As Jim Collins walked into the Corn Crib on this brisk Saturday, he appeared to be alone. That’s not how this works.
Collins is never alone here.
A plaque honoring his late son hangs near the main entrance. To his right, a barn quilt tells the story of his son’s life. Near the Heartland Community College dugout, a blue seat stands out among the green ones around it, reserved permanently for Heartland’s former No. 19.
A year after the death of Michael Collins, at the hands of a drunk driver, his father is back around the baseball team and the stadium he loved. He is a Heartland volunteer assistant coach whose only real responsibility is serving as team chaplain.
The weekly team chapel service was a priority for Michael Collins as a Heartland second baseman in 2011 and 2012. He never missed. Now, it is led by Jim Collins.
“It may sound crazy, but I feel his presence here,” Collins said prior to Heartland’s doubleheader versus Illinois Central College. “This place was special to Michael. He told us on many occasions these were the best two years of his life. It’s neat to be able to walk around here. It’s been very therapeutic.”
Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of Michael Collins’ death. He was 22 years old and weeks away from completing his bachelor’s degree in exercise science at Illinois State.
His deep faith and giving nature — including the fact he was an organ donor — spawned a Pay It Forward campaign that spread nationwide. Jim and Kelly Collins have created the MCstrong Michael Collins Foundation in their son's memory.
The outpouring of love and support has warmed their hearts. Still, they ache.
On Thursday, the Collins family received a flood of text messages, cards and letters. Jim Collins called them “wonderful.”
They helped. All of it helps.
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It just can’t heal.
“For me, (Thursday) wasn't terribly different than the last 364 days. There’s a lot of pain still,” Collins said. “Yet, there are some good memories.
“Hopefully as we move along it will be a little less pain, and when I look at a picture, it will be less painful and I’ll feel more great memories. But we (Jim, Kelly, oldest son Jimmy) didn't treat it much different than the last 364 days.”
At Saturday morning’s voluntary team chapel, Collins shared some things about Michael. They centered on aspects of their son the Collinses did not learn until he died.
One was that he had signed up to become an organ donor. But there have been many.
“We've heard more and more stories about how he discipled to others,” Collins said. “This gives me a chance to disciple to some of the Heartland guys. That’s kind of neat. It means a lot.”
So does the foundation. It provides an outlet for turning unthinkable tragedy into an uplifting positive. The goal is to raise money for charitable causes in Bloomington-Normal and beyond, through events rooted in and reflective of Michael Collins’ generous spirit.
There is reward in that, even a bit of triumph.
“It’s just very difficult because every place you turn there are reminders,” Collins said. “That’s a good thing. We want reminders. That’s why we’re doing some of the things we are with the foundation so we can have those great reminders.
“But right now, some of those reminders are a little bit painful. Hopefully some of that will give way to the wonderful memories we have. With almost everything we do, there are great memories but some pain that goes along with it.”