A young man's journey

Posted: May 23, 2014

TONY CHENNAULT bounded to the front door of his Olney home, a young man with a wide grin, a warm handshake and the easy confidence of a brand-new Villanova University graduate who is a budding filmmaker.

"He's a very handsome young man with the most beautiful, infectious smile," said Kevin Rafferty Sr., the father of one of Chennault's basketball teammates at Villanova, where Chennault was a point guard.

Behind the smile, however, is pain. The pain of the drive-by shooting that killed Chennault's oldest brother, Michael Jay, who was like a father to him.

It was a "wrong place, wrong time" shooting that killed Jay, 30, who worked for an insurance company and was engaged.

Jay had stopped by a friend's house on May 31, 2012. He was standing on the porch on American Street near Grange Avenue when a car roared by and shots rang out.

You won't see the pain in Chennault's face, but at times you can hear it in his voice:

"He died with no justice."

Nearly two years later, police say they have made no arrests in the shooting nor do they know of a motive.

You also won't see the pain Chennault felt when his mother, Crystal Morton, died in August, a little more than a year after his brother was slain.

Chennault had signed to play basketball at Wake Forest University after graduating from Neumann-Goretti High in South Philly in 2010.

But after two years in North Carolina, he transferred to Villanova to be closer to home because of his mother's chronic respiratory problems and asthma.

She died of a heart attack.

"I think it was hard on her to lose her firstborn son," Chennault said. "A parent never wants to have to bury their child."

A film screening

His passion for basketball has faded. He now has a new love: filmmaking.

A short film he made in college, "Chris," was inspired by his brother's slaying.

It has been expanded and will be screened for free at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Dreaming Building, at Front and Spring Garden streets.

The film tells the story of a teenager killed by street violence.

Chennault doesn't want anyone to think the film is about his own grief.

He's bigger than that.

"It's not just about me and my experience," he said as he sat at the black dining-room table shown in the film.

"These are elements that happen every day. We are losing a lot of good people, people in the prime of their lives, people doing a lot of positive things, all because of the gun violence in our community.

"That's the point I wanted to focus on," Chennault said. "Why in urban communities don't we realize the significance of the people in our lives until they are dead? It's about not valuing life."

Grades and hoops

Chennault was 21 when his brother was slain. He was 22 and about to start his senior year when his mother died.

Still, Chennault kept up his grades and he kept up on the basketball court.

"I told my teammates, 'Never feel sorry for me.' And I told my coaches: 'Treat me like everybody else. Push me like you push everybody else.' "

There may be pain beneath the surface, but it's perseverance that has paid off.

Despite the tragedies, Chennault won the Alexander Severance Award at the 2014 Villanova basketball banquet for diligence in the classroom.

The semester immediately after his mother died, he carried a full load and earned five A's and one C.

And the Villanova website said of his basketball skills: "[He] brings toughness, experience, and defensive tenacity to the Wildcats' backcourt."

Chennault graduated from Villanova with a degree in communications last weekend.

Dad played in Europe

Carl Arrigale, Chennault's basketball coach at Neumann-Goretti, said he probably could have had a pro basketball career in Europe, just as his father, Anthony Chennault, had in the 1980s.

His father was "in and out" of Chennault's life while playing overseas. That's why big brother Michael Jay was such an important influence.

"It was Mike who came to all of his [high school] games," Arrigale said. It was also Michael Jay who took Chennault, the youngest of three brothers, and Sean Chennault, the middle brother, to the basketball courts at 16th and Susquehanna, and to the Hank Gathers Rec Center.

Both Arrigale and Chennault's father have small roles in the film.

But Arrigale will tell you he is no actor. As the director, Chennault got to coach his old coach.

"It was funny taking orders from him," Arrigale said.

At Neumann-Goretti, Chennault had been a standout player: Pennsylvania high school player of the year in 2009-10; Catholic League MVP twice and three-time All- Catholic.

"He was just super," Arrigale said. "The teachers all loved him, the administrators, they still talk about him."

Just this week, police announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Jay's killer.

Chennault said he didn't give up because he doesn't believe in excuses, and he wanted his brother and mother to live through him.

Now Tony, 23, and middle brother Sean Chennault, 25, share the house in Olney.

"My mother instilled in us that at the end of the day, we may not have a lot, but we always had each other," Tony Chennault said. "Materialistic things come and go, but the love we have for each other is something that lasts forever."


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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