ENID, Okla. — NJCAA Division II World Series week in Enid brings back many memories for Jim Collins. Memories that could best be considered bittersweet. Enid, after all, is where his baseball-playing son, Michael Collins, had his favorite moment as a player for the Heartland Hawks.
When Jim introduces people to his son, it is through the video of Michael’s home run in the 2012 World Series at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
“He loved Oklahoma,” Collins said last week, discussing his book and the events that changed his life. “He loved showing the picture to people of him autographing baseballs like a big-leaguer at the dugout. He loved Enid and that ballpark.”
He would give anything to be able to introduce his son to you in person. But, he can’t.
Just two short years later, Michael, then a senior at Illinois State, lost his life when a drunken driver slammed into the car he was a passenger in, ironically with a completely sober designated driver at the wheel. It took Jim, a highly successful prep baseball coach in Illinois, down a dark, painful path, filled with grief and heartache and the inevitable feeling of why did this have to happen to him. But, through a strong sense of faith, a loving, strong family and a community that rallied around him and his family, he has come through it with a renewed sense of purpose.
He lays it all bare in the pages of his book, “Uncommon Hope,” holding back nothing. It’s all there. Every tear — and there were so many — every smile, every laugh, every struggle.
“The book was part therapeutic and part was extremely painful,” Collins said. “It was a story that needed to be told, and I wanted to write it.”
World Series star, cool coach
In Enid, people got to know Michael through his two stops with the Heartland Hawks in back-to-back World Series appearances in 2011 and 2012, the only time in the school’s history it made back-to-back Series appearances. He wasn’t a star player on the field, but was the player many looked up to and whose sense of humor was his trademark.
Being a coach’s son, it’s not surprising he was at times like a second coach for the Hawks under the guidance of their head coach Nate Metzger, now an assistant coach at Wright State.
Jim missed the 2012 World Series because he was coaching his University High School team in Normal, Ill., to a state championship, but he said he got regular updates from Michael and his wife, Kelly, and anytime he felt bad about missing it, Michael would set him straight. The Heartland Hawks went on to finish third in the 2012 World Series.
After he finished his playing days at Heartland, Michael focused on his studies as an exercise major at Illinois State. He also joined his dad as an assistant coach on the University High School team and scheduled his ISU classes around the team’s games and practices.
Being close to their age, the high school players immediately gravitated toward Michael.
“He was the cool coach,” Jim Collins said. “Those guys became very close to Michael.”
Michael worked closely with and mentored many of the players that would win a regional championship.
The doorbell rings
It’s what every parent dreads. The late night knock on the door. For Jim and Kelly Collins, the date and time are indelibly etched in their memory. March 29, 2014, 3:26 a.m., when they heard the doorbell ring and a uniformed officer told them their son was in an accident and in critical condition.
Jim said they knew Michael was in town attending a social gathering and figured “it couldn’t be that bad” as speed limits around town are about 35 mph. But it was bad. Very bad. The driver that struck Michael’s car went through a red light with some estimates that the car was traveling as high as 130 mph. Michael took the brunt of the collision. Others in the car were injured.
The next five days in the hospital overwhelmed him. Jim said he withdrew, unable to accept what was happening. His wife, Kelly, and older son, Jimmy, were “the bedrock” and he leaned heavily on them.
‘Tears and screams of desperation and anger’
At one point, Jim writes in the book, he threw himself on the ground in “tears and screams of desperation and anger,” and slammed the cross he clutched to the ground. He found it impossible to comprehend why this was happening to his “precious 22-year-old son.” A Bible-quoting son, who lit up a room with his smile and appeared destined for something special, was slipping away and there was little anybody could do.
After surgeries failed to reduce the swelling in his brain, the family was told there was nothing that could be done. It was time to let him go, but first, they learned he had signed an organ donor card. He would live on in over 200 others through tissue and organ donation.
Word had spread and the community outpouring for the coach and his son drew a large candlelight vigil outside of the hospital.
