Celebrating of the life and legacy of Zachary Earl Wansley

Published 5:16 pm Thursday, September 13, 2018

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the loss of our oldest grandson, Zachary Earl Wansley. Zack was 20 at the time he collapsed and died while training for the Atlanta Marathon. 

Running was not a new thing for Zack. He grew up running. He was captain of his high school cross-country team. His dad was a coach in the sport and his brother, Nick, is currently a cross-country coach himself.

He was a true scholar-athlete, a junior at Georgia Tech and a proud and unrepentant Yellow Jacket in a family of Bulldogs who could more than hold his own with a bunch of woof-woofers. 

Only a few months before tragedy befell us, Zack and I took a trip to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park in Boston where we were treated like royalty by the local fans when they discovered we had traveled up from Georgia to see their beloved baseball teams play.

In Boston, a guy who seemed to function as the group leader of the row on which we were seated, had everybody between us and the aisle stand up so we could leave first after the game and receive high-fives as we departed. An unforgettable experience.

My grandsons are big, strapping guys who know not to expect a handshake from their grandfather. Only hugs. Whether that embarrasses them or not is irrelevant. I hug. 

My last contact with Zack came as he was leaving our house. He stuck out his hand to say goodbye, remembered the rules and we had a hug. That hug will last me a lifetime.

I either can’t or won’t deal with the details of the day we lost him. For some reason, my mind blanks out. It is just as well. It doesn’t change anything.

One of the first calls I received was from my hero, former Gov. Carl Sanders. He had recently lost a grandson to leukemia. He said no one should outlive their children or grandchildren. I agree. I never expected that to happen. 

In my first column after losing Zack, I said I could never tease about Georgia Tech again. It hurt too much. That drew a response from Tech fans saying that would not be Zack’s wishes. On his behalf, they said they could dish it out as well as take it and to bring it on. That was pure class. Maybe it was no coincidence that Tech upset Georgia that year in Athens, of all places. Is it possible that God is not a Bulldog after all?

I don’t know about other columnists and their readers, but I feel a very special and personal relationship with you. We have laughed together and cried together. You have fussed at me when you thought I needed it and praised me when you thought I had earned it. You have reminded me that my words can have an impact. But so can yours.

I recently received a letter from a reader in Cobb County, Jack Harris. Last November, two of his sons were killed in a head-on collision on I-16 as they were on their way back to Georgia Southern University following their Thanksgiving break. He said it had taken him nine months to find the right words to say in response to a column I had written on that tragedy. It was worth the wait.

Mr. Harris said. “My life is now divided into the time before Nov. 26, 2017, and the time after that date. I clearly see the futility of most things over which we argue, worry, or become angered. I see situations that people fail to forgive over and instead distress over, and I say to myself, ‘Why can’t they see? None of it matters.’ I see people losing lifelong friends over political issues and minor disagreements. I see all the needless pain we cause each other, and therefore ourselves, and am at a loss as to why humans seem incapable of letting go of the smallest slight.” 

Maybe you can’t grasp what he is trying to tell us because you haven’t been through what he and his family have been through and what my family and I have experienced. Life can be short, unpredictable and cruel. Don’t waste a minute of it grinding over the small stuff. Yesterday is gone and we aren’t guaranteed a tomorrow. Today is precious. Live it well and make the world just a bit better because you were here. And whatever you do, hug those you love. Always, always hug.