Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Remembering Nick...no other ramblings

What can I tell you about Nick Threlkeld? Lots of things. Things like the fact he caught more passes than anybody who ever played football in the state of Alabama. His record still stands. And yes, more than Julio Jones, Ozzie Newsome and all the other greats. How 'bout the fact he was a high school All-American in both football and basketball. He would have been in three sports if Hub had a baseball team. He made first team All-State in both sports for three consecutive years. He once blocked 14 shots in a single high school basketball game. He once made 3 free throws with no time left on the clock to win an area championship. He once scored 48 points, including swishing a 45 footer at the buzzer of a 4-overtime game to win a NAC Championship. He had free run of the Alabama sidelines with his sideline pass at Crimson Tide home games. He could have signed to play SEC football with Bama, the Florida Gators or the Tennessee Vols. I once heard a Hall of Fame coach tell him, after playing the Hub, that he was the finest high school football player he had seen in 30 years of coaching. He signed with a Division I basketball team. He scored over 2,500 points, had over 1500 rebounds and blocked over 400 shots in his high school career. All this is staggering, utterly amazing. But it tells you absolutely nothing about what a wonderful human being he was. As great an athlete as he was, he was an even better person.

Today's elite athletes are, for the most part, a group of arrogant, self-centered horse's rear ends who feel like everyone should bow when they walk by. (There are some notable exceptions.) Even the top high school athletes are often infected with the disease of arrogance. Not Nick. Never. Always accessible, always friendly. Coach Harris used to have a poster up in the fieldhouse which said, "You can judge the character of a man by how he treats the people who can do absolutely nothing for him." That fit Nick perfectly. He was kind and compassionate to everyone. I remember his senior year, we were headed to Notasulga in the football playoffs. The charter bus stopped to let us all eat at a Ryan's in Montgomery near Crampton Bowl. We were about to begin eating when I heard a voice say, "Hey guys, it's Threlkeld!" A team from Greene County was also traveling to a playoff game and happened to be in this particular Ryan's when one of them recognized Nick. I sat and watched in amazement (and admiration) while he shook hands, signed autographs and even took some photos with what seemed to be nearly the whole team. These were his fans, his friends, and he was going to return the love they were showing him. It was a great thing to watch. I remember him looking over at me while all this was going on. His expression seemed to say, "why in the world would anybody want my autograph?" I just smiled and nodded at him. I knew exactly why they wanted it. I wish I had one now.

I can only imagine the pressure that went with being Nick. A lot of us unintentionally heaped tons of our expectations and failed dreams on his broad shoulders. He never complained. But how many times did we hear the following or something close to it? "We're counting on you." "Make us proud." "You're going to put us on the map one day." "You're sure to make the big time." "We can't lose as long as we have you." "You're going to play on Sunday someday." "Don't forget about us when you make it in the NBA." "Don't let us down." That's the one that really eats at me. Because I know how desperately he wanted to make everyone happy and proud. And he did. I can only hope he knew how well he succeeded.

We didn't see much of Nick after his college playing days were over. He was busy. Busy working. Busy starting a family. Busy with life. Occasionally, somebody would run into him and would give us a report on how he was doing. But I'm sure there was more to his absence than just being busy. I'm sure he felt like he had let everybody down. That's just the kind of kid he was. But he was so very, very wrong. He took us to places and successes we had only dreamed of. He made us all prouder than ever to be part of a little country school with no town. Proud of the great athlete, yes. But more importantly, proud of him as a person and how he represented us and the Maroon Nation. In so many, many ways, he was the very best of us.

What can I tell you about Nick Threlkeld? Lots of things. He was a good kid. He was a fine young man, carrying on in the tradition of his father, who is one of the finest men I've ever known. Nick was a good husband. A good father. A good son. He was a loyal, caring friend. He was never too busy to help someone. He was one of the very few young people I ever met who realized how a few words of encouragement and a few minutes of attention could make a difference in somebody's life. He was humble, modest and didn't have a hateful bone in his body. He loved the Lord, his family, his many friends and this big old crazy world we're all trying to find our way through. I can also tell you this--we're not likely to see his equal again in our lifetime. Not as an athlete, not as a person. He was one of a kind and we were so lucky to have him as a part of our family.

Nick's passing has left all of us stunned. We're all wondering and worrying about why things happen like they do. That's not for us to know or understand. Somebody infinitely wiser and more powerful than us controls those things. But I do have an idea in my mind that gives me a great deal of comfort. I'm pretty sure that when Nick reached his reward, just inside the gate waiting to give him a hug and show him around were Coach Rodney Marcum, Thomas Dunavant and George Wages. Good friends. Good men. Good lives...goodbye.

The Old Gray Lion