The Dog Who Opened His Heart

Tennis was his focus for thirty years. What would life hold after he put down the racket?

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- Posted on Oct 28, 2014

David with Gracie, one of his new Labs

April 10, 1998. Tokyo. I sat on the bed in my tiny hotel room, getting ready to head off to practice for the Japan Open, with one thing on my mind.

For the last 10 years I’d competed all over the world on the professional tennis tour. I’d reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and been ranked as high as twelfth in the world. Tennis was my life.

I’m a praying guy, so you’d think I’d be asking God to help me get my serve right before my first match. But my mind was on something else. It was time to give up my dream. The dream I’d been holding on to for the past two years—one that had nothing to do with tennis.

My dream was to get a dog. A yellow Lab, to be exact.

The life of a professional tennis player—nine months of the year on the road—was not a recipe for responsible dog ownership. But ever since my fitness coach took me pheasant hunting for the first time with his friends and their dogs, I’d been obsessed.

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I couldn’t stop thinking about how intelligent and well-trained the dogs were. How they were like teammates to their owners.

They reminded me of the dogs I’d grown up with on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. I was the youngest of four, nearly nine years behind my next oldest sibling. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was the only child at home.

My closest companions were our two Siberian huskies. They were outside dogs and loved running around in the cold. My parents gave me a wooden dog sled one Christmas, and many a winter day I’d hitch the huskies to the sled, jump on and take off across the frozen lake like I was in the Iditarod.

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to Labs. Not only were they excellent companions, they served a solid purpose. That was the odd part of my dream. Even though we lived on a lake famous for great fishing, my family wasn’t into fishing or hunting. We were sports-centered.

My mom’s father taught her and my older siblings to play tennis. So when I came along, it was no surprise that I picked up a racket when I was four. By nine I was playing at Nationals. Later, I received a tennis scholarship to Stanford and left after one year to turn pro. I’d been competing on the tour ever since.

After that outing with my fitness coach, I was set on finding a Lab to be a hunting companion.

There was a big stumbling block, though: Who would take care of my dog while I was away on tour? I was single and lived alone. My siblings had their own lives. My parents lived nearby, but they were nearing 70.

“David, we don’t want that kind of responsibility at our age,” Mom told me. “We have had enough dogs to know we have had enough of dogs!”

It was time to let go of my dream. I felt like a little kid who’d just found out the Christmas gift he’d prayed for all year wasn’t under the tree.

Then a paper slipped under the door of my hotel room. A fax, from Mom.

This wasn’t unusual. She often sent faxes with news and encouragement from home, with some tennis tips and Bible verses mixed in.

What was unusual was how she began: “I came across a beautiful yellow Lab on my morning walk through the neighborhood,” she wrote. “His owner lives a few blocks from us. But I’ve never seen his dog before.” That’s odd, I thought.

She described the dog’s beautiful coat, big brown eyes, cheerful personality. “If I ever got a dog,” she closed with, “I would get one just like that.”

If she ever got a dog? Was this really my mom? Hadn’t she told me that she was done with dogs? What had gotten into her?

The next day, there was another fax from Mom, this one even more bewildering. “I called the dog’s breeder to find out more about her dogs and breeding philosophy.”

The day after that, another fax arrived with this previously unimaginable statement: “I sent the breeder a down payment on a puppy today.”

What?! You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

I wish I could say the news inspired me to swashbuckle my way through the Japan Open, but I lost in the early rounds and flew home.

We went to visit the litter of puppies. One of them, a male, looked straight out of a dog show. He had an athletic build, a beautiful buff-colored coat and almond-shaped brown eyes. He walked over to me and fell asleep with his little head resting on my shoe.

He was the one. I knew it. Dad was soon building a run outside their house in anticipation of his arrival.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Ben was no ordinary dog. His puppy misbehavior—chewed shoes, accidents, nipping—was minimal. He learned basic commands quickly. He was intelligent, gentle and thoughtful.

That dog run? Ben never spent a night in it. He just seemed to belong right with us, wherever we were. When I was on the road for tournaments, Mom and Dad were happy to dog-sit. I called home and got updates every day.

Soon I started Ben’s training. That turned our walks into an adventure. “Fetch it, Ben!” I’d shout, throwing his rubber retrieving dummy into the marsh that bordered a street in my neighborhood. He’d disappear into the cattails...then burst out with the dummy in his mouth and tail wagging.

“Atta boy,” I’d say, patting his head. Sometimes I would hide. He’d always find me too.

If I knocked a tennis ball over the fence while practicing, Ben would run into the trees to find it, sifting through the dozens of balls that had landed there. Minutes later, he’d trot out proudly with the exact ball that I had hit—never anyone else’s—in his mouth.

Everywhere I went, Ben went too. Now I knew why Jacob in the Bible named his son Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand.” That’s what Ben was to me. I loved him dearly and deeply. Ben brought something to my life that I never knew a dog could.

The year Ben was three, 2001, was a time of change. I’d been dating Brodie, a girl I’d known for most of my life, but that year we broke up. I retired from the professional tennis tour.

I was in my early thirties, and injuries had taken their toll. I continued to play parttime in senior’s tournaments as I set out to discover the answer to the question What’s next after tennis?

One thing made the transition easier: Ben. God brought Ben to me at just the right time, I thought. So I’ve got to trust that he has new and good plans in store for me.

I was driving with my parents one day, listening to the radio, when out of the blue Mom posed a question that was more like an answer: “David, have you ever thought about getting into radio?”

I hadn’t. But a few weeks later I got an unlikely phone call from a radio station, asking if I’d like to host one of their programs. Soon I was producing and hosting The Christian Worldview every week...with Ben at my feet in the studio.

After recording, it was time for The David and Ben Show. We loved heading up to Lake Superior for fun. “Careful, boy!” I’d say, before tossing his dummy into the rough, freezing surf. No matter how high the waves were, Ben dove in with his signature resolve.

Soon after he turned eight, Ben got sick. At first I thought it might just be fatigue, but when he stopped eating I took him straight to the vet. The diagnosis was devastating: prostate cancer.

I was heartbroken. I cried out to God, “Why did you bring Ben into my life only to take him away so soon?”

Treatment failed. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer anymore. Mom and Dad couldn’t either. We called the vet, who came to the house. She assured us that we were making the right decision to put him down.

Ben was lying on the couch, nodding in and out of sleep. He’d lost a lot of weight, but his face still had that look of serenity and nobility. I put my arm around him and buried my head in his neck. “That’s my boy,” I whispered. “You’ll always be my boy.”

The vet found a vein in Ben’s rear leg and administered the injection. He turned his head to look, then rested it back on the couch and closed his eyes.

“His heart has stopped,” the vet said quietly. “He’s gone.”

I remained slumped over him, gently stroking his side.

It wasn’t until I watched the vet leave with my beloved Ben that a dam inside me broke. Mom and Dad wept for hours with me. “I’m so grateful to have had Ben,” I said. “I just don’t understand why he had to leave so soon.”

I remembered how Ben had come into my life right when I was about to give up my dream of getting a dog. And yet God moved to make my dream come true. He even changed my parents’ minds.

He knew Ben would teach me how to live more fully and love more deeply. In the midst of my grief, God expanded my understanding of his higher plans for us, and his grace.

Remember Brodie? We got back together and we’ve been married for five years. We have a son, Tommy, and—this probably won’t surprise you—not one but two Labs, Gracie and Billy.

All because my boy Ben opened my heart.

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