A Walk With Fuller
I moved to the state of Wyoming when I was nine and I met my best friend three years later.
There were two middle schools in the area, the tiny one I went to, a mile up a canyon and west of town, and the bigger one off the main strip in Jackson where everyone met up to play sports and attend diffident school dances.
It was seventh grade, the acme of awkwardness and cliques. So, when I picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time, the sport just taking root in the state of Wyoming, I was uncomfortable to say the least. Then this bony, plucky, little guy, sporting a trendy Justin Bieber mop of hair, darted up to me, a lanky, early-pubescent Shaun White wannabe. I wasn’t quite sure what to think.
He wouldn’t shut up.
Hey, is this your first practice? What’s your name? Lacrosse is awesome, we love having new people out here!
I didn’t get it. In basketball, kids talked to me because I was tall, and had played since I could walk. But my first time on the lacrosse field? I could barely pass. I couldn’t figure out how to cradle. I honestly wasn’t sure if I was gonna last.
This kid kept talking. And talking. And talking.
Practice by cradling around your house, or find a wall to throw it off. We can play catch together after next practice too!
He quickly transitioned into a more conversational tone. It was early-April and the Stanley Cup Playoffs were right around the corner. He rambled on about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and his cherished Pittsburgh Penguins.
Being a Red Wings fan, I hated the Penguins, especially Crosby. But his enthusiasm was infectious, so I took a friendly jab at Crosby and asked him his name.
“Oh, my name’s Fuller, Fuller Ross!” he quickly squeaked back.
The rest of that season Fuller and I spoke every practice. We’d trash talk about the Red Wings and Penguins Stanley Cup Final or discuss those awkward middle school dances, breaking down every female interaction we had from the entire night. One of the highlights of our early friendship was a weekend he invited me and five other friends to his family’s cabin, an hour or so south of town. It was one of the most quintessentially Wyoming weekends I can remember. We played lacrosse on a makeshift field in the middle of the forest. We adventured on ATVs around the property. And we stayed up later than 13-year-olds really should, all of us huddled around a poker table, wagering pennies, nickels, and dimes on games of Texas Hold ‘Em and five-card draw.
Rather quickly we became best friends, going to the same social functions, playing together or rooting for each other in our respective athletic pursuits and venting to one another as we picked colleges.
After we celebrated graduation together, very little changed. Even at college we had a running game of phone tag, always trying to catch up on the lamest and greatest stories from our freshman years. Three years later, just over four months after we had both turned 21, it was late-June of 2018. Fuller had just returned from studying abroad in Argentina. We had never gotten a legal beer together.
The night before I left town for the Fourth of July, I texted him from our high school coach’s wedding. I was bartending that night.
Me: Lol goin’ to the bar with Coach Rick and Coach Charlie
Fuller: Damn dude, sounds fun. Have a safe trip to Michigan, I’ll catch you when you get back!
Five days later, we texted about going on a hike when I got back.
We never got to hike.
I never saw him again.
Fuller would have been a senior at the University of Pittsburgh that fall. Despite Wyoming not exactly being a lacrosse hotbed, he went east and won playing time amongst kids from major high schools from the northeast.
He also kept making friends with everybody. That was Fuller.
Sometimes, he might share his latest discoveries from his explorations around Pittsburgh or back home in the Wyoming wilderness. On occasion, he’d flaunt his knowledge of sports strategy, political policy or the hottest pop tracks of the 2000s. Other times, he’d talk about his family.
He’d send his friends the hometown newspaper columns from his older sister Sarah, in an effort to help educate all his bros about privilege, gender equality and respect. He’d brag about the younger one, Cecily, killing it in lacrosse and how she might be smarter than both him and Sarah. There was his mother, Bo; she called him “Fi” for short. Fi was her top promoter, always hyping up her latest book or National Geographic article. Fuller also loved sharing his favorite stories he’d gathered from time spent backcountry skiing on Teton Pass or floating the Snake River with his father, Charlie.
But most impressive of all? He would almost effortlessly get the person engaged with him to reveal just as much back.
After he got to college, Fuller started working as a bellhop at the Kimpton in downtown Pittsburgh, and when he was at home over school breaks, the Teton Mountain Lodge at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Both jobs were perfect for him. Meeting. Connecting. Jabbering away with swanky and diverse clientele.
“I always think about how joyful he was even about the dumb, little shit,” says his Pitt roommate, Al Orseno. Al recalled one night he got a call from Fuller during his shift.
“You’ll never guess what I just checked into the hotel,” piped Fuller’s voice through the phone. Al chuckled and rolled his eyes recalling what came next.
“Check my IG bro.”
Al navigated to his Instagram. There was Fuller standing next to an open car trunk, his smile sparkling nearly as much as what sat to his right: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Later that year he called Al during work again. A guest had gifted Fuller two Pirates tickets for the game that night. Soon as work was over, they snagged a piece of pizza and walked over to PNC Park.
“He was the only one willing to do shit like that with me,” Al says. “He was always down for those kinds of random Pittsburgh excursions.”
I think about never sharing that hike with him a lot.
