DOWNEY SWALLIGAN

Watching Tony Swalligan (left) at a middle school dance convinced Shane Downey (right) that “I definitely want to be this guy’s friend.” Swalligan died last year of a heroin overdose, and Downey is organizing a 3-on-3 basketball tournament to honor his friend.

Shane Downey and Tony Swalligan posed together for a picture the first night they met at a middle school dance.

Downey is seen making a bug-eyed funny face. Swalligan, with a smile and dark shades, is decked out in a white T-shirt with red letters spelling out “Vote For Pedro,” a phrase from the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Swalligan was “bouncing around being friendly with everyone, and I thought, ‘I definitely want to be this guy’s friend,’ ” as Downey described the meeting. They quickly developed a connection that seemed like it would last for a long time.

But their relationship was cut tragically short.

On Feb. 23, 2016, Swalligan died. He was just 23.

The cause was succinctly summed up in two words his mother, Kathi Swalligan, placed in her son’s obituary, using all capital letters: DAMN HEROIN.

Now, one year later, Downey is working to keep his friend’s memory alive. He has helped organize the Anthony Swalligan Memorial – a 3-on-3 basketball tournament – that is scheduled to take place on Feb. 18 at the Westmont Grove, 1000 Edgehill Drive, beginning at noon.

“It means a lot to me,” said Downey, a Southmont Borough resident now attending Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

“And I know, from me and his sister working on the event, it means a lot to his family.

“Anytime somebody passes away from a drug overdose, people tend to forget, or try to forget about it, or think of it in a negative light. I didn’t want Tony to be remembered that way. I wanted him to be remembered in a positive light. 

“I’m grateful that I could do this.”

Downey said basketball was his friend’s “passion” throughout the years they attended Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.

“That’s what most people would remember him for,” said Downey. “That’s why I decided on basketball. I also thought it was a good way of reaching a lot of different people in the community.”

In the early days of their friendship, Swalligan was consistently “upbeat,” Downey said.

“He was always the life of the party,” he added. “People were naturally drawn to him because he was always there for his friends. He was always a good time. He was a lot of fun to be around. 

“He was a really good person, and you kind of never expected this to happen to him.”

But heroin changed Swalligan. He became withdrawn, participated in fewer activities, and started frequently wearing long sleeves in order to cover up track marks, all telltale signs of a developing heroin problem in retrospect, according to Downey.

“We were young at the time, so none of us really knew how to handle it, or what to say, or how to step up to him and ask him if anything was going on,” Downey said.

The tournament, though, is about more than only remembering Swalligan. It is also a fundraiser.

Teams wanting to compete in the 18-plus age division must register by Wednesday. Youth teams in the fifth and sixth grades, seventh and eighth grades, and high school divisions can enter up to and including the day of the event.

The entry fee is $20 per team. Additional sign-up information is available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/anthony-swalligan-3v3-tournament-tickets-30404704289. A GoFundMe page has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/anthony-swalligan-memorial.

Organizers want to raise enough money to get Christopher Herren, a former NBA player who battled a drug addiction during his college and professional career, to speak at Bishop McCort – providing students a firsthand perspective about the dangers of substance abuse.

Downey said Herren’s message is a contrast to assemblies he remembers from school when an athlete or other individual would speak, but did not seem to have a full understanding of the issue of addiction.

“I had those rallies,” Downey said. “Tony had those rallies. We all had them. Just my high school, personally, Bishop McCort, they would bring in speakers that would kind of make light of the situation or something.

“I would always dread going to them. I couldn’t really relate to them. I just wasn’t understanding it. I get it, people that do drugs end up living under a bridge. That was always my thought about it.”

Downey hopes the basketball tournament and possibly an appearance by Herren can help make people more aware that addiction can afflict many different types of individuals.

“A lot of people put a negative stigma on addiction,” Downey said. “That doesn’t need to be the case. You can be there for someone that’s struggling with addiction. There are plenty of ways to approach people – out of compassion and love would be the best.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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