Remembering Eric Zaun

You Cannot Replace an Eric Zaun

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I don’t know how to start this story.

I’ve hemmed. Hawed. Started. Stopped. Written. Copied all, deleted. There were many potential beginnings.

One was on a bus in Austria.

Chris Vaughan’s shirtless. Eric Zaun is cackling, for he is – who else could it possibly be, anyway? – the reason Vaughan is shirtless. It’s a rule of a game Zaun’s made. Everyone on our 10-day trip – Vaughan, Chase Frishman, Zaun and I – across Austria and Italy was bestowed a nickname, except for the girls. They were wise enough to steer clear of this one. Nicknames are a pretty normal thing to do for a team, or any close group of friends, though with this one, as it goes with Zaun, there is a catch: Accidentally call someone by their real name, and you’d have to remove your shirt until someone outside of the group asked why you were shirtless in Europe in the dead of winter.

So Vaughan’s shirtless on a bus in Austria. He was red. Zaun was red, though only because he was laughing so hard. Passerby gave us looks but nobody – presumably because of the lack of English spoken – rescued Vaughan.

So he – no, no, we can’t begin a story on Eric Zaun there.

It lacks the context, the precursor of how in the world Zaun managed to put together a rag-tag team of four to play a pair of snow volleyball – snow volleyball! – tournaments in Austria and Italy, just weeks prior to the start of the AVP season.

February 6. Maybe that’s where this story begins.

Zaun’s in Brazil. Training with Jeremy Casebeer.

“Lots of adversity,” he’ll tell me frequently throughout the trip. See, Zaun likes drinking water out of bottles. Casebeer’s big into the environment. Drives the guy nuts when he sees Zaun crushing plastic water bottles. It was a legitimate strain on the relationship. That’s what he said, anyway, though other “strains on the relationship” could have been due to Zaun grocery shopping, barefoot and shirtless, in a country that Jeremy loves.

But nah. Must have been the bottles.

So Zaun convinces Jeremy he’s drinking tap water. Done with the bottles. He loves the environment too, you know?

Really all he’s done is smuggled a bunch of gallon jugs under his bed and made it look like he was filling his glasses with tap water. Never told Jeremy. Not sure he told anybody, to be honest. But Jeremy was happy, which made Zaun happy, which seemed to alleviate those strains on the relationship.

Anyway, back to the point. There are more important things to be discussed on February 6 other than Zaun smuggling gallon jugs of water under his bed. There’s a snow volleyball trip coming up.

“Snow volleyball?” I ask.

“Snow volleyball!”

“You in?”

“In.”

“Ite you gotta be gone for like 12 days total that cool with you? Good adversity.”

I was in. Apparently, so was Chase and Chris. Don’t know how he sold those guys but that’s all a part of Zaun’s charm. He’s got this magnetizing charisma. It’s not that you’ll just get into some clean-cut trouble with him, but he’ll make you want to do it, to feel like it was your brilliantly outrageous idea in the first place. When he’s got that maniacal smile and look in his eyes that go wide as saucers, you know you’re in before he even opens his mouth.

Can’t help it.  

But, ah, we can’t begin there, either. Convincing a bunch of guys to go to Austria and Italy to play a bizarre sport on the dime of USAV and the FIVB? Anybody can do that. No, no. The lead to this one requires an absolutely, completely, unequivocally Zaunian story.  

We’re standing in the lobby of a rental car place in Italy. Don’t remember the name. Zaun’s giggling, and when I say giggling, I do mean it. He has two laughs. One is the giggle when he’s up to no good, which is a lot. The next is an explosion of laughter, almost like it caught him by surprise, his smile growing so wide his eyes squint shut.

He does that a lot, too.

The guy at the counter has our passports, and Zaun’s busying himself looking up a video tutorial on how to drive a stick shift.

See, he rented us a stick, problem being that none of us can drive stick. When he rented it on the bus I figured there would be a way to switch it, because what rental car place doesn’t have an automatic?

Just the ones across all of Europe, apparently.

He’s found the video he’s looking for, and with the volume all the way up, it begins: “THIS IS HOW TO TURN ON A MANUAL CAR.”

We burst out laughing, Zaun in his explosion, the rest of us in our “Are we really about to do this?” nervous laughs.

We just rented a car we can’t drive, with plans to road trip across the country.

I volunteer to drive, not because I particularly want to drive a car I don’t know how to drive, in a country I’ve never been to, but because, well, in a word.

Zaun.

