HONOR. COURAGE. COMMITMENT.
This is the best of who we are. As Marines, it’s more than that. It’s a life style: the very ethos of the Corps itself. Like the Marines that came before him, these words weren’t just a motto for Staff Sergeant Jack Blevins either.
I’m going to do my best to tell this story for no other reason than it simply needs to be told. As I begin to think about it I’m not really sure where to start. For me, I could start at the beginning. Jack was my brother and my best friend. We were close growing up and the older we got the better friends we became. We did everything together from playing sports, to hanging out with friends. Jack even followed me into the Marine Corps where we deployed to Iraq together. As brothers, we did a lot together, but for you to understand Jack means you have to know how others viewed him as well.
Jack was definitely a “people person.” He had an infectious smile and people were automatically drawn to him. It amazed me then and still does when I think about it. He was a dominant high school athlete in whatever sport he was playing. He would be out there destroying the other teams and for some reason they loved him anyway. No matter how well Jack did against the opponent they still loved him. I was way too competitive for that and I didn’t understand why they all liked him so much. He liked them too, something else I didn’t understand, and he knew all the kids on the opposing teams. I’m sure he would remember what jersey number they wore too if he were still here. I thrived on the competition. I had to win. I hated to lose: still do. Jack loved winning too, but it was more than that for him. He loved to play. He loved interacting with the people he played with and against. Our personalities were different in that way but sports were equally important to us. I think it was that being part of a team that we missed so much after high school that ultimately led us to join and to love the Marines.
As my time in the Marines was coming to an end, I found my desire to be a part of a team led me back to coaching. This is where the story is going to change. I was the coach of the varsity boy’s team at TCCS and Jack had started helping with the girl’s team. By this time in his life I should mention that he was already a couple years into a devastating cancer diagnosis. Jack’s story isn’t about cancer though; it’s about loving other people and about the relationships that he built with them. I know somewhere he’s reading those words and smiling because he knows I get it now; at least better than I did then.
This particular story is about the girls as much as it is my brother Jack. He always referred to them as “my girls” and they had a special connection with him too. The girls had all been through quite the ordeal before Jack started coaching them: they lost a beloved middle school coach to cancer. It was tough on them and I can still remember the tears and the heartache that they carried with them through the end of that season. Somehow, though, the girls rallied around each other and were able to fight their way to the school’s first state championship: played in memory of their lost coach.
Since they’d already had such a powerful experience with cancer, when Jack joined the team they were immediately connected to him. He had the attention of those girls like no one else could have. They can all tell better stories than I can about how much they meant to each other. The girl’s basketball team went back to back that season in dominating fashion and had five players make the all-state team: a much deserved feat. Carol Hensley was the state’s most valuable player. She was fun to watch, but she reminded me a lot of Jack. They both smiled while they played, like it was effortless and like there were no cares in the world when they were on the court. They were both very popular too: the kind of people that made everyone feel like they were their best friend. I loved seeing them win that championship together.
I’m going to fast forward now to the next season. I was still coaching the boys, but Jack was helping with the girls in a more limited fashion. He’d lost a ton of weight and his hair. He was weak and sick a lot. He also had to travel to MD Anderson in Houston for many of his treatments and he’d be gone for weeks at a time. The illness was taking a lot out of him, so much so, that just getting through the airport would wipe him out and he was in a lot of pain. As luck would have it one of those trips to Houston was right in the middle of the state tournament. Both Jack and the girls were heart broken that he couldn’t make it, but his treatment needed to come first. The girls understood of course and they set out to win their third in a row for him.
The morning that we were slated to leave for the state tournament was filled with excitement. The boy’s team was happy to be going to state but we had drawn the top team first round and the writing was on the wall. The boys were still excited to be getting out of school if for nothing else. The girls were excited because they were convinced that a third state title was just around the corner. I got a call from the office as we were loading the bus. It’s the type of call no one ever wants to get. Carol Hensley, the former state MVP, had been in an accident at work. Carol had married her high school sweetheart, Cooper Singletary, the year before and was living in wedded bliss, but she had been in an accident at work. She had fainted and fallen through a glass display case. All anyone knew was that it was bad. We heard they were air lifting her to Knoxville and the only thing I could think to do was call Cooper. He had played for me a couple years before on the boy’s team and when I reached him it was clear that he was scared. Cooper was in a panic. I asked him to call me when he had news and let him jump off the phone. I was scared too: for both of them. I knew Carol was hurt and I knew Cooper was in his car; driving way too fast on his way to Knoxville.