Fuller loved to be outside. We might talk the whole time or we might barely talk at all. Sometimes it was just us, sometimes it was a whole gang, simply existing, underneath the shadows of the Teton and Gros Ventre mountains. I was always impressed how he applied the same appetite for adventure so easily in Pittsburgh.
From the first day of orientation, he started locating the most interesting museums, comedy clubs, coffee shops, ethnic markets and city parks near the Oakland area and Pitt’s campus. Then it was on to Shadyside. Next, it might be to Squirrel Hill. Or Bloomfield. Or the South Side. He never stopped. He was relentlessly curious.
His friend Riley McCarthy remembers once getting coffee with Fuller between classes. She figured they’d go someplace close, like Starbucks or Dunkin’ on campus. Instead, Fuller would text her: “Meet me at the Forbes bus stop.” The bus trips often brought them to Big Dog Coffee, 25 minutes away. On other occasions, it’d be only a short walk to one another local favorite, Redhawk.
A few times the bus treks to Big Dog made Riley late to class, but that didn’t matter. It was an adventure. With Fuller it always was. “It was just easy (for him) to make everyone feel special,” she said.
“I feel like he would do these field trips with people to get them one-on-one,” added another Pitt roommate, Noah Weintraub. “He’d get me and Al out doing these Pittsburgh activities that we’d never do despite living here for 20 years.”
Another time, he was at dinner at Point Brugge Café on the east side of the city with his girlfriend, Amanda. It was one of their earliest dates. They shared French fries and the lauded mussels. Amanda remembers how they barely got through them.
A long debate ensued.
“Is it weird to take home fish? Especially mussels?” Fuller queried. Amanda told him it was. He pushed back initially, but eventually his position wavered. The mussels stayed. But after dinner, three or four miles from Amanda’s place, he suggested they walk.
In the dead of winter.
She let him have this one.
“We got so lost the entire time,” Amanda remembers. When she asked Fuller if he was sure he knew where they were going, he said he did. She remembers it being the longest walk they ever went on, probably “two miles out of our way.” They talked about their goals for the future, their friends, current events in the world. Amanda said he did most of the listening.
“He was like such a sound presence to be around,” she says now.
When he finally did pop back into conversation, she remembers, it was to lament the mussels they had left sitting on the table.
The zest he displayed for the Stanley Cup, to-go seafood or hiking up a mountain didn’t stop in those places. Fuller’s fervor was always evident.
On the tennis team in high school, teammates remember him rallying the team to watch each and every match, even the alternates. He’d yell words of encouragement to the younger kids before he played. After his match, win or lose, he’d move to the singles courts and help steady the nerves of his closest friends on the team. Sometimes it was coach-like, his teammates Karlie Rambo and Claire French recall, other times they say he was more lighthearted.
“Alright, everybody,” Rambo recalls Fuller saying through a mischievous grin at the state finals one year “We’re gonna start on this side, everybody up! We’re doing the wave!” Fuller swung his hands in the air and ran down the side of the court a few times, and eventually all his teammates joined.
He was always persistent. On fall Saturdays his sophomore year of college, the rickety house up the cobblestone hill on Chesterfield Road would begin to stir.
Both his roommates and club lacrosse teammates recall him as the instigator. “I appreciated that,” said one of his best friends from the team, Nate Whitney. “It’s fun to have someone who’s passionate about activities and actually makes them happen.”
Around 6 a.m. Fuller would gather up a few golden Coors. Then he’d connect to the Bluetooth speaker and press play. One morning it might be Starship’s “We Built This City;” another he’d keep it local with early Mac Miller. On his way to the shower, he’d toss a beer to Al, then across the hall to Noah, sometimes dropping a hearty cheer of “Hail to Pitt” before hopping in the shower. Later in the morning, Nate and whatever other invites Fuller extended would arrive, also greeted by a beer. By then, Fuller was cooking the house eggs.
Hours and beers later the group would find its way to the lacrosse tailgate, in the lots by Heinz Field. Fuller could be found in a circle of people holding court or taking shots. “Chase with a smile!” he’d playfully taunt the group. More likely, though, he’d be found near the speaker belting out a feel-good classic like “Sweet Caroline.”
That positivity was never limited to the parking lots or sidelines. Even in the classroom he’d provide a boost to those around him. In middle school, French recalls sharing all their advanced classes together.
In seventh grade it was creative writing. She remembers how he took the time not just to read her story, but also to boast to the whole class how good it was.
“I feel like he could sense when I was proud of my work,” said French, who met Fuller when she moved to Wyoming in elementary school. “His support was always there … it’s crazy, like, at the end of high school he came up to me and brought up a that same story from seventh grade.”
“It was one of those moments I was like, ‘Wow, you must fuckin’ care,’” remembers Tenzing Coburn, Fuller’s lifelong best friend.
It happened during a peewee hockey tournament. Fuller and the Jackson squad were on the road against their rivals, Idaho Falls. The whole Jackson roster was talented, but the lead they had built was in large part due to Coburn. Fuller liked to joke regularly with Tenzing about how unfair it was that he hit puberty in third grade.
