A 10-DAY LIFETIME JOURNEY: Brooke Olzendam needed only a brief window to embrace what it was like being Mrs. Andy Collins

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Brooke and Andy Collins, on their wedding day, July 23, 2011.

The moment came two minutes into the first telecast of the rest of her life.

Brooke Collins was on the sidelines, but almost lost in the shadows cast by the portable lights at tiny Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass., as the school was hosting the first night game in its 116 years of existence.

She got the cue in her ear from the producer. She looked into the camera.

The smile on her face lit everything up.

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“Is there anything cooler than a night game?” she asked just prior to kickoff for the UMass-Holy Cross college football game – the Sept. 1 season-opening telecast for the CBS Sports Network. “I don’t think so.”

A couple of moments later, she sent it back up to the booth. She could exhale.

“When I heard them say my name, for the first time, it was a peaceful, wonderful thing,” she said a couple of days later. “Yeah, I am Brooke Collins.”

The wife of the late Andy Collins, who suddenly died exactly one month earlier, at age 27.

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They were only married for 10 days.

Two and a half years ago, Brooke Olzendam, a Spokane native and Washington State grad, was living in Redondo Beach, doing sideline reporting on UCLA games for FSWest. She had been gained exposure in the business for her work hosting Fox Sports Net’s “Runnin’ With The Pac” magazine show.

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Andy Collins, a Washington native recruited to play quarterback at the University of Oregon, never got to see that happen. After a redshirt year in 2002, he transferred to Eastern Washington, and then found a quarterback spot for three years at Occidental College from 2004-06.

The conference’s three-time offensive player of the year led his teams to an incredible 27-0 run in the regular season while he was calling signals. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he threw for 2,189 yards and 26 touchdowns, with eight interceptions as a senior, ranking 12th in Division III in total offense.

The NFL’s New York Giants invited him to training camp. But at this point, he was just trying to stick with an Arena League team — this time, with the L.A. Avengers.

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Not as a QB, but as a linebacker. He was one of the team’s final cuts at the start the 2008 season, but they kept him as a practice squad player.

So it was this one night when the two happened to be at Nikki Beach, a bar in Venice. Neither had intentions of going out that night, but Brooke had a friend in town who wanted to see L.A., so she obliged. Andy left only to make sure his friend, Peter Gallagher, a Hollywood talent agent, had a ride.

Brooke and Andy eventually were introduced and connected immediately as they talked about their Washington state roots and their love of sports. By the time 4 a.m. rolled around, they shared a cab ride back to Andy’s home. They exchanged phone numbers, knowing they’d see each other again.

Andy had always thought he was going to be a Catholic priest someday. As he kept seeing Brooke and wanting to know if he was making the right choice, he once went home and said he needed a week to pray about his calling.

It only took him a couple of days to realized he knew he wanted to be with her.

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Andy kept trying to hook on with indoor football teams up and down the West Coast, as Brooke kept working on goal to ascend in the sports TV business, working in Portland and parts of the Northwest.

After Andy proposed to her in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day weekend last February, they knew they’d be going at this thing together.

On Saturday, July 23, they were married in Seattle with some 300 guests present, many from Southern California.

But their honeymoon really wasn’t a honeymoon. Brooke had to start on a new job.

They flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after Brooke turned down a chance to work in Portland near her family, convinced by Andy to take a position with CBSSports.com. The company wanted her to host a fantasy football show as well as do live news updates and report for the website. She would also work for the cable network as a sideline reporter.

Andy, who missed playing football in 2009 because of a torn MCL, couldn’t come back from a shoulder injury while with the indoor Tri-Cities Fever in 2010. He admitted his dream to play pro football was probably over.

His thoughts turned to going back to school to be a physician’s assistant. Meanwhile, his good looks and athletic build could keep landing him roles in TV commercials.

Most of their belongings were in Brooke’s SUV that was being shipped on a cross-country journey from Washington to Florida.

They’d have their official honeymoon, maybe on one of the islands off the Florida Keys, sometime in the next few weeks.

There was no rush.

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“Anyone who met Andy for the first time . . . it was overwhelming, he was like a Disney character, just larger than life,” said Brooke.

It has taken her more than a month, Brooke admits, to finding the inner strength to discuss, other than with family members, this surreal experience in her life over the last several weeks.

There’d be some moments of pausing, collecting her thoughts, laughing at things that happened in their relationships that her mom once described as “watching a couple of 13-year-olds” enjoying each other’s company.

But this was time, she said, to let everyone know the kind of man he was, as she was able to see it through this brief window.

On Monday afternoon, Aug. 1, Brooke and Andy were in their hotel room, about to go to dinner to meet some of Brooke’s new colleagues at CBS. They had done some house hunting earlier in the day.

Andy asked if Brooke if she wanted to head down with him to the workout room.

“We only had 45 minutes before we had to leave,” Brooke said. “I was in charge that morning to do the ironing.

