It all seemed so idyllic for Joey Bryson and his family, and it was.
Local boy done good had come back home to West Henderson High, a basketball hero who set a scoring record that still stands when he played for the Falcons in the mid-90s, then on to a career at Western Carolina.
He made it back full circle last year – “my dream job” – to teach history and coach the boys team. He and April, also a star athlete who played on state championship volleyball and basketball teams at West, and their three children, built a home on the same property as his parents.
Doting grandparents who loved their children and grandchildren, close by.
It is a family photo of Americana at its wholesome best.
One big happy family of long-time Falcons – dad Tommy and mom Lynn were also proud West Henderson graduates.
Joey was doing what he loved, plus the bonus of getting to coach his oldest son Ben. In the spring, April was named the Falcons’ girls coach, and they not only share a life but an office just off the gym.
And at every game, just like he had been since third grade, was his father, pulling for his son and his team.
“I could always pick out his voice, yelling at the referees,” said Joey, 40.
“He always sat in the same spot, every game,” April said with a wistful smile.
Then came July 26.
Tommy was planning to go to his sister’s house to take her to a doctor’s appointment. Police believe Tommy encountered Phillip Stroupe II, who was running from authorities.
After a frantic five-day search, Tommy’s body was found in a cornfield. Stroupe, who was caught driving Tommy’s truck, is charged with his murder.
Looking back, trying to move forward
There is a time-held theory that a return to normalcy aids in the healing process. Get back to work, throw yourself into your job, especially if it is also your passion, busy yourself in routine to help the grieving and sadness, the profound sense of loss of not only your father but …
“My Dad was my best friend, and other than my wife, he was the closest one to me,” said Joey, his voice a combination of both loving remembrance yet coming from a heart still broken.
That theory works for a lot of people, but Joey is not sure it will for him.
This is supposed to be the best time of the year, the start of basketball season, coaching Ben and other youngsters, getting better and rebuilding a program he led to great heights as a teenager more than 20 years ago.
Joey scored 1,782 points for the Falcons, was named the area’s top player his senior year. After college, he coached at Rugby Junior High and three schools in Georgia before returning to WNC. He posted a 77-44 mark in five years at North Buncombe High and was 9-14 last year in his first season with the Falcons, starting freshman Ben and three sophomores.
Official practice starts Monday, and Joey has four starters back but has to wait for six players to finish football before they can begin basketball.
“To be honest, it’s hard to get motivated, hard to get started because the past three months have been so difficult,” he said.
“Dad was my biggest fan, never missed a game, and I think he was more excited about me coming back than I was."
“It’s going to be hard to get going. Everywhere you go in this community, there are memories of Dad. Maybe once the ball goes up in the air, maybe it will strike me."
“Having my son out on the court definitely helps, and having my wife here helps as well. Being around family is the best way to cope with something like this.”
Getting back to school helped Joey and his family.
“This summer was a nightmare, July and August were horrific…it’s still so emotional. I have a lot of anger, frustration and confusion,” Joey said.
“Getting back to school really helped, and getting busy with basketball is going to help,” said April.
What also helps Joey carry on is the example his father set, how he prepared him for manhood and fatherhood. “I had a phenomenal Dad. I saw him every day, and he loved my children,” Joey said. “He taught me how to be a good, God-ly man, how to raise a family."
“I realize now how fortunate I was to be raised by someone who had his character.”
And the memories, while tinged with the pain of loss, are still vivid.
There were hunting trips with his Dad and brother Rick, to Colorado, to Canada, in search of elk and deer and bears.
“I remember shooting baskets in the driveway. He would come home from work and we would stay out there until dark,” Joey said.
“We both loved (North) Carolina basketball, and we would just talk about that. I have great memories of watching Carolina games with him. He would come get me out of elementary and middle school so we could watch the ACC Tournament.”
A father’s legacy
When the Falcons take the court this year, they will wear blue wristbands with the initials TAB, his father’s initials.
That was the idea of his players, who have also dedicated the season to a good man who raised a good man.
The Tommy Bryson Legacy Fund has been established and fundraisers are being held to build a basketball court at Mills River Park.
There is a golf tournament on Nov. 4 at Etowah Valley Golf & Resort, and the Deer Dash 5K on Dec. 2. Runners can register here.
The season opener, Joey’s first game of the rest of his life without his father cheering from the stands, is just a few weeks away.
“It’s going to be hard at the games to realize he’s not there,” Joey said.
“He always gave me a hug after a game. I’m going to miss those hugs.”