We made the decision then that the tournament could wait. Knoxville was on our way anyway and we thought being there for both of them would help calm everything down and cheer them up. We were worried, but no one thought the worst. It wasn’t possible, so we loaded the bus with forty kids, all friends of Carol and Cooper, and hit the road to Knoxville. About thirty minutes to an hour into the trip, though, Cooper called me. He said, “Coach I’m in Sevierville. I went to Knoxville and she wasn’t there! They told me she was here so I flew back here as fast as I could. Coach I just walked into the ER, coach they took me into a counseling room or something. This can’t be good coach. This can’t be good. Wait someone’s coming in I got to go.” I tried to tell him I loved him and that we were praying but he was gone and I knew she was too.
A few minutes later he called back. He said, “Coach she’s gone she just couldn’t make it she’s just gone.” We were both in shock, it was unreal, and all I could say was “Cooper l love you.” I didn’t want to lose him without him hearing that this time. He said, “I love you too coach I got to go.”
Everything for the rest of the bus ride is a blur. We pulled off the interstate to tell the kids and to cry and pray. The ER wasn’t a place to unload all those kids and, although we wanted to be there for them, we thought it was best that we let the family have that time. So we kept driving to Nashville, but everyone’s heart was left there on the side of the road where we stopped. The kids did their best to pull together but it was just too much for any of us.
When I got a minute I called Jack and told him the news. A piece of glass had severed Carol’s aorta; she was gone in an instant and way too soon. Jack said two words. “I’m coming.” He said, “I don’t know if I can make it but I’m coming.” He was worried he physically wouldn’t make it there but he was going to try if it killed him. He asked me not to tell them in case he didn’t make it. He didn’t want the girls to experience any more loss. “Their emotions are already maxed out and they can’t handle that,” he said.
I was worried he wouldn’t be able to make it or that if he did that he would have over done it so much getting there that he’d end up in the hospital or worse. I didn’t even try to talk him out of it though. I knew better. Those were “his girls.” He loved those kids, and he was a father figure not just a coach, and I believed he would make it or die trying. I knew something else too. Marines don’t quit. I’ve seen a lot of stuff and I know the only thing more determined than a Marine in a fight is a wounded Marine in a fight. Jack was wounded. He was hurting and he needed those kids as bad as they needed him. The first round of games was the next morning and Jack was going to have to burn the roads up to make it.
The first people to see him walk into that gym were parents and fans. The team was in the locker room. He walked in the gym and it came to life. “There’s Coach Jack!” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start crying right then, but I can promise you I wasn’t the only one. He was almost bouncing as he came into the gym wearing a bow tie and a smile. He waved at me and pointed to the locker room door. I nodded that that was it. He walked over to the door and banged on it—no polite knocking from Jack—three times. The gym was pretty quiet so you could hear someone say come in. He literally burst through the door and shouted “ARE YOU READY!” Squeals. Nothing but squeals. Not screams – squeals. I have three daughters so I know the difference. The kind of squeals that mean unbelievable joy and surprise. I can only imagine what happened next but I know nothing that resembled any kind of that measure of happiness had been present in there before.
They came back down pretty fast too. There were tears and hugs instead of pregame speeches or strategy. There was more crying in warm ups and throughout the game. I’m talking about kids playing as hard as they can with tears streaming down their faces. The chant to break the huddle was changed to “FOR CAROL”, which of course brought more tears and they’d left a seat open on the bench with her jersey hanging on it. This went on for three straight days and nights too. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was love, that’s what it was. It was a picture of love for one another in the face of adversity when quitting would have been, not just easier, but accepted. It wasn’t just on the court either. It was in the stands where tears of hurt and joy flowed until brokenness came around again. It was in the other teams they played too, hugging and praying with our kids.
When it was over, they’d won their third championship in a row, but it only mattered because it was for Carol, it was for “Coach Jack,” and it was for each other. In the next year those kids would learn loss again in losing Jack to cancer. They’ve had some tough lessons for being so young but I know they’ve come out of them knowing that no one is lost when we know where they are. They’ve also learned that the spirit that’s in each one of them has the power to impact so many if they’ll teach it to love. And the best part? The best part is this story isn’t over.
To my brothers:
I want to challenge you to remember that our Corps Values make up who you are – not who you were. We may have left our battlefield but there will be others. Fight them the same way you did the first time with Honor, Courage, and Commitment, and always strive to instill that spirit in others the way Jack did.