Fifteen years after his son’s death, Bill Hancock stands as a symbol of hope

Editor’s Note: This story appeared on kansascity.com on April 30, 2016. Bill Hancock, an FWAA member, is the Executive Director of the College Football Playoff.  Author of the story, Vahe Gregorian, is also an FWAA member. 

By Vahe Gregorian/vgregorian@kcstar.com

Bill Hancock of Prairie Village is one of the most influential men in collegiate sports, having run the NCAA Tournament as it was blossoming into a phenomenon and now as executive director of the College Football Playoff.

You’d never know that from the folksy, humble, kind and gentle demeanor of Hancock, who despite those high-profile and at-times controversial jobs, is one of the most popular and appealing people in the sports industrial complex.

But for all there is to admire about Hancock, the most amazing part of his life-affirming radiance is that it survived the unbearable tragedy of the death of his son Will in the Oklahoma State plane crash that killed 10 members of the Oklahoma State family on Jan. 27, 2001.

For all he has achieved, maybe nothing is more important to him now than being a symbol of hope for those in despair even as his own mourning never ends.

That’s why Hancock periodically speaks to groups grieving life’s calamities and why he wrote a book about his own path to coping.

It’s why he spoke last week at his church in Prairie Village and why he tries to seize every day and look around and smile.

“What I learned is that there is no greater happiness than helping others,” he said, “and I really think that we should all live by that.”

He thought back a second to before the accident, back when he “was a happy person who cared about other people but also was very shallow.”

We begrudge him the shallow part, by the way, but he was making a broader point.

“Because I just didn’t understand (true grief). In many ways, we can’t understand,” he said. “Maybe a few clergymen and a few poets here and there could grasp the grief before it happens to you. But most of us can’t.”

None of this means he’s discovered a magic pill or formula or compartment for handling this horror, which might have been 15 years ago to you but is part of every day for him — as anyone who has suffered overwhelming trauma knows.

Hancock and his wife, Nicki, and their second son Nate and family and Will’s widow, Karen, and then-two-month-old daughter Andie (who recently wrote an essay about her father and the support they received)all forever will have despair lurking nearby on the rollercoaster they ride, he knows.

Yet Hancock promises you can be fortified and consoled or even saved by any combination of faith, family and friends.

“It’s a long journey, and there’s no destination: The journey does not end,” he said. “But the primary message is you are not alone, that millions of others have made the journey and you can make it, too.”

Hancock spoke Monday at the Asbury United Methodist church, where he normally is in the third row of the choir as its worst singer and entered that night to a soundtrack that included the Notre Dame Fight Song and “Oklahoma.”

After a game of trivia with grandson Jack serving as “Vanna White,” he turned to a talk promoted as “how a person can recover from tragedy and loss, and then find peace and stability.”

In his case, much of the healing started with a literal journey: riding across the country on a bike he had with him Monday from an adventure he poignantly documented in his 2005 book, “Riding With The Blue Moth.”

The Blue Moth was a term acquired in Hancock’s Oklahoma childhood, when he misunderstood “blue nawther” as it came out of his grandmother’s North Carolina drawl.

After the numbness of the first days of losing Will ebbed, he wrote in the book, “the sadness came in waves, like the cold fronts that routinely sweep into the Southern Plains in winter.”

 

The agony that came with losing their joyous first-born, a Shawnee Mission East and KU graduate who had become sports information director at Oklahoma State, routinely doused him with “a napalm that destroyed all hope … I hated the savage blue moth.”

Before Will’s death, Hancock said Monday at Asbury, it was a serene family life they’d led, so trouble-free and full of music and sports and time together as to conjure images of the perfect TV family. No wonder their favorite movie was “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Days after that was shattered, Hancock somehow summoned a force within to eulogize Will and try to soothe others at the First Methodist Church in Stillwater.