“I asked him what he was going to wear, a T-shirt or a collared shirt, because whatever he decided, that would determine if I had enough time. He picked a collared shirt, because he joked that he wanted to impress my new bosses. So I started ironing.

“I told him the shirt would be ready up in the room when he was done and I’d meet him in the lobby.”

When she eventually went downstairs, Andy wasn’t around yet. She phoned him. She texted him. Three times. No response.

A few minutes later, a fire truck pulled up in front the hotel at about 6 p.m., and paramedics rushed through.

“It just had the weirdest feeling,” she said. “I ran back up to the room, and nothing had been moved.”

One of the EMTs called Brooke from Andy’s cellphone. He said Andy had lost consciousness while on the treadmill. A nurse who was at the pool nearby started to try to resuscitate him. An ambulance arrived, and Brooke, in a daze, rode along to the hospital.

“Then, I just lost it,” she said. “We were in there 20 minutes, alone together in a room, and I could tell from everyone’s demeanor, something was really wrong. They were trying to calm me down but . . .

“Then there was a priest giving him his last rights. I just kept saying, ‘Please, come back.’
“I was holding his hand when they said he was gone.”

Andy had suffered an apparent fatal heart attack. Preliminary autopsy reports is he had a condition where the arteries near his heart was smaller than normal, causing him to exert nearly 10 times the extra effort to do the things a normal person would do.

“This was the healthiest person I knew,” Brooke said. “Looking back, now I know why he’d get tired so quickly. He hated running, which is so strange since he was in such great shape.”

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The prayer card given out at Andy Collins’ funeral on Aug. 7, 2011 included this meditation from Cardinal John Newman (linked here): “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons …”

Brooke says she has no recollection of what happened after that. Somehow, her mother arrived on a red eye and they flew back to Spokane in a daze.

A week later, a funeral was held in Andy’s hometown of Zillah, Wash. Many of their friends who had just flown up for the wedding were back now to say goodbye.

Andy’s coach at Occidental, Dale Widolff, called him the “best player to play for us in the 30 years I’ve been there. No one was even close.”

Dozens more spoke from the heart during his rosary.

“I already knew he was an amazing person, but I didn’t know everyone else did, too,” said Brooke. “I was getting emails from people telling me about how he changed their life – not just because of his faith, but how, because he died so young, they want to take better care of their husbands, listen more to their children, just be a better person in general.”

Brooke had realized by then how much Andy had changed her life. He used to kiddingly call her “IG,” as in “instant gratification,” trying to get her to reflect on her impulsive behavior and examine her priorities.

He had got her to attend church more often – “and he never missed Mass, anywhere,” she said. “We’d be in a city somewhere, and we’d have to find a church.

“But all the decisions he made were for the right reasons. He had the will and sacrifice to do the right things. I learned so much more about making better decisions. He really brought faith back into my life. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for that.”

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Understandably, Brooke was very close to not returning to TV work. Not earlier this month. Not even this season.

She said she had been “in bed for weeks, in the fetal position” and didn’t want to face the world.

She still hasn’t looked at their wedding pictures, and has had her mom help return their wedding gifts, some of which were converted to gift cards and donated to some of Andy and Brooke’s favorite charities.

It was only when Brooke decided to see what would happened if she tried to do some prep work for the Sept. 1 UMass-Holy Cross assignment that some normalcy set in.

“It was the first two hours in the last 17 days that I hadn’t cried,” she said. “That was the only thing that I could focus on to take away the pain. Then I almost felt guilty about it.
“My mom said it was up to me if I wanted to do the game, but she noticed it was the only thing I seemed to be able to do without losing it. It was just so cathartic.”

There were some changes in the broadcast team that Brooke was part of at CBS last year. But because Aaron Taylor, the former Notre Dame star offensive tackle, was still part of the crew as a game analyst with Jim Bates, she felt some comfort in returning.

Taylor, whom Andy was excited about meeting for the first time months earlier, greeted her with a big hug that that he had promised in some text messages to her over the previous weeks.

“I think for her, that (first game) was a defining night for a lot of reasons,” said Taylor. “This was 30 days later (after Andy’s death). It marked a point where she can look back and say that was the first day of the rest of her life.

“As trying as it is, life goes on. It’s 3 hours where she can be present, and focus on something she loves to do, and not think about what’s understandably a devastating loss.”

On the Wednesday before that first game, Brooke said she “had an emotional evening by myself, but I had a talk with Andy. It was tough to wait all day (Thursday) for the kickoff.

“But when I was on the field, for some reason, I felt OK. I remembered that I usually get anxious, and my heart starts pounding. But this time, I didn’t feel that way. It was a real calm, peaceful thing. That’s very odd for me. I know he was there with me.”

Dennis Kirkpatrick, who produced the “Running With The Pac” show for FSN with Collins for several seasons and is now an assistant professor of journalism and athletics at the University of Arkansas, watched Brooke’s game from his home.

“I’m real proud of how she did,” said Kirkpatrick, who talked to her several times in the last month by phone. “She was focused, did great interviews during the action. That’s a real sign of maturity.

