September 14, 2011 in Sports

Brooke Collins, forever

Spokane native, TV broadcaster recalls tragic end to 10-day marriage
Tom Hoffarth Los Angeles Daily News
 

Brooke and Andy Collins married July 23 in Seattle. Andy Collins died on Aug. 1.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

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

Brooke Collins was on the sidelines, 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.

Her face lit everything up.

“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 had died exactly one month earlier, at age 27.

She was the one

They were married for only 10 days.

Two and a half years ago, Brooke Olzendam, a Spokane native and Washington State grad, was living in Redondo Beach, Calif., 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.

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 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s three-time Offensive Player of the Year led his teams to a 27-0 run in the regular season. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he threw for 2,189 yards and 26 touchdowns 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 Football League team – this time, with the L.A. Avengers. 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, 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. 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 took him only a couple of days to realize he knew he wanted to be with her.

Andy kept trying to hook on with indoor football teams up and down the West Coast, as Brooke kept working on her 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

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 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 tried out for the Spokane Shock in 2011, but was released in February. 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.

Gone without warning

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

It has taken her more than a month, she admits, to find the inner strength to discuss, other than with family members, this surreal experience in her life over the past 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 what kind of person her husband was during this window she was able to have in his life.

On Monday, 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 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 phone. 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 rites. I just kept saying, ‘Please, come back.’

“I was holding his hand when they said he was gone.”

Andy had suffered a fatal heart attack. Preliminary autopsy reports show he had a condition in which the arteries near his heart were 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.”

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.

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.”

‘He was there’

Understandably, Brooke was close to not returning to 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 happen 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.”

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.”

Zillah High School will rename its football field in Collins’ honor Oct. 14. People are raising money 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’ death is felt.

For Brooke, keeping Andy’s name alive is a major part of moving forward in her TV career, whatever path that leads.

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 to 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,” Brooke said. “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. 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 some day. 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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