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Remembering a bright light and a dark day

POSTED December 19, 2010
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

                                   Remembering a bright life and a dark day

             You just cried because there was nothing else you could do. Twenty-two years later the tears still well up because you can’t forget, the memory never fades like the yellowing, aged newspaper clip.

            She would be 38 now, probably married with children in the middle of a career. But, she never got there. She will always be 16, the effervescent cheerleader ready to take on the world. The kid with the big heart, big hopes, big dreams. It gnaws at you – the kid frozen in time. It goes no further.

            Her name is Shawn Collins. I never knew her; I wish I had gotten the chance. But even for those that did know her, it wasn’t nearly long enough. You make memories, future time’s connection to the past. Shawn never got to look back never got to grow older.

            Time isn’t supposed to stop at 16. It did.

            Every year at Christmas time, Shawn Collins crosses my mind. She is part of the season. I wish she wasn’t.

            Shawn Collins is part of a gut wrenching, numbing cold 1988 Christmas. A junior at Torrington High School, Shaun and some friends that included best friend Dawn Storrs, basketball player Chris Samele, Beth Masucci and Dave Casale were heading to Waterbury to do some last minute shopping on Dec. 23.

School had just gotten out for Christmas break, there was a basketball game that night for the cheerleaders and Samele, a star in the making. It was a time that left that all-is-right with the world warm glow in your stomach.

It had been a good day that was about to turn tragic. Collins and her friends never made it to Waterbury. Collins never made it to tomorrow. In the midst of light snow and freezing rain, the car hit an icy patch on Route 8 in Thomaston, spun out of control and hit a guardrail.

By the time the tires stopped turning, Collins was dead after being ejected, Storrs’ leg was nearly severed and Samele had lost a portion of his leg. And the life of a community had changed forever.

I was working for the Torrington Register at the time and remember then Sports Editor Brian Sullivan telling me on the telephone, “We’ve had a tragedy up here.”

It all just numbed the brain. We cover games and wins and losses and the people that play them. We hop on the good and the positive and we remember that these are young people who go home and do homework after and worry about prom dates and the sudden pimple that might strike without warning.

We talk about life and growing up, not dying and losing legs. We are equipped to write and deal with tragedy only by rote routine not necessarily by emotion. Nobody trains you to deal 16-year-olds dying. Nobody should, because while it does happen, it shouldn’t happen.

I knew Shawn’s father, Larry, older than me by about seven years I still remember watching him play point guard for coach Jack Kennedy’s Thomaston Bears. I remember watching him as a senior in high school dance on the then very popular Brad Davis Show, Connecticut’s local version of the Dick Clark show.

I knew Shawn’s uncles Bruce and Tom and her grandfather, Bud. What do you say when there is nothing to say?

A grieving community would rally around the Collins’ family in the coming days and weeks, a massive support group of the first order. I watched a short time later when Larry and Carol Collins came to the Torrington High gym and were saluted by an emotionally charged crowd for their courage.

The Collins’ started the Shawn Collins Fund and donated thousands of dollars in Shawn’s memory. Larry went on to coach the American Legion team for several years. They struggled through the days and weeks and months and even years because that is all you can do especially with a young son. You keep on keepin’ on.

There tragedy produced several stories of unbelievable courage. Doctors seriously considered amputating Dawn Storrs’ leg. A dancer, she begged them not to. On March 24, 1990, Storrs performed in the high school’s “Celebrate the Arts” night.”

She would dance again and go on to become a dance teacher. Her story is a special one. One day they tried to take away her dream She wouldn’t let them. Storrs’ story was chronicled in a book by Jack Cavanugh, Dam the Disabilities: Full Speed Ahead.”  It is a story of the power of the human spirit.

I have had infrequent contact with Chris Samele over the years. His story is also chronicled in Cavanugh’s book and is equally moving. On Dec. 15, 1989, just 357 days short of a year since the accident, Chris would return to the court in New Milford with an artificial leg. I covered the game, it was as good as moment as there is.

He would go on to become a serious three-point threat for coaches Bob Anzellotti and Rob Martin, his now trademark hop and skip a sign of undaunted courage. He would earn an NVL tennis MVP award his senior year.

This is what Chris told me about the accident a while back.

“I’d be lying if I said I never thought about what would I’ve been. But I’m doing the best with what I have. This is what I’ve been given. “You never really stop thinking about what did happen. I feel so bad someone lost a life. I pray for her as much as I can.”

Shawn Collins never got the chance to overcome. Forever 16, forever a cheerleader, forever young. Forever a Christmas memory you wish could be vanquished forever.

But it doesn’t work that way. I think a lot about the day as the Christmas season rolls around every year. I think about the pain and sadness, about the unwavering support of a stunned community, about the uplifting stories of courage in the aftermath.

And I think about Shawn Collins. She was special, she should have had the opportunity to be extra special. The season must bring ravaged emotions for all involved in that fateful day 22 years ago. Somehow I hope there can be a `Merry’ attached to the Christmas for all involved in that ugly day.

You can’t hold a memory in your arms, but you can in your heart, always. I hope the Collins’ find joy in the season and part of it comes from the 16-year-old cheerleader whose legacy is long although her time was short.      

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