BY CARSON FIELDS
Courtesy of the Powell Tribune
I’m starting year 25 without one of my biggest supporters.
Jay Collins, Northwest College’s head men’s basketball coach who was 41, died in his sleep the morning of July 31.
Before joining the staff at the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas, I worked for 15 months at the Tribune.
Because I was the only sports writer at such a small newspaper in such a small town, I got to know all of the coaches I covered really well.
One of those was Jay.
In a perfect world where journalism ethics reign supreme, you’re not supposed to befriend the coaches you cover. It could lead to conflicts of interest and other issues journalism professors teach you about.
But that would have been almost impossible with Jay.
I hit it off with Jay the first time I interviewed him.
Like me, his wife Sheila is a Texas native — so that got us talking. Then we started talking about the NBA, and then about UFC. What was supposed to be a two-minute introduction and interview about his team turned into a roughly 20-minute conversation.
We were not lifelong friends, as I didn’t meet him until I was 22. But, with how close we became during our year and a half of friendship, one would’ve thought we were.
Between going to bars, watching sporting events, taking day trips to Red Lodge, Montana, and more, I spent so much time with Jay and Sheila. Even with our busy work schedules and other commitments, we made an effort to hang out at least once a week, and it was often more than that.
Infectious sense of humor
Something that drew me — and probably everybody else to Jay — was his laugh. Naturally, Jay had a deep voice, but his laugh was slightly higher pitched and always very loud. When he thought something was funny, he thought it was very funny.
Evidently, humor was his love language.
Not only was he a huge fan of stand-up comedy (Dave Chappelle, in particular), he liked to play the role of comedian often. No one was safe from jokes at their expense if Jay was around — me, his wife, his players, etc.
Whether he was poking fun about my “slender” build or the fact that I earned a college degree from Arizona State University, Jay always had a punchline.
What was great is he never took it too far, either. He knew the art of roasting someone but not to the point where they’d feel bad about themself. Because deep down, Jay was a big softy.
I’ll never forget one of the first few times I ran into him on a work day. I was walking on campus before I saw him showing his incoming recruits around the facilities.
In pure Jay fashion, he greeted me with a “bro hug” and introduced me to his incoming players.
I’ll never forget what he told them: “Guys, this is Carson Field, he’s the sports reporter at the Powell Tribune. He’s a young stud and will undoubtedly be working for the New York Times, ESPN or someone like that one day.”
It was so genuine from someone who usually preferred a casual, joking demeanor. As I said goodbye to them, I walked away from campus with a grin from ear to ear.
As someone who was 22, I was very young for a reporter. I had been mistaken for a high schooler several times in town. My youth, lack of experience and baby face were all big insecurities for me. But Jay’s high praise to the recruits and their parents gave me so much confidence. He never knew how much those simple, kind words meant to me — and still mean to me.
Keeping in touch
When I finally decided to move back to Texas, Jay and Sheila were among the saddest people in town to see me go. But they were also happier for me than almost anybody. They knew the opportunity in Abilene was a quality one and they also knew how much I missed Texas (and its warmer weather).
Jay and I talked regularly after I moved back. We checked in with each other as much as possible, talking about his life in Wyoming, my life in Texas and, of course, basketball.
His death was so shocking.
Days before Jay’s death, Sheila posted a photo album on Instagram of their travels to Texas, where they spent a few weeks on vacation. They got to reunite with family members one last time in the Rio Grande Valley before Jay’s unexpected passing.
I received a call on July 31 from another friend of mine in Powell, who shared the news with me. That day was my 24th birthday and I was in Austin (my hometown), where I got to see friends and family. Between playing a round of golf and eating Tex-Mex for lunch, it was a good day until about 3 p.m. when I got the news.
I felt numb at first, as it didn’t seem real.
My mind raced as I drove back to Abilene that afternoon, trying to juggle my emotions and stay safe on the highway.
It wasn’t until I got home that it all hit me and felt so real. I walked over to a framed picture I have of Jay, me and two of our other friends at a bar. As I stared at the picture, I realized the four of us would never be smiling like we were in that picture ever again in this life — and I wept for a few minutes straight.
A few days later, it’s still devastating. There are things that have happened in the last few days that made me go, “I need to text Jay about that” — before I realized I couldn’t.
I do take comfort in knowing Jay’s in a better place: He is up in heaven with the Big Man. I imagine he’s talking to other deceased basketball greats, sharing his infectious laugh and basketball wisdom with them.
One day I will join him, and I know he will be the same sarcastic-yet-genuine man I loved. I’m sure he’ll give me another bro hug before introducing me to the NBA legends he will have befriended.
But until then, I’ll do everything I can to make him proud — whether I work at ESPN one day or not.