There are certain books that leave an indelible impression. Their words grab you, page by page, and make you part of the story. Once finished, you never forget.
I think about one of those books this time of the year. I first read the book around Thanksgiving in 2005. As odd as it seems, the book is about a blue moth.
A blue moth, really? Sure, it sounds innocent enough. Harmless. Not tough enough to be a hero such as one of the Avengers, but certainly a loveable underdog in a Saturday morning cartoon. Except in Bill Hancock’s life.
The blue moth is unsafe. Malicious. Tainted. The blue moth is the best way for Hancock to describe and deal with the grief of losing a son.
Dave Matthews sang about it in one of his solo songs: “You should never have to bury your own babies.”
Bill and Nicki Hancock did just that more than a decade ago. Their son, Will, was the media relations contact for the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team. He was on the plane on January 27, 2001, that crashed in Colorado, claiming his life as well as nine others from the OSU basketball family. Will was 31 years old.
“(The grief) doesn’t get easier, but you learn to live with it,” Bill Hancock told me when I originally wrote this column in 2005. “That’s an important distinction for me. You think this overwhelming grief and helplessness will be with you constantly but I now know that the blue moth will come two or three times a day, whenever it wants to, and then go away.”
If you didn’t know about the accident when talking with Bill Hancock, you’d likely have no idea a tragedy has befallen such a wonderful person. Think of your favorite teacher or coach or uncle and you have Bill Hancock.
Hancock, who is executive director of the NCAA’s new football playoff after serving as the first Bowl Championship Series administrator … after serving as the organization’s long-time director of the Men’s Basketball Tournament, is one of the most respected men in media circles. He’s proof that life isn’t fair sometimes.
Especially this time of the year; a time of family and giving thanks. For anyone who’s suffered a loss, the holidays in particular are tough. Always. But Will Hancock loved this time of year so much. He was a big kid inside. He genuinely enjoyed sitting with the family on Thanksgiving Day. And then participating in their annual touch football game on Friday.
“The holidays are really difficult because of the memories and because I know Will ought to be with us at the Thanksgiving table,” Bill says. “We have (three) terrific grandchildren, so the thrust for me now is making sure the holidays are memorable for them for the good times and not that their granddad’s curled up in tears in the chair.”
The blue moth and one of those grandchildren, Andie, Will’s daughter who was 72 days old on that wretched January night, are the focus of Bill’s first book, “Riding with the Blue Moth.” Understandably, Hancock says his number one wish in life is that he wouldn’t have had a reason to write this book. But anyone who reads it can’t help but be better for it.
The book chronicles a 36-day cross-country bike ride that Hancock took several months after the crash.
Early in the book, Bill writes about how he had planned on taking the bike ride before the crash. In fact, Bill and Nicki Hancock spent much of that unseasonably warm January 27th day near their Kansas City home shopping for a vehicle, a SAG vehicle, if you will. Bill had a dream of riding his bike across America.
In July of that year, with Nicki as his “support and guidance,” Bill set off on the adventure. At the time it wasn’t for therapy or release. It was to ride. And to be with his wife.
“We were going on an adventure,” he writes in the book. “Nothing more.”
The ride helped his soul, though.
“In hindsight, it became much more than an adventure,” he says, “but I didn’t understand that at the time. From my vantage point, it was a healing time for me but even more importantly I have learned things that have helped other people.”
The biggest outlet for that help has come in the form of “Riding with the Blue Moth.” The book is Charles Kuralt, Jimmy Stewart and John Denver rolled into one, with a little Levi Leipheimer sprinkled on top. It’s a poignant look at dealing with grief, a father’s love for his oldest son, and an intriguing look at America passing by at 12 miles per hour on two wheels.
The book is a constant roller coaster. One page will bring tears to your eyes as Hancock describes witnessing a father yelling at his young son at a service station in New Mexico.
“I wanted to grab him by the chest hairs and tell him, ‘You idiot! Do you realize that child is your greatest treasure? You have the luxury of hugging your son, telling him that you love him and buying a hot fudge sundae for him. That is your privilege, not your right. Do not take it for granted!”
A few pages later, you’ll be laughing when Hancock writes about the next morning’s ride, which came on the heels of an overnight rain shower.
“An army of frogs had trained in the flooded ditches and several made the mistake of conducting maneuvers on the highway.”
“Riding with the Blue Moth” oozes with life lessons. That might be Hancock’s disputing that he’s an athlete for riding his 2,746 miles, stating: “I was just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Or his encounter with Steve, who ran a roadside peach stand in Georgia. Steve, whom Hancock nicknamed the “Peach Angel,” gave Hancock a free peach and then they chatted for awhile.
“His message was what you’ve got is what you’ve got,” Hancock says. “I still get chills thinking about the 15 minutes that I spent with him that morning. It was the singular most important moment of the trip, and one of the most important in my life.
“Another lesson from that is when Steve went out there that day, he didn’t know he was going to meet a biker. He was just going out to do his daily chores. That could happen to us. We might be going out for our daily chores and run in to somebody and change his or her life.”
After each day’s ride, Hancock offers words of wisdom to Will’s daughter, Andie. They’re words that apply to all of us.
And what lesson did Hancock discover about people from those 36 days?
“I learned that people are compassionate and warm and interested,” he said. “Every time I started a conversation with someone, they wanted to know where I was going and what I thought I would experience. They gave me water and food. They cared.
“It confirmed that people, especially Americans, are wonderful. I told only one person that I worked at the NCAA, and I didn’t tell anyone about the accident. To them, I was just a guy on a bike.”
During the ride in the summer of 2001, Hancock also learned about the blue moth of grief. How to understand it. How to live with it. And how he has wonderful SAG assistance all around. That’s especially helpful to know during the holidays.
“Oh, gosh, we still have so much to be thankful for,” he said. “Primarily that we can live on this planet with these wonderful people. You can’t imagine the tsunami of warmth that we’ve received. Three things that have carried us through: faith, family, friends. … I’m thankful that I have the three F’s.”
A few times during “Riding with the Blue Moth,” you’ll read about how many lives Will Hancock touched during his short time on this earth. Now, his spirit, through Bill Hancock, is touching even more.
As soon as you’re done reading this article, do something for me: thank your family. Tell them how much you love them. And hug them. Not one of those half-hearted, nice-to-see-you-again-today kind of hugs. Rather, give them a George Bailey “It’s a Wonderful Life” mugging-the-kids-after-getting-a-second-chance kind of hug.
And then say a prayer of thanks for Bill Hancock and his family. For raising a wonderful son. For loving him the way he does. And for giving us a life-changing book.