ST. PAUL, Minn. - Not everyone comes to Xcel Energy Center to feast on hockey. William Tentis comes to get dinner.
As fans of the Minnesota Wild stream through the arena’s entrances, William has perched himself on a landscaping stone next to the sidewalk.
“Got to get something to eat,” he says softly. “Get food in my belly.”
Most fans walk past, barely acknowledging his presence. A woman stops and pulls a couple of bills from her pocket. “Thank you ma’am,” William tells her sincerely. “God bless.”
William, 64, has been at this awhile. He’s good at it - friendly, humble and unthreatening.
“It's been about five years since I've had a job,” he reveals.
Sir William, as he’s known on the street, tells his story on a small cardboard sign he holds. “Veteran,” it reads. “10 yrs Army.”
Dig deeper and he'll also tell you about the chronic pain in his knees and shoulders, his divorce and subsequent withdrawal from the things most of us expect out of life.
William says he once held good-paying jobs at Honeywell and “the railroad” but reached a point after the breakup of his marriage where he was just done.
“The hell with everybody,” William says he decided.
Those words stand in contrast to what’s about to happen.
“William!” says the man approaching. He’s wearing a Wild hockey jersey. His arms are extended.
Eric Reetz smiles broadly as he embraces the homeless veteran.
“How you doing?” Eric asks the older gentleman.
“Hanging in there,” William responds.
The men converse like old pals, though separated by status and nearly 25 years.
“I met Eric here,” William explains, “and then he questioned whether or not I was really a veteran.”
Eric’s skepticism was understandable. The Sergeant First Class in the Minnesota National Guard served his country in Iraq.
Eric asked William questions only a soldier would know. William answered them all and pulled out his military papers and VA medical card to offer further proof.
What William didn’t know, at the time, is that Eric isn’t just a Wild season ticket holder and a war veteran.
“He’s a cop!” William now laughs.
Eric, off duty from the St. Paul Police Department, was finally satisfied that William was indeed a veteran.
“I gave him 20 bucks, I said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and didn't think I'd ever see the guy again.”
But the very next home Wild game William was waiting to show Eric a $20 grocery receipt.
“He says I just want you to know I went to Aldi’s and bought pork chops and this and that, I’ve got the receipt to prove to you that I didn’t spend it on anything else,” says Eric, recalling the conversation. “Pretty crazy.”
William says he just wanted Eric to know his $20 gift was well spent. “Who wants to help somebody get a bottle?” he asks.
William wasted no time.
“I went to the ATM, handed him another 20 bucks, and said, here you go.”
And so it’s continued, each time they meet – an embrace, a brief conversation and then grocery money handed from Eric to William.
“Here you go my friend,” Eric says as he hands over a twenty.
“Thank you. God bless,” William responds as he slips the bill into his pocket, neither friend breaking eye contact during the transfer.
“I love you,” William tells Eric as they hug. “I love you too,” Eric responds.
In between Wild games, Eric patrols some of the same streets William walks, though the two rarely see each other.
In fact, weeks had gone by, when shortly before Christmas, Eric heard from a police supervisor that William had called trying to reach him.
Eric wasted no time returning the call. “I said, ‘What's going on, you in trouble, you ok?’ He says, ‘No I'm good, I've got some Christmas presents for you.’”
Eric pulls from his squad car the gifts William bought him. A motorcycle t-shirt, a travel ID holder, and a heavy pair of gloves.
“You know he sees me outside directing traffic and he goes, ‘It gets cold out so you're going to need these gloves,’” says Eric, touched by the gifts.
“It blew me away,” he says. “It was very good night.”
William is philosophical about the gifts. “It's not all take,” he says, you've got to give. If you don't give you're not human.”
Told what William had said, Eric is quick to respond. “I agree with that 100 percent,” he says. To which he adds, “Now it was my turn.”
A few weeks after Christmas, Eric’s Ford pickup pulls to a curb in downtown St. Paul. William climbs inside.
After a stop to pick up steaks, the pickup pulls into the driveway of Eric’s suburban home.
“So this is my house,” says Eric. “Welcome to my humble home.”
Somewhere during a tour of Eric’s well-appointed rec room, he shares a painful piece of himself. Eric’s wife Janelle died nine years ago, at 35, from a heart attack, leaving Eric a single dad.
“I didn't know that,” said William softly. “I don't think you ever told me that.”
Eric’s 14-year-old son, Ethan, joins William and Eric at the dinner table. William asks if he can say grace. “Hopefully tomorrow will be better Lord,” he prays.
William will spend the night at his daughter’s home, one of the places he crashes when it’s too cold to sleep outside.
Like a lot of homeless people, he lives day-to-day.
Yet William Tentis knows, the open arms of the law are never far away.
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