Challenge and precision – the two things that first drew Joe Koltcz to billiards.
“The billiards game takes place in the six inches between your ears,” he said. “And I really enjoy that.”
For Koltcz, a 71-year-old resident of Beech Grove, the game he learned at age 15 from his friend Jack Harmon, the game the two used to play hooky, has given him many challenges over the years.
But it has also given him many opportunities.
Like in August, when Koltcz won his level at the American Poolplayers Association (APA) 9-Ball Shootout Pool Championship in Las Vegas. Levels are based on skill level.
“I crossed out a bucket list item,” Koltcz said. “It was one I didn’t even know I had.”
Only in the past six years did Koltcz find himself with a cue in hand again after giving up the sport for 42 years.
“I had way too many other things to do as a father, and a husband and breadwinner to play pool,” he said.
The woman of his dreams
It was New Year’s Eve 1973, a week after Koltcz came home from four years of service in the United States Navy.
He saw tours in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, Vietnam and the Philippines.
His old friend Jack Harmon had returned a few years earlier after being drafted and serving in Vietnam.
Their buddy Mark was having one of his big parties.
“They were world famous,” Koltcz said with a grin.
He says that that night, when the clock struck midnight, all the girls kissed him except one.
He also remembers exactly what she was wearing.
“A red ribbed sleeveless sweater and long white pants,” Koltcz said. ‘A small necklace with a cross. And a smile.’
The next day, Koltcz says he got a call from a friend who said the girl, her name was Cindy, wanted to go on a date.
Just under eight months later, the two were married.
“We were inseparable,” he said. “They were like two like-minded souls. It was unbelievable.”
Euchre was their favorite game. Koltcz says he doesn’t think he and Cindy ever lost.
They traveled to several US national parks, went to Disney World 14 times with their two children David and Sarah.
The day life got dark
Almost the last 20 years of Cindy’s life, though mild at first, were painful.
A degenerative disc disease caused constant excruciating pain.
“She almost reached the end of medical treatment,” Koltcz said. “It was horrible.”
She became depressed, especially in the last 13 months of her life.
The two, who had traveled for so many years and invested in their children, had finally settled for what Koltcz called his “little slice of paradise.”
It was quiet in Brown County. The wilderness, the leaves, the smells—all things the two enjoyed.
In October 2015, Koltcz recalls that Cindy went in to lie on the bed. He says he checked on her an hour later and she was dead.
“That was difficult,” he said. “I knew she wasn’t in pain anymore, I had to hold on to that.”
Then even the brightest days became dark for Koltcz.
Koltcz questioned his own existence. He had a longing for nothing.
“How do you go from losing your best friend for all these years and living together, all the tragedies and all the incredible highs, all the joys, the wonders, the heartbreak, I mean all of that,” he said. “How do you go from that to suddenly being alone and not seeing that person again?”
What are friends for?
David offered his father a home for about six months after Koltcz decided to sell his piece of paradise.
He couldn’t live there anymore. Not without Cindy.
That’s when he says he got a call from his friend of 50 years, Jack Harmon.
“After a few months of letting me stew in my own grief, he just didn’t want it anymore,” Koltcz said. “He says, ‘Come on, I want you to come play on my team.'”
Koltcz was initially against the idea, but eventually decided to come and have a look.
Koltcz joined Harmon’s billiards team, Breaking Bad, that evening.
“Man, I was hooked again,” he said.
Better with billiards
“You have to move on,” said Koltcz. “There is life after death.”
He recognizes that the choice to move on with life is a difficult one. But, anyone dealing with the same darkness says should give it a “good honest try.”
On a recent Wednesday night at John Wayne’s on the south side of Indianapolis, the Breaking Bad team gathered for competition night.
Competitor Joe Medina gives Koltcz a hug to congratulate him on his recent win in Las Vegas. Another competitor asks Koltcz to sign his arm with a black pen.
Next to Koltcz is his buddy, Jack.
It’s hard for him to think about where he would be without Jack, but he did it.
“My children need me. My grandchildren still have a lot to do with Grandpa,” he says. “Remember that you are not alone.”
Contact IndyStar photojournalist Mykal McEldowney at 317-790-6991 or email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.