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Original Issue

A Season Like No Other

On a Virginia Tech team already reeling from a series of personal blows, Coleman Collins has grieved his father's recent death in a manner that would make his dad proud

THE VOICE isvibrant, strong, full of life. On Nov. 12, 2005, Jackson Collins left a messageon the cellphone of his son Coleman, a standout junior forward for VirginiaTech. Last Thursday, three days after his father had succumbed to lung cancerat age 56, two days before returning to the court in honor of his dad's memory,Coleman sat in his Blacksburg apartment and listened once more to a recordinghe may never erase: "Hey, Coleman, this is Dad. Right now it's 11:45 a.m.,and I'm getting ready to go home. I'm leaving the hospital in about 15 minutes,but I just wanted to wish you good luck tonight. See if you could get about 25and 10, O.K.? I just wanted to let you know that I'm very proud that you're myson. And you take good care of yourself, O.K.? Love, Dad." ¶ Collinspaused, took a deep breath and exhaled. "That's what I've got to goon," he said finally. "I've got memories and whatnot, but they're notreally tangible." ¶ Voices, as distinct as fingerprints, can trigger aflood of emotions. Long before Coleman came to treasure a saved phone messagefrom his dad, Jackson delighted in Coleman's lively voice on the printedpage--the sometimes provocative, decidedly non-sports-centric op-ed pieces hewrites for the Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech's student newspaper. "Ourfather took as much joy from reading Coleman's columns," says Coleman'sbrother, Jackson Jr., "as he did from watching him playbasketball."

My father and Ihave fought. We've wrestled. We've cursed each other out. Isn't it funny howmen can curse at the top of their lungs, and they whisper, "I loveyou"? ... Even when he says it, and I say it back, it's awkward. I alwayssound like I've got a mouth full of Skittles.

--Coleman Collins,Collegiate Times, Oct. 12, 2004

For Virginia Techthe pain this season goes deeper than its 13-12 record, deeper than its fadedNCAA tournament hopes, deeper even than seeing its shot at a win at No. 1 Dukedashed by a 43-foot heave at the buzzer by the Blue Devils' Sean Dockery.

One of Collins'sroommates, senior forward Allen Calloway, hasn't played since November becausehe has a rare form of inoperable soft-tissue cancer. His other roommate, seniorguard Shawn Harris, lost the woman who raised him, his grandmother MadelineGill, who died on Jan. 24. Sophomore forward Wynton Witherspoon's mother,Carolyn, is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and the high school hostmother of Puerto Rican freshman swingman A.D. Vassallo, Becky Carwile, lost herbattle with breast cancer last month.

With alarmingregularity, Virginia Tech's season has alternated between playing at WakeForest one day and attending a wake the next. "Nothing that I've learned inall my years of coaching prepares you for this," Hokies coach SethGreenberg said last week, his voice hoarse. "Coleman's family wants me tochallenge him, but when I do I feel terrible afterward, and I call him sixtimes to make sure he's all right."

Though he's theHokies' leading scorer and rebounder, Collins admits he's had a hard timeconcentrating on basketball. He missed four games to visit his father at aStone Mountain, Ga., hospice, at Greenberg's urging. The coach regrets notspending time with his father, Ralph, also a lung cancer victim, in the daysbefore he died.

Coleman's mother,Carolyn Brooks-Collins, says writing is "cathartic" for her son, adean's list student who will graduate with a degree in film and media theory inMay at age 19. Collins sums up his intellectual tastes in one word: eclectic.His DVD collection ranges from Rashomon to Caddyshack to An American in Paris,and he says things such as, "I like the stuff Truffaut wrote onHitchcock." Take a ride in his old Lincoln Town Car, and you'll hear a mixof Ella Fitzgerald, the rap group Goodie Mob and Rat Pack standards by FrankSinatra.

I can't say Iblame my father for starting to smoke. ... Clark Gable smoked all the time. ...The Flintstones appeared in an ad for Winston. Smoking was, and still is, apart of our culture. The major difference is now we know what it does to us. Inthe immortal words of those Virginia Slims people, we've come a long way.

--Coleman Collins,Collegiate Times, June 24, 2004

Like his sons andhis daughter, Morgan, Jackson Collins, a financial consultant, was a voraciousreader. Whenever Coleman wrote a column, his parents would e-mail it to friendsand family. They were often surprised at what it told them about their son."When Coleman left for college, his father said, 'There are so many thingsI haven't told him about being a man,'" recalls Coleman's mother. "Butwhen he wrote the article about his dad being in his ear, Jackson said, 'Oh, hedoes listen to me after all.'"

His father'sgreatest hits were still playing in Coleman's head last Saturday as he playedthrough his grief against N.C. State, even as his team-leading 15 points and 11rebounds came thisclose to erasing a 22-point deficit in the Hokies' 70-64loss. "When we were down three with a minute left, I thought we had achance," Collins said afterward. "But I'm still glad I decided toplay."

Less than 24 hourslater Jackson Collins would be memorialized at the New Bethel AME Church inStone Mountain. Now Coleman had a bag to pack, a plane to catch and a eulogy toprepare.

Everyone in theCollins family knew it would be a good one.


Read more about Coleman Collins in Grant Wahl's Mailbagat


Photographs by Darren Carroll

THE BIGGER PICTURE Jackson Collins was as pleased by his son's writing as by his scoring; the son paid tribute by leading his Hokies against N.C. State (right) the day before his father's funeral.