Hope on the Hill; Loss and solace at the Olympics
Dan Wetzel's column from the Olympics today. I thought it was moving, and would be of interest to the board.
Hope on the Hill
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports | February 24, 2006
TURIN, Italy – It is different now, these memorials, these shrines, these names carved into stone that used to mean one thing and now mean everything. It's different for Bill Hancock to look at and soak in.
Here on top of a hill overlooking Turin, out here behind a massive basilica is a simple place for Italians to come and remember; to come and recall a day tragedy overtook the town, when the beloved local soccer team, Torino Calcio, coming back after another victory, had its plane crash in the fog, killing all 31 aboard.
The date was March 4, 1949, a lifetime ago; yet here still are the fresh flowers, the new candles, the handwritten notes. Even during the Winter Olympics, here still are the memories, the beloved memories, celebrated each day by another wave of old, forever fans.
And here, Tuesday, was Hancock of the U.S. Olympic Committee, staring at the names – Bacigalupo, Gabetto, Rigamonti – and seeing it, feeling it differently than he would have five years ago.
It all changed January 27, 2001, when the phone woke Hancock and his wife out of darkness, out of contentment, the early word that there had been a plane crash in a field in Colorado and on board was Bill's son, Will Hancock, and nine other members of the Oklahoma State basketball traveling party.
Will, 31, the basketball program's sports information director, left behind a father, a mother, a brother, a wife and a beautiful baby girl, seemingly a thousand friends and a million memories.
From that point on, nothing could ever be the same for Bill Hancock, a father forced to bury his son. Not day-to-day life – he still tears up at the little things. Not memories – a vision of Will can be haunting. Not simple thoughts – "You think some things that are so irrational," Hancock said.
"The first time I flew after [the OSU crash] was two weeks later, Oklahoma City to Indianapolis," he said slowly. "I wanted the plane to crash. I wanted it to crash. Why would I want all the other people on the plane to die?
"I didn't want them to die. I just wanted to."
This is a parent's loss, a father's pain, unimaginable stuff. And while you might think it might be better for Hancock to avoid something like this – a shrine for the deceased members of a sports team, victims of a plane crash – he doesn't. He can't.
"[Before] I would have walked past without thinking about it," he said in his soft, Kansas-bred tone. "Oh, it's a soccer team, what a tragedy. But they all had families.
"The families," he paused for a second, "you do think about that."
In 1949, all of Turin must have felt like family for Calcio, the four-time Italian champions, the heart and soul of this then-small city. It was a difficult era for Italy; the scars of World War II were fresh and deep, cities needed to be rebuilt, a new government, post-Mussolini, needed to gain its bearings.
Sports provided an outlet, a release from the difficult tasks at hand. Soccer, as always, was the most popular sport and Turin had the nation's best team. They had won again when they crowded onto their doomed propeller plane, players, coaches, equipment men, journalists.
In the heavy fog, the pilot misjudged things. He must not have seen the hill until it was too late, the plane slamming just below the remarkable Superga Basilica. Built in the 18th century, it was the city's most famous structure and now, at its base, the city's most famous residents all perished.
In some ways, Turin has never recovered. It certainly has never forgotten. All these years later, they still come every day to leave flowers or notes or ribbons. They come to tour the museum. They come to remember, to respect.
Each year on the anniversary there is a memorial ceremony where thousands climb the hill to gather around the shrine with the simple, sad saying etched into it: "Your friends forever remember the glory of Italian sport, of them who leave for tragic incident."
"We can't even fathom what this did to this community," Hancock said. "Times were so different. It had to be unthinkable."
Unmanageable, too. The culture was different, the accepted ways to grieve were different. Parents had lost sons in the war, so loss was common. But there wasn't counseling. There wasn't therapy. There was just the same terrible pain, because 1949 or 2001 or tomorrow, the hurt is still the same.
Bill Hancock decided he would deal with his pain by riding his bike. He was 50 when Will died and his job then as director of the NCAA basketball tournament allowed him summers that were mostly free.
So he plotted out a route, coast-to-coast. He would ride his bike from Southern California and not stop until he reached Georgia. He wanted time to think. He wanted time to be alone. He wanted to try to outrace the grief, a feeling he called "the blue moth."
And so he rode. And rode. And rode. He watched the sun rise and set. He climbed mountains, cruised through valleys. Along the way he started looking for shrines – big ones for famous people or small ones for the anonymous. It didn't matter.
The families, he always thought.
"I remember stopping at one of those little makeshift memories by a highway. There were two white crosses inside a little circle of white stones. Inside the circle was a bottle of wine, a football, a class ring, an envelope and the names of a boy and a girl. I assumed the memorial had been created by their families, and that they had died in a car crash on that spot.
"Sitting there in the weeds beside that highway was like being in church, or in a meeting with other members of the awful club."
When he finished peddling, he decided to write. His book, "Riding with the Blue Moth," was published last year. It is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming, a powerful and honest story of how one father dealt with one terrible loss.
If I knew the words that would get you to read it, I would write them. Hancock in his simple, Midwestern voice, brings you inside a pain that none of us ever, ever want to deal with.
Unfortunately, so many people don't have the choice. Torino Calcio, Oklahoma State, soldiers, car crashes, the afflicted – it's all too common. That, Hancock knows well. Parents burying kids. Parents forced to go on.
The book has hit a nerve. The emails and phone calls prove it. Each day there is another, as Hancock says, "complete stranger, telling me what the book did for their lives."
He's almost ashamed of it. He isn't a counselor. He isn't a doctor. He has no special wisdom, he says. But, really, he does. He is a member of that awful club. And so here come the emails.
From Maryland: "I think I'm still in shock, trying to believe what happened."
From Arkansas: "I am wondering if these anniversaries ever get easier."
From Tennessee: "We will see them again."
Here, up on the hill, the names will remain etched in stone forever. The shrine is here to stay, overlooking the town. There is still a Calcio team, although it hasn't been very good since 1949, ceding city and national dominance to its cross-town rival, Juventus. But the daily procession of flowers and memories will go on for who knows how long. This city may never forget its lost boys, its heroes.
"You just want people to remember," Hancock said.
He knows he is blessed in that regard. Oklahoma State has a memorial at Gallagher-Iba Arena for the 10 lost men. The school also purchased the land in Colorado where the plane went down and built another one there.
People flock to those places, too, just like this one. Strangers and friends alike. They leave flowers. They pay their respects. They pray. It helps, Hancock says. Maybe that is why he is here.
But, in the end, he knows, it doesn't change a thing.
"Will," he said, looking out over the scenic, foggy valley below this sacred place, his mind suddenly far away, "would have liked this … ".