championship matches, which is luck,” said Callahan.
“We were down 4-2 and we won 5-4. Three years ago [in a 5-4 loss to Trinity in the 2009 national title match], we had some matches we should have won that we didn’t win. This year, we had some matches that we won that we should not have won.”
Two days later, Callahan experienced a strange feeling in his arms that triggered a much tougher battle than toppling the Trinity dynasty.
“We won on Sunday and that Tuesday, I was sitting here in Jadwin and one of the kids, as always, walked in the door, and as he did my two arms, from elbow down, had a kind of tingling like they had fallen asleep. It happened twice in about 30 seconds that day. I thought that’s weird and then it happened three times on Wednesday.”
Callahan experienced more tingling in his arms a few days later and went to the University Medical Center of Princeton where an MRI was performed on his head, revealing a black mass that was subsequently diagnosed as a malignant brain tumor. In early March, Callahan, 57, had brain surgery performed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
“The surgery was successful; I started six weeks of radiation and chemo and then had a month off,” said Callahan.
“Then you start going in monthly for MRIs and they check you out. It has been fine; I am just more tired than I normally would be. That is the effects of radiation and chemo. Now I take two chemo pills for five days and I take 23 days off and I start again. I was lucky, not only that they recognized what is was right away but the placement of the tumor was over here on the right front of my head. For all right handers, the important stuff happens on the left side of your brain.”
In recognition of Callahan’s importance and standing in the squash world, he will be inducted into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame this Wednesday in Philadelphia.
For Callahan, the honor adds a special high to his roller-coaster 2012. “I felt unworthy of consideration; I am not a big awards person to begin with so it was a surprise,” said Callahan, a 1977 Princeton graduate who was a two-time squash All-American during his college days.
“It is an honor to be associated with some folks who have tried to help squash; that is what my life has been about.”
When Callahan arrived at Princeton in 1973 from Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, squash wasn’t a huge part of his life.
“I was a tennis recruit at Princeton, not a squash recruit,” recalled Callahan, who was a nationally junior squash player during his high school career.
“I came here all fired up to be No.1 in tennis and win Wimbledon and everything else. I wasn’t going to play squash my freshman year. The captain of the squash team my freshman year happened to go to Episcopal and he said ‘come on Bob, just try squash for two weeks.’”
Callahan agreed and never looked back, rising up the ladder to No. 6 as a freshman and No. 3 as a sophomore before playing at No. 1 his last two seasons. He played on three national championship teams at Princeton and gained as much off the court from his involvement with the program.
“It was fun to come to practice; it was fun to travel,” said Callahan, who continued to play tennis at Princeton but didn’t experience the success that he enjoyed at squash.
“You can remember the bus trips, shooting the breeze. It was great to have a built-in group of guys who will do anything for you and you for them. You wind up being closest friends. They are the people you eat dinner with, the people you socialize with. It is a big part of the experience.”
After graduating from Princeton, Callahan left the world of squash to sell computers for IBM. But serving on a search committee to find someone to serve as Princeton squash head coach and tennis assistant led Callahan back to his alma mater.
“I was dutifully doing my job on the search committee when somewhere in the process someone said you should consider this yourself which I had not thought of,” recalled Callahan, who had done some summer coaching during high and college.
“I had no interest in coaching outside of Princeton; the draw was to go back to the alma mater and do the sport that meant so much to you as a student. IBM nicely agreed to give me a leave for three years to coach so I still had an affiliation with them.”
It didn’t take long for Callahan to realize that he had found his calling. “I loved the kids that were here,” said Callahan, who guided the Tigers to a national title in his debut season.
“After three years were up, IBM came calling; I had talked to them and had a nice offer. I remember one night a friend of mine from the area said when you worked for IBM on Sunday evenings, did you ever have an upset stomach or headaches thinking about the week ahead. I said every Sunday, I was uptight about stuff as a salesman. At Princeton, I couldn’t wait until Monday morning arrived to go to the office and get going. So what I am thinking, I am not going back to IBM. I am staying here so that was it.”
Staying put at Princeton gave Callahan the chance to coach his five sons, Greg, Scott, Tim, Matt, and Peter, who each played squash for the Tigers.
“It was really special; it was great fun,” said Callahan. “It was 10 years worth of having my kids around; it was wonderful for me.”
Another wonderful experience for Callahan came when he got to work with the legendary Yasser El Halaby, a native of Cairo, Egypt who won four national individual titles from 2003-06 during his Princeton career.
“He was one of world’s best young players and he was extraordinary,” recalled Callahan.
“He was very talented and exceedingly gracious towards the rest of the team and college squash. He was very popular on campus; he really thrived at Princeton and we thrived as a result.”
Princeton senior star Todd Harrity, a national champion himself in 2011, appreciates how Callahan helps his players thrive on and off the court.
“He really watches over and takes care of all of us,” said Harrity. “College is an adjustment and is hard at times for everyone and Bob is a great mentor. He is a Princeton grad himself so he understands the school and the curriculum.”
Harrity and his teammates were stunned when they learned last March of Callahan’s battle with cancer.
“We had a conference call and he told us everything,” said Harrity. “We didn’t know how to react. It was confusing as to what the consequences were. There was a lot of stuff to think about and a lot of mixed emotions.”
There will be no mixed emotions for the Princeton players as they accompany Callahan to the Hall of Fame ceremony this week.
“I am happy for him and proud of him,” said Harrity. “It is going to be great; we are excited to be going there with him.”
For Harrity, though, it is Callahan’s character more than his on-court success that has impacted him the most.
“To him sportsmanship is a big deal; it is just as important as winning,” said Harrity.
“I respect and admire that about him; it is easy to get caught up in the emotions of a match. He gets up and tells the crowd to calm down and be respectful; to cheer the good points and don’t jeer the bad ones.”
Callahan has a better perspective on the good things in life in the wake of his battle with cancer.
“It makes crystal clear that the important things in life are very few and they are family-related,” said Callahan, who credits wife Kristen with providing him amazing support. “I’ll do anything to increase the number of days I have with my family.”
For now, Callahan is looking forward to spending time with his squash family as he gets ready to coach Princeton in its title defense.
“It is full speed ahead,” said Callahan, whose hair is closely cropped on the right side of his head but retains a constant twinkle in his eyes.
“Practice starts officially on October 15 and I told Gary Walters [Princeton Director of Athletics] I am in. Next spring, we’ll decide about the following year.”
While Callahan knows he is facing some tough times ahead, he is determined to stay all in.
“I want to be fair to everybody; my life is definitely not going to be as long as it was which is OK,” said Callahan.
“I am going to do my best to beat the thing but a very small percentage of people make it five years. Everyone is going to die at some point. It is not how old you are, it is what you do while you are here.”
This Wednesday, Callahan will be getting more congratulatory hugs as the good that he has done in the game of squash is recognized by receiving the sport’s highest honor.