YARBROUGH COLUMN: Remembering the good who die too young
Published 9:30 am Thursday, January 26, 2023
On September 13, 2008, we got a call while at St. Simons that our grandson, Zachary Earl Wansley, had collapsed and died during a training run while preparing for the Atlanta Marathon. Zack was the epitome of a scholar-athlete. In high school, he had been president of the student body, captain of the track and cross country teams, an honor student and winner of the Journal Cup as Outstanding Graduate.
An unrepentant Yellow Jacket, he was in his third year at Georgia Tech, had run cross country and was thriving in the institution’s co-op program. And, suddenly, he was gone.
The first call of condolence I received was from former Gov. Carl Sanders who had recently lost a grandson to leukemia. He said simply, “We should never outlive our children or grandchildren.” We should not but we do.
I thought about that conversation when I read that UGA football player, Devin Willock, 20, and Chandler LeCroy, 24, a member of the school’s athletic department had been killed in a one-car crash in Athens, less than 12 hours after having celebrated the Bulldogs’ second consecutive national championship. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
Tragically, for the Willock family in New Milford, N.J., Devin had a brother who had also died in a car crash 14 years earlier. Now, his mother, Sharlene Willock, will have outlived two of her sons.
In my annual letter of advice to great-grandson Cameron, I said, “It is easy to feel invincible at your age. You are not. None of us are. Don’t take your life – or any life – for granted. We don’t know how long we are going to be on this earth. Consider every minute of every day a precious gift because it is just that.” How true, how true.
That column always generates a lot of reader mail. Readers tell me they send it to their children and grandchildren and, in some cases, put it aside for when their young ones will be old enough to read. In my response to readers, I say somewhat facetiously that I have dispensed advice I should be taking myself. Today, I mean it.
Death is democratic. It matters not how rich or powerful we are. Nor does it care about our political leanings, our sexual orientation of the color of our skin. Death will come to all. Sometimes it is expected and sometimes, as in the tragedy at UGA or in the case of Zachary, it is not.
What death should do is to get us to put things in perspective. If you could know this was your last day on earth would the long line at checkout in the grocery store really matter that much? Or, the fact that the driver in front of you isn’t going fast enough because you are in a hurry to get to, um, what? Would you call an old friend you haven’t heard from in a long time? Would you ask for forgiveness and give it?
The last time I saw Zack, as he was leaving he stuck his hand out to shake mine and then remembered that I don’t shake hands with those I love. I hug. And we did. That is a memory I will have with me to the end of my days.
Much has been written about Devin Willock meeting up with a young fan during the festivities on Saturday and allowing the boy to wear his national championship ring. In the last tweet of his life, Willock sent love to the boy’s grandfather, who had thanked Willock for spending time with his grandson when he did not have to. What the young man will remember to the end of his days is not Willock’s impressive performance on the gridiron but his kindness.
Human nature being what it is, it won’t take us long to get back to all things Donald Trump, the war in Ukraine, the economy, the weather, our aches and pains, the chance of a threepeat for the Bulldogs.
But also let us remember to not take life for granted. Consider every minute of every day a precious gift. And while we are here, do some good. Be kind. Be thoughtful of others. Don’t complain. (Nobody wants to hear it, anyway.) Have no regrets. Hug those you love. Then maybe, just maybe, the memory of Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy and Zachary Earl Wansley will have made us better people even though they left us much too early.