CHICAGO — Just when you think you think you’ve made it, just when you’re close enough to kiss it, the horizon pulls away again. A smirk slashed across an unfeeling sky.
The road is hell, the finish line a mirage, the kind of uphill climb that seems to last for days on end. Bill Hancock has walked it more times than he cares to count.
To the aching football families in Lincoln, Neb., and East Lasing, Mich., the executive director of the College Football Playoff offered this story, of a friend trapped in his own emotional limbo. Unable to move on in the days and weeks after the death of a loved one, a soul stuck in neutral, the man sought the advice of a counselor:
“Let me ask,” the counselor said, “about when you cry.”
“Cry? I don’t cry,” the man countered. “My dad said, ‘Boys don’t cry.’ ”
“Bingo,” came the reply. “You’re missing the cleansing effect of tears.”
“But all the players at both schools are in for their own long journey,” Hancock told LandOf10.com ruefully. “There’s nothing good about it, nothing easy about it. It’s heartbreaking.”
When he got word of the weekend car accident that killed Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, his heart broke, too. Hancock, the ebullient face of the CFP, an amiable man who’s jumped from thankless job to thankless job, lost his oldest son Will, who was killed in a January 2001 plane crash.
“Yeah, it’s very personal.” Hancock said with a heavy sigh. “I was just heartbroken. Heartbroken for the families. Heartbroken for the two schools, the friends of those young people. Their lives are changed forever. And the families, they’re starting on a very long journey. And (it has) many highs and lows. And what I read about the young men, it (sounds) as if they were very much like our sons, that they were the kind of sons you would always want. And from what I read about the families, they will make the journey. They will get it done. But it will be a long journey. And it will never go away.
“The other thing is, they will realize they’re not alone in this. They don’t have to take the journey by themselves. There are many people who can help them.”
And even more who want to. Wisconsin placekicker Rafael Gaglione announced this week that he’ll wear the number 27 to honor Foltz. Green Bay Packers punter Peter Mortell, who played against both Foltz and Sadler in college at Minnesota and considered the Nebraska product one of his best friends, inscribed both men’s numbers into his cleats.
Brett Mauler and Tyke Kozeal, a pair of Nebraska entrepreneurs who used to run with Foltz, are selling t-shirts memorializing the former Huskers punter, with all proceeds going to his family. Sales reportedly neared the $4,000 mark within the first 18 hours of availability.
Services for Foltz, the top returning punter in the Big Ten (44.2 average in 2015), are reportedly scheduled for Saturday in his native Grand Island, Neb. Michigan State will hold a memorial for Sadler at 3 p.m. Sunday at Spartan Stadium and has established a scholarship fund in his honor.
“Right now, they’re paralyzed,” Hancock said after addressing the assembled media at Big Ten Media Days. “But eventually they’ll overcome the immediate paralysis.”
Hancock is the public face of the CFP, a convenient social-media piñata, taking the body blows from fans who see an agenda that doesn’t mesh with theirs. Privately, he’s one of the most liked and respected figures in all of college sports, the gentleman’s gentleman, a keel so even you could hang a shelf to it.
Behind the affable charm is a thoughtful, driven administrator, a man who helped shepherd the NCAA men’s basketball tournament into the sporting monolith it is today. Hancock spent 13 years as the director of what would become March Madness. He joined the BCS in 2005 and became its first full-time executive director in 2009.
And beneath the shell of grace and poise is a layer of unfathomable heartbreak. The younger Hancock was a 31-year-old sports information director at Oklahoma State at the time of the crash that took his life, leaving behind a wife and a 2-month-old daughter he would never truly know.
“People said to me, ‘You will find hope and you will find happiness, eventually,’” the elder Hancock said. “And I just couldn’t fathom it and I couldn’t even imagine it. It couldn’t be possible. But it was true.
“And they will, too. Eventually. They will need things like college football, eventually, to sort of have as their anchor. For me, I needed college basketball. I got it back, eventually.”
To this day, Bill makes a point to speak to families of accident victims, to support groups, to share his narrative and his path toward healing again.
One of those paths was a literal one — a one-man, cross-country bicycle tour, conducted in 2001, part therapy, part catharsis, Will’s spirit riding tandem. Hancock later detailed the trek from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Tybee Island, Ga., in his book, “Riding With The Blue Moth,” published in 2005. In 2003, Hancock biked from Comstock, Texas, to the United States-Canada border in North Dakota.
“The journey is so hard,” Hancock said. “We were comforted by other people who had been through it. The other members of the club that nobody wants to join. That helped us a lot.”
“For us, we talked about the three Fs – Faith, family and friends. And I can’t even imagine having to do it without the three Fs. Even without one of them, I can’t imagine.”
He’s pedaled from sea to shining sea, surfed amber waves of grain, conquered purple mountain majesties.
But he’s never quite conquered the scar. Grief isn’t about macho. It’s about the process.
“Come together. Talk about it,” Hancock said of the survivors. “The hard thing — one very hard thing is, for many of these young players, this is the first time (they’ve dealt with death). And they’re going to need each other, more than they can ever imagine.
“Just talk. They all have to talk about their feelings and cry.”
Talk. Weep. Seize the day. Because tomorrow isn’t promised. And the horizon never relents.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler