Life's Lessons

Posted: May 12, 2008 10:15 AM
Life's Lessons

In October, this columnist was visiting a tiny "out island" in the Bahamas measuring three miles long by a quarter-mile wide. Few people live on the island, which one only reaches by boat, so the fact that one of the islanders — "Pops" — was wearing a Washington Redskins cap immediately caught my eye.

"I'm the only Redskins fan on Harbour Island," gushed the Bahamian, pointing out that other locals who happen to follow professional football cheer for the Miami Dolphins, their stadium being 175 miles to the northwest.

Pops didn't hesitate rattling off the names of his favorite Redskins players, including cornerback Shawn Springs, and he spoke highly of Joe Gibbs — neither of us realizing, of course, that it would be the final season for the legendary coach who brought three Super Bowl trophies to Washington.

A week or so after encountering Pops, I happened to be seated behind Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his wife, Tanya, for a movie premiere in downtown Washington. I immediately told them about this lone Redskins fan on an island so small that roosters roam its streets right alongside the people.

Mrs. Snyder's eyes lit up, telling her husband how nice it would be to send Pops a package of Redskins keepsakes. The enthusiastic owner agreed, and he asked if I might be able to find the mailing address for the Bahamian. I explained that there are no street numbers on the island because there's no mail service — not even a post office.

However, I assured the Snyders that on my next visit to the island I would gladly carry however many Redskins souvenirs I could squeeze into my suitcase and present them to Pops on their behalf. So it was agreed.

A little less than two weeks ago at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., Mr. Snyder had waiting for me a cardboard box with Pops' name on it filled with every Redskins trinket and collectors' item imaginable, including an extra-large burgundy and gold football jersey — # 24 — autographed by Shawn Springs.

In order to reach this particular cay in the Atlantic Ocean one flies by small plane to an isolated airstrip on an adjacent island and from there hops aboard a small wooden boat steered by whichever Bahamian happens to pull up to ferry you and your luggage the rest of the way for the incredibly low price of $5. (It was $4 until OPEC raised the price of crude.)

Fifteen minutes later, as the sun dipped low in the late afternoon sky, my bag and I were deposited on a practically empty dock stacked with empty crates and fish pots.

And then it happened: one of those amazing coincidences in life, a "small world" story that for all of us springs up from time to time. I stepped off the dock, rounded the corner, and it can't be, can it?

By golly, it was him. Without thinking twice, I immediately dropped my canvas bag and unzipped it, revealing my Redskins stash. Now it was his eyes that grew wide.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"What are you doing here?" he answered.

"I'm delivering these souvenirs from the Snyders to a local Redskins fan."

"You've got to be kidding me!"

Coach Gibbs grabbed the No. 24 jersey and held it up to show his wife, Pat.

"Can you believe this?" he asked her.

He explained that they were taking a rare vacation, island-hopping for one week on a chartered yacht. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to find Pops, or else the Bahamian would have had the shock of his life: gifts from the Snyders and personal greetings from the Hall of Fame coach alike.

When I finally did track down Pops, the Bahamian was speechless, hardly able to wait to show off the football memorabilia to his family and one Dolphins fan in particular. He thanked the Snyders for their generosity, and extended an invitation for the couple to visit his friendly island.

None of us, including Mr. Gibbs, knew at that moment what we know now: that Mrs. Snyder was being treated at the Mayo Clinic for breast cancer. For whatever reason, however, when we said our goodbyes at the dock, Mr. Gibbs reached into his pocket and handed me a small booklet of lessons he learned along the way in his life.

"Read this when you get home," he told me.

One of those lessons dealt with the time he came home in 1979 and found his wife crying. She'd been to a doctor and had a CAT scan that revealed a brain tumor. Two weeks later, she went in for surgery.

"Little did I know that I would come close to losing her on the operating table or that she would wind up with partial facial paralysis," Mr. Gibbs writes. "Going through something like that with the person you love sure makes football games seem trivial. We have been comforted in knowing that God loved her and that, as promised in His Word, He would work all things together for good for those who love Him."

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