#MCstrong - UHIGH Baseball Coach Michael Collins Leaves Lasting Legacy

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#MCstrong - UHIGH Baseball Coach Michael Collins Leaves Lasting Legacy

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In 2009, Normal Community West assistant baseball coach Jim Collins offered an assignment to the dozen or so players who gathered at a voluntary book study the coach had organized. He asked those in attendance to write their own obituaries, and as you can imagine with a group of teenagers, he received varying levels of depth and sincerity in the responses. The only player who was required to attend that evening, Jim’s son Michael, took the assignment to heart. His father can still recite the final two lines from that obituary from memory:

He was a strong believer in Jesus Christ and helped others look to follow God. He enjoyed making people laugh until he died. – Michael Collins

“He lived all of those,” said Jim. “Just not as long as we had hoped.”

In speaking to those who knew him best, it is clear that the foundation of Michael Collins’ life was faith, family, friendship and baseball; characteristics that combined to create a young man gifted with natural leadership abilities and a propensity for doing the right thing.

Weeks from graduating, the Illinois State University (ISU) senior spent the evening of March 28, 2014 out with friends at a spring formal near campus before being picked up by a designated driver. As the car made its way home, a drunk driver ran a red light and struck the vehicle Michael was riding in. The other three passengers suffered significant, but treatable injuries, while the trauma to Michael’s head required emergency surgery. A second surgery came in the days that followed, but Michael succumbed to his injuries on April 2 at the age of 22 years old. Although his parents were not aware, Michael had signed up to be an organ donor, and the Gift of Hope estimates that his organs and tissue went on to help as many as 200 people.

“It’s something we never talked about (being an organ donor),” said Jim. “He decided on his own that it was the right thing to do.”

Thousands attended Michael’s visitation, many waiting in line for as long as four hours, while even more turned to social media to express condolences and share stories about their friend. Among them was Hailey Lanier, who became friends with Michael at Normal West and grew closer to him during their mutual time at ISU.

“He was a great guy,” said Hailey. “He was always smiling, always happy. He had a contagious personality that made everyone else happy.”

Hailey started a Facebook Event entitled Pay It Forward For Michael Collins as a way to encourage others to give back the way Michael had as an organ donor. What Hailey had intended to be a way for “close family and friends” to cope, quickly morphed into something much much bigger.

ISU students and Bloomington-Normal residents aware of Michael’s story began to “pay it forward” with small acts of kindness…a cookie left for a stranger with a message against drinking and driving; paying for the person behind them in the drive-through lane at a restaurant; an extra-large tip left for an unsuspecting waiter or waitress. All were tagged with notes that included #MCstrong, which had been the initial rallying cry on social media to support Michael after the accident. The hashtag led new individuals to seek out Michael’s story online, and as others shared their good deeds on the Facebook page, the movement went national and then global.

Bloomington resident Kim Havens has tracked the Facebook and Twitter posts citing good deeds in Michael’s memory, and she reports that #MCstrong has appeared in at least 43 states and 15 countries, including Australia, China, Jamaica, Mexico and South Africa.

Memories of Michael have evoked varying favorites among the #MCstrong movement for family and friends.

“Michael loved animals and had two dogs,” said Hailey. “There have been a few stories posted of people paying for animal adoption fees. One lady adopted two dogs and named one ‘Michael’ and the other ‘Collins’. I know that would have made Michael smile.”

“Someone from New Jersey sent money to the Bloomington-Normal Baseball Association to pay for a kid to go to baseball camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. Stories related to kids and baseball have really resonated with me,” said Jim.

That’s not surprising, as Jim cited a “special relationship” between his sons and the game of the baseball. Michael threw his first high school curveball in eighth grade, when he decided to attend Normal Community West, instead of University High School (UHIGH), where his older brother Jimmy had graduated from and where Jim was an assistant baseball coach at the time.

As fate would have it, a varsity assistant baseball coaching job opened at Normal West before the season and Jim accepted the job.

“When people ask me about coaching their own son, I tell them, ‘I wouldn’t recommend it and I wouldn’t trade it for the world’”, said Jim with a smile. “Lots of guys coach their own kids and it doesn’t always work. Every year I asked Michael if he was sure (about Jim continuing to coach him) and every year he said ‘yes’. We always made it work.”

Baseball continued to work for Jim and Michael. In 2011, Jim was offered the head coaching job at UHIGH, while Michael followed an All-State career at Normal West by accepting a baseball scholarship at Heartland Junior College in Normal.

“Michael was the kind of kid you loved to have on your team and hated to play against,” said Normal West head baseball coach Chris Hawkins. “He played the game the right way. I put a lot of faith in him to lead our guys. He wasn’t afraid to speak up when things got tough and the guys trusted in him because of that.”

A year later, UHIGH got on a postseason roll just as Heartland qualified for its second consecutive NJCAA D-II World Series in Enids, Oklahoma. After Heartland placed third, Michael had the chance to drive back from Oklahoma with his mom in order to watch his dad coach in the IHSA Class 2A state championship that night, but felt that the right decision was to finish the experience with his teammates.

He would later list the phone call from his mother telling him that his father and UHIGH had won the state championship as one of the highlights of his baseball career.

With his competitive baseball playing career completed, Michael became a student at ISU in 2013 and joined his father’s coaching staff at UHIGH.

“He attacked coaching with a passion,” says Jim. “When we talked about him joining the staff, he told me he didn’t want to just stand around and hit fungos all day. He told me he expected to coach and that is exactly what he did. It has been really tough on our guys, but it’s also special knowing how deep a bond he made with some of them in a short amount of time. ”

In the hospital, Jim told Michael he wouldn’t return to coaching without him, but on April 19 he made his return to the UHIGH dugout.

“I know Michael would have told me to get my butt out there,” said Jim. “A tragedy like this changes the perspective on wins and losses, but it also showed that we shouldn’t take the relationships we have through the game for granted. At the visitation, I saw so many kids who played with Michael years ago or that I coached years back. It was neat to see what their lives have become. Baseball created bonds that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, including for Michael and I. We always had baseball.”

Jim thinks Michael likely would have followed in his footsteps.

“I think coaching would have been a part of Michael’s future. He liked to work with our guys and see them improve. He had a way of knowing when it was the right time to be tough on the guys, when it was the right time to have fun and when they needed an arm around them or a hug to pick them up.”

Jim and Michael first coached together when Michael was still in high school, as they jointly led the seventh grade baseball team at a local junior high. At Michael’s visitation, the parents of two players from that junior high team approached Jim.

“Before the visitation, they had asked their sons what they learned from Coach (Michael) Collins,” recalled Jim. “The kids said Coach (Michael) Collins taught them that it was okay to tell their family and teammates that they love them. That it was okay to hug their teammates.”

Of the many positives lessons that Michael Collins left with his untimely passing, paying it forward with acts of kindness to strangers may be the most recognizable. But perhaps the most important is collecting memories with the loved ones around us, right now.

The Collins family has established MCStrong: The Michael Collins Foundation to help keep Michael's memory alive. Visit www.MCstrong.org for more information on Michael, the foundation, paying it forward and how you can help.

-Jim (left) and Michael (right) Collins pose with the Class 2A state championship trophy after Jim led UHIGH to the 2012 state title.
-Three examples of people paying it forward in memory of Michael Collins courtesy of the Pay It Forward For Michael Collins Facebook page.

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