“The community response during the hospital stay was unbelievable,” Collins said. “Walking down that hallway, I looked outside and there were hundreds of people in that candlelight vigil. I had to visit with those people.”
Before Michael passed, there were many that came to say goodbye, including former coaches, family members and then members of the University High School baseball team who came, held his hand and said goodbye.
“No young player should have to say goodbye to their young coach like that or see him in a casket,” Collins said.
With Michael’s organs and tissue being donated, several family members, friends and caregivers gathered outside the hospital to raise a white organ donor flag in Michael’s memory. By 9:02 p.m., on April 2, 2014, with his family at his side, Michael took his last breath.
The morning of the funeral service, signs lined the entrance way to the church reading “19#MCStrong” with Michael’s No. 19 and the “t” being a cross. It was a sign of things to come.
In the days that followed, window stickers, cards and flyers showed up with “19#MCStrong.” Michael’s friend, Hailey Lanier, started a “Pay It Forward” campaign locally. It was felt Michael would want to do that, to see others “pay it forward” by helping strangers, whether that meant picking up somebody’s restaurant tab or paying for something in the grocery line and asking that person remember the generosity and pay it forward as well.
But it went beyond local. The campaign and Michael’s story went not just national, but international. The story, written about in the hometown newspaper and in Enid, went viral. Sports Illustrated picked it up and it ran in SI’s May 19, 2014, issue.
“We see signs all the time with Michael’s No. 19,” Collins said. “And then there was the date of the Sports Illustrated issue, May 19.”
The Michael Collins Foundation was born, and Collins said it has provided scholarships to students at three high schools and even funded the first-ever endowed scholarship at ISU in exercise science.
Back on the diamond
Jim decided to return to the diamond with his team for one more season.
“I knew it was time, and Michael would have wanted me to do it,” Collins said.
That 2014 season, as detailed in the book, provided dramatic and poignant moments.
Such as the player in danger of being suspended from the team because he isn’t getting assignments in on time and confides he can’t focus. Sobbing, he explains he can’t get the picture of Michael in the casket out of his mind.
There is the shortstop who has been struggling with his fielding because he was not taking extra fielding after practice as he used to do. When Jim asks why, it is revealed Michael always hit him grounders and he didn’t want anybody else doing it. Both break down in tears.
As the team makes an unlikely run to a regional championship, Collins uses the tragedy to put the game in perspective for his team.
“What they were going through during the season was nothing compared to what they already went through, “ Collins explained. “For a 17-, 18-year-old kid to tell his coach goodbye in the hospital room or see him in a casket is more than anybody should. It was good to wrap my arms around them.”
Collins said he doesn’t know how “anybody could get through this without faith.” The title of his book is a tribute to Tony Dungy’s book, “Dare To Be Uncommon” which held a special place for him and Michael.
The person who drove drunk and was behind the wheel was found guilty and is serving a 14-year prison sentence. She was a multiple, repeat offender. Her passenger was sentenced for obstructing justice.
“Forgiveness is something I have struggled with,” Collins said when asked how his Christian faith impacts his ability or need to forgive. “My pastor makes a very good point that forgiveness doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t be punished. ... We are serving a life sentence. I hope she has learned from her decisions.”
Collins has left his longtime employment at State Farm.
“I always told Michael, ‘Do something you love, and you will never work a day in your life,’” Collins said. He said he reminded himself of that when he was wrestling with the decision to leave State Farm, accepting a position as the area director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I could just see that sly grin of his, reminding me of my own words to him.”
He talks to Michael often.
“I do see him,” he said. “I talk to him a lot. It’s what gives me comfort. There are days when I feel his presence. When I close my eyes, I see him. I converse with him all the time.”
Jim and Kelly’s oldest son, Jimmy, now 30, is expecting a baby with his fiancee, Abby. It’s going to be a boy, they are going to name him Michael James.
And when Michael’s nephew is old enough, Grandpa probably will cue up that home run video from Enid a few more times, just as he does now when speaking in front of groups like the Green Bay Packers rookies on behalf of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
It’s how he introduces himself, and of course, Michael.