“It’s incredible the way she’s been able to come back from all this so quickly and do this well. It would be impossible for some people. I know she’ll get through this.

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Before the 2003 college football season, Kellen Clemens came in and won the Oregon starting quarterback job over Andy Collins, who was a year older. But Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti, who recruited Collins, didn’t want him to leave. He asked him to switch to linebacker.

Collins had it in his head he was still a quarterback, so he eventually found a landing spot at Occidental College instead.

Clemens wasn’t the reason Collins left. Just the opposite. The two had become close friends. Clemens and Collins were groomsmen at each other’s weddings. Clemens was then an honorary pallbearer at Collins’ funeral.

Clemens, who spent five years with the New York Jets wearing No. 11, the last two as Mark Sanchez’s backup, had a recent tryout with the Washington Redskins before he was released last week. Clemens didn’t make a big deal about it, but he took No. 1. It was on honor of the number Collins wore at Occidental.

“He was the best of everything – a great friend, a phenomenal athlete . . . I still can’t wrap my head around what happened,” said Clemens. “When you’re two quarterbacks at the same place going for the same job, maybe you keep each other at a distance. But we ended up getting really close, maybe let our guard down, hanging out at my parents’ ranch (in Burns, Ore.), talked about all the challenges we faced. I knew he was going to be a good buddy.

“If you got to know him, which only took about four minutes, you realized he was 10 times the person that he was an athlete. He’s left a huge void in so many people’s lives, but also a lasting impression that made you want to be better. And I’m one of those.”

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Gallagher — the one who dragged Andy to the bar that night he met Brooke — said that sometimes in death, “people have a tendency to romanticize a persons life and to overemphasize the type of person they were. This isn’t possible with Andy. The things people say about him, the stories that have been told are all true. He really was that great of a guy.”

Gallagher lived with Andy, “the best friend a guy ever had,” during Andy’s tryout with the Giants, through his days with the Avengers and then, after the AFL folded, was there to help when came back to L.A. to do commercials.

“He never judged other people,” said Gallagher, a talent agent with Brillstein Entertainment Partners in Hollywood. “He was a leader by example, living his life on his terms, in accordance with the Catholic Church and silently challenging you to do the same. He loved God, he loved football and he loved Brooke.

“He spoke often about how proud he was of his brothers and sister. He took nothing for granted. He had the greatest laugh (see photo above), and when you heard it, you knew you earned it. He often referred to me as the older brother he never had, and while I downplayed it most of the time, I realize now its the greatest compliment I’ve ever had. I only wish I had told him how much I appreciated that, but I’m sure he knew.

“I miss him terribly. He knew everything about me, not just my dreams and victories, but also my fears and disappointments. And I knew his. He was my best friend in every sense of the word, and while I feel a terrible sense of loss knowing I’ll never see him again, I feel an equal amount of pride to have called him my friend and consider myself blessed to have shared every minute I did with him.”

Zillah High School will rename its football field in Collins’ honor on Oct. 14. They’re raising money now to put a memorial plaque at the site in time for the dedication.

Tributes like that continue to resonate as the impact of Andy Collins’ passing is felt.

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She has this week off – last Saturday, it was a trepid trip back to Florida to do the Boston College-Central Florida contest. She’ll take another deep breath, visit some family members, and maybe hold on them more than usual.

“I never had a tragedy in my life – the closest thing was my parents recently splitting up after 30 years, and Andy was there to get me through that,” said Brooke. “I thought that was the worst thing ever. But I had no idea.

“I have such a different perspective on things now. I’m so much more of a better person now because of him. I was so blessed to have known him. The only way to thank God is to live my life better. I wish more people could have known him.

“I think I just want everyone to know that that there are God fearing, dedicated, honorable athletes. There are some professional athletes who have given the profession a black eye when it comes to living with morals and values. There are others like Andy, who should be honored too.

“Of course, I still have my grief, but it’s usually behind closed doors. Every night, it still hits me. And I can get pretty emotional. But I have felt him with me a couple of times now. He’s given me strength. And my parents, even though they’re apart, circumstances change, but they’re still here (her dad lives in Seattle). That’s what matters.

“That fact I got to be his wife, that was a no-brainer. I know 100 percent he’s in heaven. I will see him again someday. I’m just proud to have been married to him for those 10 short days. I will take that over never meeting him in a heartbeat.

“I feel strongly about being Brooke Collins now. No matter what happens, I’ll always be Brooke Collins.”

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Note: The Zillah (Wash.) School District will officially rename the Zillah High School football field Andy Collins Memorial Field on Oct. 14. Donations are accepted by mailing checks to the Zillah Booster Club with “Andy Collins” in the memo section. They can be mailed to: P.O. 1044 Zillah, WA 98953. More information: http://www.zillahschools.org/zhsalumni/#news

And follow Tom Hoffarth’s pathetic attempts on Twitter: twitter.com/tomhoffarth

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