His presence was transcendent in a similar vein to that of Mindy Corporon immediately — and ever since — lending comfort to others after the unspeakable simultaneous murders of son Reat Underwood and father William Corporon at the Jewish Community Center in 2014.

None of us who was there ever will forget Hancock gushing about Will and wondering how others were holding up.

But within, there was only darkness as they all groped to find meaning or direction in anything.

As he cruelly had to endure a bumpy plane flight on his way back to Indianapolis the day after Will’s funeral, Hancock wrote that he asked God to “please let this plane crash. Take me to heaven. There’s no reason for me to stay here on earth.”

Even as they got “wonderful care” from friends and colleagues, they were “paralyzed,” as Hancock put it.

All the more so after a Final Four that included Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski not letting go of his hand even as the pre-game horn sounded for the national semifinal.

After Duke went on to win the title, Hancock stood arm-in-arm with Nate as they watched “One Shining Moment.”

In tears, Nate said, “Dad, what do we do now?”

Four days later, Hancock, Nate and Karen went to the Royals home opener against the Minnesota Twins at the insistence of Will’s friends.

It was (and is) a tradition of the group to go every year they could, and in part because Will previously had interned with the Royals, Hancock grudgingly made himself go.

The anguished looks of Will’s friends evoked a new emotion in Hancock. He wondered what he would have said if one of them had been on that plane and Will asked him, “What do we do?”

“Live,” he thought he’d say, and remember your friend forever and honor that by living every minute as if the world was watching.

So on a chilly afternoon in the Kauffman Stadium parking lot, eating a bratwurst, it came to Hancock:

They all still had a future, and the best thing they could do to move towards that was take the cross-country bike ride he had considered before Will’s death.

Hancock took a six-month leave of absence from work.

With Nicki, he found fulfillment in planning the 36-day, 2,700-mile trip from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Tybee Island, Ga.

The expedition was enabled by Nicki, who found some solace herself in the process of putting it all together and the grinding work of setting up and breaking down camp every day as her husband typically rode about 90 miles.

In the challenge and silence and sounds and people he encountered, Hancock came to see metaphors with other applications for him.

Like dealing with grief, they had no real idea they could make this trip.

“We didn’t know,” he said, “if we could make it or not.”

He had a realization about it all when he met an overweight man in New Mexico who wondered if he should try such a thing and found himself telling the man: “You can do it. Just one pedal stroke at a time.”

So he found traction simply in moving forward.

Then he learned to look around him again and not get trapped in “whitelining,” the tendency to be transfixed looking down at the road.

Along the way, he met characters who spoke to him, including the “Peach Angel” in Georgia who gave him a juicy free peach and reminded him to cherish what he does have.

And as he scaled the steep Mogollon Rim in Arizona, he felt that Will was there and had an “awesome” conversation with him.

That was why he was smiling when two harsh-looking men drove by and soon stopped to confront him.

Hancock remembered thinking of “Deliverance” and figured the guy who called him over was rummaging for a gun behind his seat.

Instead, the man pulled out a can and said, “You look like you could use a beer” because they were curious about him.

“They stopped because I was smiling, and I was smiling because I was talking to Will,” he told the group at Asbury.

None of this means the pain ever goes away, just that he’s come to know that when you’re at the bottom of the rollercoaster “you’re not going to feel that way forever.”

Once when Hancock spoke to a group in Oklahoma, in the crowd was a couple who’d lost their daughter three years before.

The wife brought her husband because of Hancock’s profile and because he loves sports but had been “just gone” since their girl’s death.

Hancock can still picture him in the back of the room, arms crossed, seemingly angry to be there.

Afterward, the man took a deep breath and approached him.

“ ‘Mr. Hancock,’ ” he said, “ ‘I think there’s hope.’ ”

“Wow,” Hancock said as he recalled the story, “Wow.”

It was a moment to live for.

Not just for that man but for Hancock, whose purpose and meaning now extends well beyond for what he’s best known.

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