I’m not so sure that’s the place to start, either, though. Anybody can rent a stick on accident. Shoot, anybody can rent a stick on purpose even when nobody knows how to drive it. It’s not that hard to learn, is it?

Maybe the mountains will do, then. Yes, that’s a bit closer.

It’s a few days later. Ten or so p.m. We’ve driven our little Fiat across Italy and back again, across the Dolomite mountains and into Venice. Nearly got arrested there, too. Throwing footballs around the city. It was Frishman’s toss that alerted the attention of some disgruntled locals. Chase isn’t much on getting into trouble, so I’ll allow you one guess as to which one of us gave him the nudge to throw a 40-yard bomb over a bridge and into a construction site below.

That night, after our run-in with the cops and a brief exchange with a pair of sketchy Italian gangsters who stalked us for an uncomfortable amount of time, the four of us crashed in a single-bed hotel room. Zaun and I took the bed. Chase and Chris claimed the floor, as well as our pillows. And so it was that four oversized men slept in a single-bed hotel in Italy. Guy at the counter wasn’t having it, of course. Room was only meant for two. All four of us weren’t allowed to stay.

Zaun talked him into it, despite the fact that he didn’t speak Italian, and the manager didn’t speak much English.

Not even a language barrier can stand up to Zaun’s charm.

We decided, though, to head back the next night. We’d seen enough of Venice. Only so many canals you can look at before the mountains start singing that siren song. We had noted, as we were driving there, that the entire ride back was going to be uphill, bending around windy turns so sharp the speed limit was 30. Didn’t help that it was snowing.

Also didn’t help that I still didn’t really know how to drive the damn thing.  

Downshifting uphill in the snow, I found out, isn’t the easiest of tasks. We stalled out. Stalled again. And again. Andagainandagainandagain. Zaun captured the whole thing on video.

“Good adversity,” he’d say, and there came those damn giggles again.

Ten minutes later we were up and running. An hour after that, we were back to our hotel in Kronplatz.

“That,” Zaun declared, “is some American shit right there, Simba.”

That’s what he called me on that trip. Simba.

That’s what Katie Spieler calls me to this day.

Are you still with me?

See, none of those places are where I’d actually begin a story on Eric Zaun, but that’s what he’d have wanted you to believe, anyway. He’s got layers, that guy. Layers of jokes and mischief and enough sarcasm to make you want to knock him upside that balding noggin of his before you get to the real man underneath. So you make it past the shirtless bus ride in Austria, the water bottles in Brazil, the assembling of the snow volleyball avengers, renting a car nobody knew how to drive just for the adversity of it all.

Now, only now, after those layers, may you begin to get the real Zaun.

A lot of people think we were a funny pair, Zaun and I. On the surface, we’re wildly different, but we’re past the surface now, remember?

I’d like to take you to a late spring night. I had just moved out of the garage of Zaun’s apartment. By now I don’t have to inform you whose idea that was.

NBA playoffs. Rockets vs. Warriors. Durant’s going off. Chris Paul’s complaining. Zaun and I aren’t really paying much attention, though. We’re eating ice cream. He got us a couple pints. Bet me that the 99 Cent Store down the road had our favorite brand, so he took his little motorcycle – it was actually a moped that topped out at 30, but he loved that I called it a motorcycle, so I’ve never called it anything else – and came back 10 minutes later, ice cream in hand. Still gotta Venmo him for that, now that I think about it.

He talks loud enough that the volume on the TV doesn’t really matter. He does that. Talks real loud. You know when he’s in a room, or a restaurant. But it’s just us in our little living room, and he’s rolling on his favorite topic.

Katie Spieler.

Zaun wasn’t a spiritual guy. I brought him to church once. He lasted five minutes, staying only because the lead singer had a phenomenal voice, “too good to be doing this on a Sunday night,” he joked, elbowing me in the ribs before he swaggered out in those ghastly blue and orange sweatpants from Goodwill he loved. It was around Christmas, though, and Zaun had come because I told him I was adopting a family to buy gifts for. He loved that idea.

He loved that Katie Spieler would love that idea.

There were no families left to adopt at my church, so I gave him the contact info for another organization that would set him up with a family he could buy for. I didn’t expect him to reach out, to tell you the truth. And then one day he and Katie came home with practically the whole 99 Cent Store. I’m fairly certain Zaun even bought some things from WalMart, which means he might have paid full price for something. Zaun doesn’t pay full price for anything, unless, apparently, he’s buying something for someone else.

Unless Katie Spieler was involved.

Yes, she was our most popular topic of conversation that evening, as she was most evenings we spent together, hanging on the couch, watching NBA, watching Netflix, watching nothing, which was quite a lot.

