There was a solemnness in what he said. A voice almost removed from the man, as if he were able to look back through the years to another place, another time.
Darrell Royal remembered Cole Pittman. Of all the players Mack Brown had recruited, he probably had spent more time in his visit with Cole than any of the others. So it hit him hard as he stood there in the corridor of the Erwin Center, moments before the Longhorns men's basketball team would play Missouri on Feb. 26.
Today, as the Longhorns play North Carolina, we pause a moment to give thanks for Cole Pittman, the Longhorns defensive lineman who died in a car accident last February.
Dr. Gerald Mann said at Cole's memorial service, when we all arrive at the first postgame session in the afterlife, he'd like to sit on the front row and ask God a lot of questions. One of them would be about how fragile life really is.
Darrell Royal knows that, because it is a question he has asked for almost 60 years.
We will never know why Cole Pittman's tough truck went off the road and crashed into a creek bank on the other side. They do not put black boxes or recorders in Chevy trucks. For me, I will choose to believe he simply went to sleep, and as death came, he was wrapped in the arms of The Maker, who wept over His child.
As Royal spoke, he remembered leaving Hollis, Okla., heading east so very many years ago. He was a college student heading back to school. It was late at night when he dozed at the wheel. His car went off the road and as it bounced on an embankment, the door flew open and he was thrown out. They didn't make seat belts then, like the one Cole Pittman was wearing.
When he got up from the creek bed, he saw his car with the driver's side door buried in the mud. Had he stayed in the car, he would have been crushed.
"That scene is seared in my mind," Royal said. "It was exactly the same as Cole and only one person knows why I am here and he's not."
As Mack Brown has said, Coach Royal has a way of taking things complicated and making them simple. It cuts through the foreboding nature of death to understand that we take this so hard because in most of the recent tragedies involving sports, we can understand what may have happened because it could have been us.
We are sad when a star like Dale Earnhardt dies, but we are not likely to be driving a race car into a wall anytime soon. However, when we learn that his seat belt may have broken, it could have been us. Each of us has had a moment when we nodded at the wheel of a car and awakened with a start when the wheel hit the gravel beside the road. Travels have taken us on airplane rides in the same seat as a friend who died. A player dies after a hard workout, just like the one we may have just gone through.
I remember a parking lot in Lampasas that saved my life one summer night after I had closed out the new students sports section for The Daily Texan and headed out for my hometown of Winters at three in the morning. I was lucky. I pulled into the strip center by Storm's Drive-In when I realized I had no idea how I had gotten into town. As I lowered the window of the '59 Thunderbird and breathed the fresh night air, I slept peacefully and safely drove home at dawn.
Every member of the Longhorns team, and particularly Mack Brown, remembers the many, many times he has cautioned his players to be careful on the road. That if they get sleepy, pull over and take a nap. Cole may even have done that, somewhere on the road from his home in Shreveport to that creek bed on U.S. 79 near Easterly.
At Cole's funeral at the First Assembly of God Church in Shreveport, the minister told all of the football players, those from Cole's school at Evangel Christian Academy and the Texas Longhorns in attendance, "I want you to think about something. How many Saturdays do you have left in your life?"
Ironically, a radio commercial running in Austin right now asks the same question about how many weekends do we have to spend leisure time and how will we choose to spend them.
Mack Brown was 49 at the time, and he began to figure, remembering that his grand dad lived to be 91, "Let's see, there are 52 Saturdays in a year …"
"The answer is you don't really know," the preacher said. "Last Saturday may have been the last one of your life."
The message was clear. Live life to the fullest. It isn't about quantity, it is about quality. How will you choose to spend your weekends?
A good friend of mine called the other day to say his company had changed his job responsibilities and he felt as if he had been demoted.
"The guy did that to me on the day of my son's second birthday and my ninth wedding anniversary," he complained.
Cole Pittman's mother and father, Judy and Marc, would say you might want to get your priorities in order. Marc told Coach Brown that the only way he could survive the last six months was with the three "f's" - faith, family and friends. Nothing the boss who changed the job could do would touch that. Business decisions are not a match for the gift of a precious child or the love of people in a marriage.
We are driven in life by two factors: logic and emotion.
Logically, we can understand the pain of losing someone like Cole and those of the Christian faith - and Cole was a solid Christian - believe there is a Hereafter where we shall meet again.
However, it is in emotion where the pain will always live, right beside all those wonderful memories. The good and the painful memories will hang forever as pictures in the hallway of the mind.
Darrell Royal survived a car wreck, but he has tragically lost two children to accidents involving motor vehicles. Our friend John David Crow lost a son at 28 years old when he got out to retrieve a hub cap beside a highway in Alabama.
Twelve students at Texas A&M University died when a bonfire they were building for school spirit collapsed in a freak accident. Ten people from Oklahoma State on what should have been a routine flight home from a basketball game died in a plane crash in a snowy field in Colorado.
Football players, from stars to beginners, lose their lives each year for a variety of health reasons at routine practices.
Cole Pittman died when what should have been a safe truck wrecked in a creek bed.
Nothing we can ever say, do or write will ease that pain of a dad who lost his son, or a mother who lost her child.
Willie Nelson's poignant ballad says "The Healing Hands of Time" will do that, and to an extent, that will help some. But the pain of death is absence of presence-the void.
In the Longhorns locker room, Pittman's locker stands exactly as it looked on that day he was headed back for the start of spring practice. The shoulder pads, even the scraps of paper and the tape he used to meticulously wrap his fingers before practice, are all there. It will remain that way until this junior class graduates next year.
When I was a kid in the sixth grade, one of my best friends was a guy named Roger Frick. He was a farm boy and I lived in town. He was athletic and I wasn't. We were each other's heroes. He was the kind of pal who stood by you, no matter what. Of the people in life you could trust, at the head of the line was Roger Frick.
It was a chilly winter day when he and his dad got back to their pickup after an afternoon of father-son bonding hunting in their back pasture. Roger's father was sitting in the truck as is son slid his rifle, butt first, into the cab. As his father reached for the gun, it accidentally discharged, sending a hollow-point bullet into Roger's stomach.
He lived a week.
I had seen grandparents and great uncles and aunts die but never anyone my age. The only way I understood it was from the empty desk next to mine.
Somewhere beyond the sky, Roger Frick may be hunting with Cole Pittman and a Glory of Angels are probably singing country and western songs for them.
We who remain on this earth are left, not to mourn them, but to celebrate them.
And to reach out and hug each other, because life is God's gift, not our possession.