Friday, October 30, 2009

What's Important

I'm running around getting my brakes fixed, seeing my mom, doing errands before leaving this weekend for Florida.  But I just had to post this story I just read on AOL.  Makes us remember what's important in life.

Twenty Years Ago, One Hit Changed Two Lives Forever
Posted Oct 28, 2009 12:00PM By David Whitley (RSS feed)


Brad Gaines will do it again early Wednesday morning. He'll grab some Clorox and glass cleaner, toss them in the trunk of his Buick and head to a little cemetery 175 miles away.  His long, strange trip actually began 20 years ago today.  "I'll be doing it until I die," Gaines said.

He goes to visit a friend he never really knew. Then one crazy football play bound them forever. On a Homecoming afternoon, he collided with Chucky Mullins.

Gaines, a tailback for Vanderbilt, got up and headed back to the huddle. Mullins, a safety for Mississippi, never moved again.  His neck was shattered. He died less than two years later.  We read about such things, wince and move on. It's nobody's fault. It's just football.

Gaines knew that on Oct. 28, 1989. He knows it on Oct. 28, 2009.  It doesn't matter.  "I know it was part of the game," he said, "but it doesn't change the fact, you know ..."  He's tried to explain it a million times why he drives from Nashville to Russellville, Ala. three times a year. If it's the date of the accident or the date Mullins died or Christmas, Gaines has to make it to the grave that's marked simply:  Chucky, Man of Courage.

So what force drives Gaines? Why has he has skipped out early every Christmas or left home at midnight to get back for a morning meeting or barely beat the clock and found himself cleaning Mullins' grave by the light of the moon?  "There have been times I have had to hitchhike because I ran out of gas, had blown out tires, my car's broken down," Gaines said. "But I always make it."  Everybody from his wife to total strangers has worried and wondered. Perhaps the only person who could truly understand is Mullins.  "It's almost like it was fate," Gaines said.

He was a white kid from hoity-toity Vandy. His brothers had played in the NFL. He was a stud running back, the leading receiver in the SEC, a kid whose idea of hardship was getting turned down for a date.  "There have been times I have had to hitchhike because I ran out of gas, had blown out tires, my car's broken down. But I always make it." -- Brad Gaines Mullins was a skinny black kid from a nowhere town. His mother died when he was in sixth grade. He wasn't particularly fast or strong or talented, but Ole Miss coaches loved his attitude. Mullins would do anything to win.

So it wasn't surprising that he lowered his helmet and buried it in No. 44's back. Gaines had gone up to catch a pass. The force from behind knocked the ball loose before he hit the ground.  Gaines scrambled to recover it, but the refs called it an incomplete pass. He didn't even notice No. 38 wasn't moving. Before long, the number would literally mean everything to him.  Gaines couldn't sleep after the accident. He no longer cared about the sport he was raised to love. He didn't even play his senior season.

He did try to get to know the source of his pain. The first time they formally met, Gaines walked into the hospital room and tried not to visibly shake. Mullins was in a halo contraption with all sorts of tubes attached to his body.  A ventilator was rhythmically hissing at his bedside. Gaines shuffled near the bed, bent over and strained to make out what Mullins said.  "It wasn't your fault."

That was Chucky. His spirit never inspired people far beyond the South. Walter Payton visited him. So did Janet Jackson and George H. W. Bush.  More than $1 million was raised for his trust fund. Ole Miss built him a specially equipped house, and he was back in class the next year. Then a blood clot formed in his lung.
Gaines read about it and drove to the hospital in Memphis . Mullins was in a coma, but his friend got there in time to say goodbye. Then doctors removed the life-support system. Gaines went to the hospital roof and wept.

Ole Miss started the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, given each year to a senior defensive player. The winner used to wear No. 38 until the school retired it in 2006.  "You say 'Chucky,' and everybody knows what you mean," Gaines said.  You say Brad, and everybody wonders what that means.  "As I get older I've gotten even more emotional about it," he said. "I don't know, maybe raising my own kids and how fragile life can be."

He has four of them now, three girls ages one to 11, and a five-year-old boy. Gaines is a successful businessman but he still drives a 20-year-old Buick his kids hate.  "I wish your car would die," they tell him all the time.  If it does today, he'll just start hitchhiking. Gaines has lost count of the trips he's made to Russellville, but it's at least 60. None of his kids have ever gone with him. They just know their father has something he has to do.  "When I leave to go to the cemetery, they know why I'm going," Gaines said. "They see the importance of that, the importance of having love for your fellow man."

Mullins is buried next to his mother, who died when she was only 32. Gaines will pluck the weeds then clean the dirt and grime off the brown granite headstone.

Then he'll just sit and talk and pray.

It may seem odd that Gaines carries a picture of Mullins in his wallet. That his phone number still ends with the number 3800. That he just can't let go.

Why?

"He's a person I love," Gaines said, "and I miss."  It's as simple as that.

So what will Gaines' headstone read one day? Is he a Man of Guilt or Craziness or Courage or Compassion?

Whatever it is, Mullins would be proud to clean it.

3 comments:

Susan said...

Have a safe trip.

Blarney Crone said...

Barb,

Thanks for linking to my blog and for your kind remarks. I like your blog too and like you I was definitely a "Jo"--when I wasn't channeling Anne of Green Gables that is.

Liz AKA the Blarney Crone
Check out my website too www.leadershipcoachdc.com

Barb said...

Thanks, Liz!