Before their time

It's been a tough week. Twice I received phone calls that would later lead to me learning of the death of an 18-year old kid. I didn't know McCollins Umeh or Gary Durrenberger very well, but their passing has had an impact on me.

I met Gary two or three times. We probably said less than 20 words to each other. He would tag along with his dad, Wildcat football beat reporter Charles Durrenberger, to practices or scrimmages. We may say hi or do a brief head nod, but that was about it.

The thing is, I felt like I knew Gary. At least a little bit. His dad was always talking about him. He would tell stories about his baseball career and when a shoulder injury ended it, the stories switched to golf. He was proud of his son. Occasionally, like any parent of a teenager, his tales were of exasperation over something silly Gary had done, but mostly it was pride.

Gary graduated from CDO last month, but was killed in a traffic accident last week. He was driving home from Mexico at 6:30 in the morning so he could make it to a summer school class.

He was down in Mexico for Memorial Day. He was not down there being a stupid teenager. He was down there with several families. Coincidentally my wife's boss and her family were down there with Gary and his friends. All she could say was that they were "good kids".

That is how Gary is usually described, a good kid.

After attending his memorial service I wish I knew Gary better. I know his father very well and he is good people. Charles has always been very good to me. There is a tendency for larger publications to look down on smaller publication like Cat Tracks. There can be a pecking order. The nationals look down at the locals and locals sometimes look down at monthlies and web sites. I can't say that about Charles (or most of the Tucson media to be honest). When I first got started Charles always had a word of advice. He helped me avoid little faux pas that rookies tend to make.

Some may remember when I prematurely ran a story announcing that Mackovic would be terminated prior to the TCU game. When it turned out I was wrong I took some heat. I later found out that a handful of writers from Phoenix were skewering me and Charles came to my defense. He told them that he and other reporters all had the same information and if their editorial standards were different, they too would have run the story.

One of those Phoenix reporters later apologized to me. For that I thanked Charles.

I did not know Gary well, but I know Charles pretty well. I'm not going to lie and say we are great friends, but we've shared a meal or two with other writers. We've talked about our families and sports. I like Charles and I grieve with him.

It was Tuesday afternoon when I received a second phone call. "A player collapsed on the practice field," the caller said. "You may want to get down here."

I rushed to campus, hoping that I would get there too late and find some poor player a little dizzy, a little dehydrated. Instead I was in the turn lane at Speedway and Campbell when an Ambulance screamed past me. It turned out that McCollins Umeh was fighting for his life inside. It was a fight he would lose.

I got to campus and found just a few members of the media. Most were inside Sancett Field covering the baseball team. A few others had left after getting the interviews they needed from Andy Lopez's squad.

We knew a player had been taken to the hospital, we just didn't know how bad it was. Soon it became apparent that it was serious. Director of Football Operations Eric Harper was standing on the corner when I got there. Shortly after I got to campus an SUV screeched to a stop in front of Harper. Mike Stoops was at the wheel, a passenger got out and Harper jumped in. The SUV then sped off, we all knew they were headed off to the hospital. There could be no mistaking the worry in Stoops' eyes. Soon other staff members were leaving by the carload.

A few minutes after that the TV cameraman called a source he had in the fire department and we soon had confirmation that an 18-year old was the player who collapsed. Still no word on who, but we had it narrowed down to a sophomore-to-be or an incoming freshman.

Livengood came out a short time later to address the media. He did not say much, but we all had the gut feeling that it was bad, very bad.

Soon it became apparent that it was as bad as it could be.

I can't say that I really knew McCollins Umeh. I spoke with him maybe four times on the phone during his recruitment. He seemed like a good kid. After seeing his family the other day as they graciously addressed the media I soon realized that he was a special kid.

Too many of us will focus on the athletic ability. Many remember he was the prize of the recruiting class. That is not important, he was a prize of this family.

The two deaths hit me pretty hard. I hardly knew either boy, but I did know them. We were not close, but we had a connection, no matter how tenuous.

Both were 18, both had their whole lives ahead of them. It made me think. It made me think of the young men and women of the same age that are overseas serving in the military. It made me think of the thousands of young people every year who die too early.

It makes me think how lucky I am. I got to go to college, get a degree, get married, buy a house. If I were to die today everyone would say I was too young at 31, but there are so many things that I got to experience that Gary and MC did not.

Like most of you, my thoughts and prayers are with the two families and all of the families of young people who have been taken too early.


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