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Given his long health struggles, Brett Collins’ family had feared they might lose him years ago. But they didn’t expect him to die because of a softball game.
He had been diagnosed with leukemia while he was in high school, then years later had to fight off a brain tumor that required periodic surgeries as recently as this year.
Through it all, he stayed active, playing high school and college sports, becoming a Lutheran pastor, and giving the most to his family and community in the process. He kept himself in shape enough to play in a recreational softball game on Oct. 12, when the 56-year-old was struck by a line drive and died of a brain hemorrhage.
“He was like a big kid,” his brother Tom Collins remembered, echoing many people’s assessment of the dedicated, larger than life church and family man. “We didn’t expect to lose him like this, but of all the options he had, I think he’d rather go quickly on the baseball field than linger in a hospital.”
Brett was 22 months younger than Tom, but he’d always been big for his age, and so growing up the two boys were “like twins,” Tom said. “He would always tag along when we played baseball.”
In fact, Brett played multiple sports growing up. By the time he got to Irmo High School, he weighed more than 200 pounds and towered over many adults. He was in line to be the starting tackle on the varsity football team as a sophomore.
Then he got sick. A persistent fever worried his mother, Pat, a nurse, enough that she took him to a doctor, who eventually sent Collins to the hospital for a battery of tests. He was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia, and almost immediately a life that had revolved around football practice was now defined by chemotherapy, radiation and medication injected directly into his spine.
But Brett was as dedicated to his new health regimen as he was to his sports routine. He put up with the treatments even when he had to wear a ball cap to hide the loss of his hair, and stayed out of school for months at a time.
Pat Collins remembers how that was a trying time for the future pastor’s faith.
“One night in the hospital, he told me, ‘Mama, I can’t find my Lord,’” Pat remembers. “He said, ‘I just keep praying and praying’... I told him to keep praying and the next day he told me he’d found him. He said, ‘I just wasn’t looking in the right place.’”
Once he was well enough to play again, he moved to the baseball diamond, hoping to find a safer, less high-impact alternative to the gridiron. He was good enough running the bases that he ended up playing at Newberry College. He graduated with a degree in sociology and planned to become a counselor working with childhood cancer patients like himself. For years, he took part in activities at Camp Kemo, which organizes events every summer for young cancer patients.
But cancer wasn’t done with Collins. In his 20s, he developed a brain tumor that required another round of treatments and surgeries. He eventually lost sight in one eye. He didn’t let that slow him down, however, as he married, had two children and began his ministry in the Lutheran church.
Pat Collins said she was proud her son took such a trying experience and “used it to glorify God, because he influenced an awful lot of people.”
Since 2013, Collins had been pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Little Mountain, where he drew a congregation of about 100 every Sunday.
Chris Crouch was on the church council at Holy Trinity that brought Collins in as pastor. Crouch praised Collins for being involved with every aspect of the church, from working on Holy Trinity’s float in the local parade to feeding the homeless in downtown Columbia and personally supporting shut-ins affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tom Collins remembers his brother once cut short a family trip to Disneyland in order to officiate a funeral.
The pastor was especially focused on working with the church’s young people, since he was “young at heart,” Crouch said.
“He impacted everybody in the church,” Crouch said. “He had a hand in almost anything that was going on here.”
Last week, Collins showed his youthful side when he pitched in a softball game in Crooked Creek Park in Chapin, part of a recreational league where he faced batters 30 years younger than he was. In the third inning, one of them hit a drive straight back to Collins on the mound. Tom Collins said the ball struck his brother at high speed in the shoulder, then ricocheted into the side of his head — Brett Collins’ blind side, where his skull had to be reconstructed after his brain surgery.
“He fell, lost consciousness, and never regained consciousness,” Tom Collins said. He died hours later in a Columbia hospital.
Tom Collins believes his brother’s eight brain surgeries had left him particularly vulnerable to a fatal injury from a blow to the head.
He believes there should be more done to protect players in recreational leagues from serious injury. “The pitcher should be required to wear a face mask or a helmet or something, but you rarely see that happen,” he said.
For Brett “B.J.” Collins Jr., his father’s death stings in particular because his dad was supposed to conduct his wedding next spring. His sister Caroline and her now husband went through pre-wedding counseling with the pastor at Holy Trinity before their nuptials last year.
But while B.J. Collins regrets he won’t be able to get the same guidance from his father, he realizes formal counseling sessions may not be necessary.
“I had 27 years of coaching in what it means to be a good husband and a good father,” he said.
In his eulogy at his father’s funeral last Sunday, B.J. recalled that if he or his sister ever complained about something, their father would begin singing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He thinks that was a lesson his father absorbed from facing so many challenges in his own life.
“When I think of how unfair this seems, I just think of him singing,” the younger Collins told mourners gathered at Holy Trinity for Pastor Collins one last time.
Brett’s wife, Amy, said the church community has always been very supportive of the family.
“If I get out of something without letting anybody know I need help, I’ll be in trouble,” she said. “It’s always been that way.”
Crouch worries what the church’s next step will be. Brett Collins had become so central to everything at Holy Trinity, Crouch is not sure how the church will find a way to move on without him.
Pat Collins takes comfort from knowing that after so many health scares, her son had long ago made peace with his own mortality.
“He told me once, ‘If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a good life,’” she said. “’I have a good marriage. I raised two fine children. I had a good life.’”