'I've seen the dark side:' Bill Hancock's long journey from tragedy
One of college sports' most important figures details his grieving process in the years following his son's death
PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. -- Bill Hancock has heard voices. Not only heard them but had extended conversations with them.
The College Football Playoff's executive director is not losing it. The conversations are with his deceased son, Will.
"I've had lots of encounters with him, lots of dreams about him," Hancock said. "Most of them very happy."
The anecdote is not new. Hancock retold it this spring to a group at Asbury United Methodist Church in this leafy Kansas City suburb. They came to hear him ruminate on death, life, crippling sadness and renewal.
The face of the CFP has been baring his soul like this at times for 15 years. It was in 2001 that Will Hancock was killed along with nine others when a plane crashed carrying Oklahoma State basketball officials, staff and players returning from a game at Colorado.
Will was -- and still is -- the Cowboys' beloved 31-year-old sports information director. His death not only impacted the immediate family but an extended family that included pretty much all of college sports.
"You wonder if our life will ever go on, or ever be close to the same," Bill Hancock said.
Two days after the funeral, while on a plane flight home, the otherwise religious man asked God to, "please let this plane crash. Take me to heaven. There's no reason for me to stay here on Earth."
For 13 years, Hancock oversaw the Final Four for the NCAA. For the last decade, the soft-spoken 65-year-old Oklahoma native has been the face of the late, great Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff.
No matter how maddening the BCS or CFP would become, it was hard to get mad at the guy explaining it. Hancock has the perfect temperament for imperfect systems.
"I've seen the dark side. Criticism is not the dark side," he said. "The worst day of the BCS slings and arrows was better than all of that."
That explains why, shortly before a 2001 Final Four game, Mike Krzyzewski went out of his way to shake Hancock's hand. This was less than three months after Will had passed.
In front of a crowd of 45,000, Coach K wouldn't let go of Bill.
"Mike, your kids, the game, all these people ..." Hancock protested.
"Bill," Krzyzewksi said seconds before tip, "I want you to know how much we love you and care for you."
Amid the chaos of North Carolina's 2005 championship floor celebration in St. Louis, Roy Williams stopped everything to seek out Hancock.
"Bill," he said, "I wish that Will could be here to celebrate with us."
Yes, Bill Hancock knows everyone. That's why his message resonates and why we are compelled to listen, especially this week. Hancock is attending his 12th Games as a United States Olympic Committee communications volunteer.
In a completely refreshing way, Hancock is bigger and brighter than life in Rio de Janeiro.
His story is worth retelling whether in church or across the nation. He and Nicki, his wife, years ago had a wild idea to ride his bicycle across the country -- ocean to ocean almost 2,800 miles from California to Georgia. Thirty-six therapeutic days to soothe the soul after Will's death.
The book that emerged from that journey was called, "Riding With The Blue Moth."
It was on a ride up Arizona's Mogollon Rim that Hancock began hearing Will's voice.
"Yeah, it was, like, mystic," he said. "First, it was he who was pushing me up the hill and then he jumped on the bike [with me]."
"We had the best conversation. I said, 'Will, how are you doing? I guess you're doing OK. Your daughter is beautiful. I guess you knew that.'"
Did Hancock ever think Will was answering back?
"I think [he was]," Bill said. "It was so hard to talk about at first because I thought people would think I was crazy."
Not crazy, because at the top of the rim a menacing figure emerged from a pick up commanding Hancock to, "come here." An exhausted bike rider in the middle of nowhere had no choice as one word crossed his mind.
"Deliverance," he said, with all the images that movie should conjure.
The man reached into the pickup and pulled out a cold Budweiser.
"You look like you could use this."
Thirty-six days and Hancock didn't encounter a drop of rain. Three dogs came out a junkyard somewhere in Mississippi chasing him down. He stopped, got off the bike and talked to the dogs. The dogs stopped, too, laid down and just ... listened.
"It was," Hancock said, "astounding."
Another bike trip followed -- this time 17 days from Mexico to the Canadian border. That stifling sadness Hancock called "the blue moth" began to lift.
It will never be gone.
"In the immediate aftermath, our whole family of college athletics had helped," he said. "Because everybody experienced it with us -- every coach, every reporter, every referee.
"Not only do they care about our family, they knew it could have been them. That family of athletics people reaching out was very significant in helping us get through it."
Here's the weird thing about that family: In April, Hancock sent out separate emails to about seven sportswriters in the area inviting them to hear him speak.
All of them came -- independently, it seemed -- drawn out of respect.
They saw Hancock accompanied by the bike he rode cross-country. His grandson Jack helped loosen up the crowd during a round of trivia questions.
The message that night: How a person can recover from tragedy and loss to find peace and stability.
He had helped the sports hacks countless times with information, advice, news. They were going to help him to get through this grief. Because that's what this is about. As much inspiration as Hancock passes on, he gets it back.
The public sees a kindly man explain the CFP selection process. They need him to explain how a soft-spoken 65-year-old can hear voices.
"It's a long journey and there's no destination," Hancock said. "The journey does not end. But the primary message is, 'You are not alone.'"
Ten days before the crash, Hancock said he had a nightmare that Will would perish in some sort of accident.
To ease his mind, dad called son the next morning. They talked about college basketball, life and then parted ways. The last thing Bill said was, "Love you, Will. Talk to you later."
"Each of you can decide for yourself what that premonition meant," Hancock concluded that night in Asbury. "[Decide what it would] mean to you if it happened to you. I know what it meant to me.
"It meant I was in the hands of a higher power and not to worry because the higher power has my back."
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