“Man, I love honeybee,” he said during the game. We called Katie honeybee, since her parents have a honeybee farm in Santa Barbara and our place was always stocked full of Spieler honey. I’d never heard Zaun say he loved anything, save for some adversity, team bonding and a good scam.

As I mentioned, Zaun wasn’t a spiritual guy, but when we talked about Katie that night, he wasn’t beyond entertaining the possibility that she was physical evidence of the existence of angels, one sent there directly for him. She changed that boy, in every good way possible. He let her in, something he didn’t do much with people.

Something I don’t, either.

It was Freud who observed that we are never so vulnerable as when we love. Those words have never been truer as of the past few days.

I’ve been living in California for a little less than four years now. With the nature of what I do for a living, I’ve gotten to know quite a lot of people intimately well, though I hardly let any do the same with me. In those four years, there are exactly two people I’ve met in this state who know the names of my immediate family. One is Delaney Knudsen.

The other is Eric Zaun.

They are – and I’m not ready to use past tense just yet – my best friends at this phase of my life.

People were often surprised that we were so close. As I said, we’re different on the surface, though pull a few layers back and what you’ll find is that at the core we’re very much the same. My default nature is to be polite. Yes ma’am. No sir. I smile a lot. Say good morning to everyone I pass. Not that Zaun doesn’t. Or that he’s rude. He just comes off different sometimes is all. Bolder. More direct. A lot of people just didn’t give him the chance, didn’t peek under the first or second layer to see that giggling kid who just wanted a good laugh and a story to tell for the boys.

What you’d find, if you did take the extra time, was that Zaun loved deeply and was deeply loved. He cared about people in a way you just don’t find much anymore, so long as you gave him the chance. Once you did, then what you’d find is that you had the best friend God has put on this Earth.

Someone asked me, recently, if I had to describe Zaun in one word, what it would be. Loyal was the first word that came to mind.

Loyal is the only one that ever did.

My first of many lasting impressions of the man Eric Zaun truly is came almost a year ago. AVP Seattle. We’re 2,000 words into this thing but maybe, just maybe, I’ve found the best place for me to start a story on Eric Zaun.

Stadium court. Just beyond the service line, the one looking out onto the breathtaking view of Lake Sammamish. Zaun finds me there, watching a match by myself. He crashes next to me. That’s how he sits sometimes, just crashes all at once. He always did like to make an entrance.

He asks me who I’m there watching, and I tell him Delaney Knudsen, who’s playing with Jessica Sykora against Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler.

He laughs his explosion laugh. Asks me if I’m serious. Yeah, I tell him. Got a crush on that one.

Bummer, he says, because he was planning on marrying her. Not that they had ever even gone out before, but three or four years from now? That was his plan.

A day later, Delaney hadn’t booked a flight home yet. Zaun had driven his van, the same one he lived in for a good bit before getting the apartment we used to rent out when I lived in the garage. She asked if Zaun had room for a hitchhiker on the way back.

Nope. He told her I liked her and that, because of that, she wasn’t allowed. Delaney and I weren’t dating at that point. Didn’t matter. I liked her and that made her off-limits to everyone, including him, even if she was just asking for a ride home.  

In the next year, I spent more time with Zaun than I did anybody aside from Delaney. I saw the guy who loves nothing more than playing with children. Who’s always after a good scam but wouldn’t actually steal anything. Katie and I were his moral compasses on that part. He’d check with me if putting Honeycrisp apples in the granny smith bags was wrong, and if I said that it was too close to stealing he wouldn’t do it.

And anyway, he’d just find another good bargain on Honeycrisps somewhere else.

A good deal never did elude that guy.

I do not know what compelled Eric Zaun to do what he did, but I can promise you one thing: This is not how the story of Eric Zaun finishes. If I thought starting a story on Zaun was difficult, ending one is legitimately impossible.

There’s a lyric by Macklemore, an artist we both liked though, truth be told, I’m fairly certain he only liked him because Katie does.

“I heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave. And the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”

The former came far too soon. The latter? That won’t be for a long, long time. Over and over again, I’d hear him say “We’re never gonna die!”

I’m beginning to see what he meant by that.

Scroll Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Read the stories people are writing about that legendary road dog. They’re endless. Each one with its own, unique beginning.

So no, there is no, one way to begin a story about the life of Eric Zaun, for his was a life too rich and nuanced and itinerant to be so neatly structured. I have, however, found a common theme when I try.

An explosion of laughter.

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