A blue moth. It sounds innocent enough. Harmless. Not tough enough to be a hero such as the Green Hornet, but certainly a loveable underdog in a Saturday morning cartoon. Except in Bill Hancock’s life.
The blue moth was unsafe. Malicious. Tainted. The blue moth was 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 17 years ago. Their oldest 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 en route from Boulder, Colo., back to Stillwater, claiming the 31-year-old Will as well as nine other members of the Oklahoma State basketball family
“He was a great, great kid,” announcer Fred White, who would see Will whenever he was calling an OSU game on TV, told me several years ago. “He was always upbeat and always had a smile on his face.”
Will learned that from his parents. Indeed, Bill Hancock, the Executive Director of the College Football Playoff and a Prairie Village resident, really belongs in Mayberry as the town’s sheriff. As I’ve written similarly in other columns, think of any good, gentle, warm, positive person in your life and you have Bill Hancock. When you say someone is “salt of the earth,” you’re comparing him or her to Bill Hancock. When you talk about our “C” words – Care, Character, Coach, Competitor, Composure, Confidence, Commitment, Comprehension, Concentration, Courage – you’re talking about a Bill Hancock. He’s proof that sometimes life isn’t fair.
But talking with Bill you’d never know he’s faced such an incredible heartbreak. Reading Bill’s book, “Riding with the Blue Moth,” however, you get a sense of how Will’s death affected Bill, Nicki, and Will’s wife Karen.
The blue moth and one of his grandchildren, Andie, Will’s daughter who was 72 days old on that wretched January night, are the focus of “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, which originally came out in 2005 and was re-released in 2015, chronicles a 36-day cross-country bike ride from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Tybee Island, Ga., 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 wrote. “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 cycling 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, saying: “I was just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Then there was 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 a while.
“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.
“(The grief) doesn’t get easier, but you learn to live with it,” he says. “That’s an important distinction for me. You think this overwhelming grief and helplessness will be with you constantly but I know that the blue moth will come whenever it wants to and then go away.
“But three things have carried us through this: 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.