Eric Josephs doesn't have to look far for inspiration.
The Teaneck High School senior need only look down at his tennis shoes.
Josephs has his late grandparents' initials and nicknames written on the back of his shoes to remind him of the people who had such big roles in his life. He still remembers the days when they went to all his tennis matches, baseball, basketball and soccer games, and now he is thanking them in his own way for always being there.
"I feel like I remember them more," Josephs said of George and Miriam Josephs, his maternal grandparents. "I feel like they're with me more now. I'm more thankful for them now."
The Highwaymen captain has helped revitalize a tennis program that was in danger of not fielding a varsity squad. He is the only senior on a team of mostly beginners, yet Teaneck is 6-7 and just missed qualifying for the State tournament.
Josephs' parents were divorced when he was 3, and his father lives in Israel. His mother, Debbie, was working multiple jobs, sometimes three at a time, to help raise him and his older sister, Danielle.
As a result, Josephs would spend a lot of time at his grandparents' house in Teaneck. He had his own bedroom there and often would be there so late at night he would just sleep over.
"I wouldn't want to go home," said Josephs, who is 12-3 in third singles. "They were more than just grandparents for me. I wanted to see them so much because they meant so much to me."
He called his grandfather "Dice," a nickname that had been with George Josephs since childhood. He called his grandmother "Ima," which means mother in Hebrew.
"Basically, I never really had a dad," Josephs said. "Dice was like my dad. Ima was like a mother to me. They were so interested [in my sports]. They really supported me."
Dice suffered from diabetes and passed away in the spring of 2002. Ima, who had multiple sclerosis, died two years later, almost to the day, in the spring of 2004.
Ima's death came just two days before Josephs' first varsity match.
He wasn't sure if he wanted to continue playing initially. Then he realized he owed it to himself to play a sport he had the most fun playing. He owed it to himself and to his grandparents.
"Before she passed away, she would just tell me to be happy and have fun," said Josephs. "When I'm on the tennis court I always think of her. I always look at my shoes when I'm upset."
Case in point - when Josephs needed a little help to get through a third set against Chris Minor of Don Bosco, he had it.
"I was thinking to myself, 'I can't do it,' " Josephs said. "Then I just looked at the shoes and I did it. I won the third set, 6-1."
This newfound approach to having fun first and worrying about winning second has done wonders for Josephs. It also has helped his teammates learn these same lessons.
"I feel like I have a shot at anybody," he said. "I'm just relaxed now, I'm not tense anymore. They really made me a better person. Now I'm teaching the team to just have fun."
Josephs hopes the team can follow the examples he set when he is off at college next year. He will attend Wisconsin on a partial academic scholarship and plans to major in business.
And he still has his grandparents in his corner.
"I just believe in myself more because of them," said Josephs. "They always thought I could do it."
ROB CELENTANO, STAFF WRITER