Joke or not, Coburn was stronger, faster and more skilled than every other 11-year-old he shared the ice with that season. He was born in Nepal, which made him the only minority on the ice.
Tenzing recalls the Idaho Falls skaters referring to him as “yellow,” throughout the game. He understands the slur now, but at the time, it hardly registered. He was scoring, and they were winning.
As the clock ticked down, the victory in hand, Fuller skated back to the bench after a shift and Coburn trailed behind. Tenzing stepped into the bench and saw Fuller bawling.
He told Tenzing about what he’d heard.
Tenzing remembers the opposing kids were worse to Fuller, telling him, “You guys all suck, except for like that c**nk of yours.”
Twelve years later, that moment still sticks in Tenzing’s mind. Fuller’s enduring loyalty is something he’ll never forget.
“He was always an older brother— caring and thoughtful. Definitely my protector.”
A few days before Fuller died, he went on a hike.
He and our friend Charlotte Hoeft went to Goodwin Lake. They picked up bagels and coffees from the local Pearl Street Bagels. Then they took Fuller’s green, mid-90s Subaru Legacy, affectionately known as The Green Machine, up the dirt road to the trailhead.
Charlotte remembers how Fuller assured her the hike wasn’t too long and was shaded. He wanted something mellow because he was on the backend of his recovery from a seizure suffered a month or so earlier in Argentina. Despite leaving with a hefty sunburn, Hoeft remembers the conversation being one that she’ll cherish forever.
“(It was) one of my most memorable experiences,” she says, “like the depth he talked about everyone and every single story that came up … he never said anything bad.”
It was two days later –- July 8, 2018 –- that Fuller never woke up.
It would have been nice to get one last hike with him.
We didn’t see each other as much as either of us would have liked as we moved through college. Our breaks at home had minimal overlap. He was in Pittsburgh or traveling to places like Argentina and Cuba while pushing towards his next chapter. I was in Indiana or a hospital room in Michigan fighting leukemia.
Our only connection was our phones. He called me weekly, and I’d call him when I needed to hear what life is supposed to be like for a 19-year- old. He’d share a wild story from his weekend, or tell me about some girl from class. He’d offer up ideas for trips we could take after treatment.
It was always about when this all ends, never if.
The minute his final exams ended that year in May, Fuller flew to Michigan, where I was being treated. He stayed with me for a week. I didn’t have much energy, but we went for short walks. Other times we did puzzles. When I’d fall asleep, he’d stay around to sympathize with my mom.
It was one of the few weeks of treatment I can remember as almost normal. Another friend, Colin, passed through toward the end of the trip. Each had to leave early on the final morning, instead of waking me up, they let me rest and left a note.
We love you man – and a quirky doodle written by Colin.
Only ever a phone call away – followed by a heart from Fuller.
The excitement we shared that week and over the phone fueled an enduring positivity within me. That energy, even just through a phone line, helped normalize the lowest point of my life and moved me slightly closer to truly living again. I couldn’t wait to live again alongside him.
We were just 20.
Our lives could still be anything we wanted.
He was 21 when he died.
After a day spent hiking with his family, he passed away overnight in his sleep. An official cause was never released. Fuller’s death hit everyone. Moving past it hasn’t been easy.
Tenzing said he feels like he can’t be comfortable in larger groups without Fuller by his side. Noah misses coming home to someone genuinely interested in how his day went. Al and Nate wish Fuller was there to provide a calming perspective on today’s political climate and the pandemic. Riley misses his suggestions about music and stand-up comedy. Charlotte sometimes feels guilty, wishing Tenzing or I could have shared that final hike with him. Karlie misses their odysseys on the varsity tennis bus. Claire misses how he’d turn a mundane hangout into a profound encounter.
I miss his phone calls. I relapsed two months after his death and the fight was harder without his enduring presence.
His legacy lives on in Pittsburgh, where his name is on a bench at Schenley Park, his favorite place to spend an afternoon with those he loved. In Jackson, stickers and hats his friends designed that read “Live a Fuller Life” have spread far and wide. At Pitt, McCarthy organized a co-ed lacrosse game and banquet, putting the same mantra on shirts that rep his number 37 on the back. In the Jackson lacrosse program that he helped build, there is an annual memorial award named for him, too. It doesn’t always go to the best player. It goes to the player with the best intentions; someone who includes everybody, oozes energy and does the right thing on and off the field. It goes to the kid most like Fuller.
At times, the loss still seems surreal. In others, his presence – or lack thereof – rules entire days. He filled up a room with his passion for life and filled up every moment with those he loved. Nothing ever felt empty with a guy named Fuller around.
Even the void his death left doesn’t feel completely vacant.
A day after the 2016 election, he wrote a letter to Cecily, his 11-year old sister. This note offered a brief glimpse into his psyche. He talked of the changing world, of growing up, about how hard it can be to stay positive at times in life. He emphasized the importance of love for one another and having a passion for every day.
To no surprise, he filled an entire page. To close the letter, he wrote this:
Stay kind and loving, stand up for those less fortunate, work hard, and do not let fear and grief control you and your adolescence, because I have let grief control me for a day and that is already too much.
You can be anything.