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I must tell you today about a guy I have known and loved like a brother.
The words don’t come easily. They bounce around in my brain and find their way to my fingers in clumsy and inadequate sequence. I pound at my keyboard in earnest hope of intellectual inspiration, but here goes.
I first met Don Collins on a muggy August afternoon in Jackson, Miss. We had grown up 45 minutes apart, but it took a quarter century and 600 miles to germinate a friendship that would stand stalwart to the flow of time.
We were hired in 1977 by former Courier-Journal sports writer Tom Patterson at The Clarion-Ledger. They had known each other since Don’s days at Western Kentucky (where Tom also was educated), and they were as tight as brothers, one big and lumbering, the other short and gnomish.
Somehow, they wedged me in the middle to form The Three Amigos, guys who for about three years worked together and weaved a friendship that overcame the turbulent twists and turns of both life and geography.
It was Tom who called me at 1:15 Monday morning to tell me our dear friend had passed away after a decades-long fight against cancer.
Don and I were fast friends because of a shared love for many things, not the least of which was this state – “God’s Country,” as we called it.
He graduated from Meade County High School the year after I left Shelby County, and we would rib each other about our rural roots.
Don’s favorite jab with me dates back to 1971, when SCHS got off to perhaps the best start in its football history, and The Courier-Journal took notice. In a big feature story on a Sunday, SCHS Coach Dan Goble compared his starting quarterback, Roy Lyons, to Jon Madeya, the star QB for Lee Corso at U of L.
That Friday night, Shelby went out and lost to – yes – Meade County, 36-14. The opposing QB, Terry Cross, ran roughshod over the Rockets.
Don would say, “If Terry Cross is better than Roy Lyons, that must make him better than Jon Madeya, too,”
I haven’t spoken to Roy Lyons in nearly 40 years, but, Roy, I sure have defended your honor a few hundred times.
That was the way Don and I were, always kidding one another, which allowed our friendship to grow though we never shared the same zip code after 1980.
I moved on to Florida, and he found his way to USA Today, where he was a startup editor in charge of high school sports coverage, including All-America teams.
We kept in touch by the phone, birthday and holiday cards and E-mail.
We took vacations together, and we often caught visits at the airport as we flew in and out of Louisville.
On our way to a convention in Phoenix, we attempted a very slapstick rendezvous on a side trip to Las Vegas. I was asleep in a room at Caesar’s Palace, and Don, delayed en route, was wandering the casino below.
Don left USAT for a short stint in Little Rock, Ark., where God – not Gannett, as we had thought – sent him to meet Cheryl Evans, the woman whom he would cherish by his side until his very last breath.
I stood with them the day they married, and she became part of our friendship, our families united. During Don’s ordeal these past years she has steadfastly kept an ever-expanding legion of friends and colleagues in touch about various health issues and treatment.
That’s the thing about Don: He was a magnet to people who loved, respected and admired him. He was every child’s uncle. He would joke about his limitations, but no one questioned Don’s God-fearing character, loyalty or compassion.
He was at his largest about 6 feet 3 and 300-plus pounds, and about 98 percent of that was heart.
Don and “The Big C” first became acquainted a year after he and I did. Hodgkin’s Disease attacked, and he counterattacked. The surgery went well, and the prognosis was good.
Seven days later, he was back at his desk, stapled together and ready to go. He never acted sick until the chemotherapy, and even then he didn’t miss work.
A few years later, doctors found two large tumors atop his brain. They popped his top and removed them.
And for the next 25 years, he battled first this cancer and then another. He always would beat the disease, until a few years ago, doctors found a mass around his heart. That didn’t stop him.
They drilled a hole in him to tap the mass. They gave him chemo what seems like dozens of times. He took it and took it, and then the doctors said they couldn’t do anymore.
We had that conversation about a month ago. He was calm and reflective, but he couldn’t see the tears streaming down my cheeks as I fought for control of both my voice and my steering wheel.
When we spoke last week, he sounded hopeful, his voice stronger. Doctors had put him on oxygen. We talked about his beloved Cardinals, about my kids. The end didn’t seem near, but it was.
As I lay in my bed about 11:30 Sunday evening, watching and listening, as you likely were, to what I thought was a typical, late-spring thunder boomer, I had no idea that in a bedroom in Northern Virginia my very dear friend was breathing his last gasp.
But I now know with full conviction that a great soul was passing our earth and that God was celebrating that arrival with searing fireworks and echoing heralds of thunder. He had a great new angel, and He wanted all the folks from God’s Country to know.
To borrow from Opie and Andy Taylor:
The world sure does look emptier today.
But aren’t the heavens so nice and full?