Charles F. “Rip” Collins wasn’t very newsworthy today.
For one of the few times I’ve known him over what has become — if I dare to look back across enough frayed calendars to account for over 500 months, more than 42 years — nearly a lifetime of mismatched friendship … he had very little to say. No goofy outfit — speaking of mismatches — that blended a green New York Jet cap with an orange Cleveland Browns fan jacket. Over maybe a gold and purple Lakers spaghetti strap basketball jersey, atop knee-length khaki shorts and rolled white ankle socks.
His ever-present cigar was nowhere in sight. No automatic offer to sing “Moon River” or “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in his surprisingly terrific baritone at the drop of a hat, nearly always his own. There were no words of wisdom from the man his buddy Joe Schmidt once dubbed “The Sage of the Sidelines” and later “My Man.” He was nearly out of wisecracks. There was no swagger to his step. In fact, there was no step at all.
The man so many regard as just “The Ripper,” whom he himself calls — taking Schmidt’s cue — “The Star of Stage, Screen, and Sideline,” was nowhere near a spotlight.
Nope, my old buddy wasn’t worth quoting this spring day, garnering little attention. No one was there to record the stories of his Detroit Tigers boyhood and Hank Greenberg friendship; his tales of 20 years of behind-the-scenes toil among the Detroit Lions of the franchise’s glory years; his pioneering work among the late and unlamented Detroit Wheels of the World Football League; his three decades, 1970s into the ‘90s, of maintaining and operating the visiting clubhouse at our city’s beloved Tiger Stadium during tumultuous times. And the eventual shameful treatment he received from both owners of our favorite teams. But then — a bigger man than they — he never talked about that, anyway.
He’d been a media darling over the years, for many years. The fact that he served in three wars as a proud and devoted United States Marine fighter pilot (World War II, Korea, Vietnam — “Won one, lost one, tied one”) flavored the mix. He had a speaking part in the movie “Paper Lion,” and then again in “Tigertown.” Fans of the old Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan radio shows in Detroit heard him as a cowboy character in a long-running goof called “The Whoa Boys” and as himself, or “Pop Collins” on a variety of TV and radio comedy shows (Purtan; Count Scary). He was a regular on local sports pages, a go-to guy for interviews about the Stadium and the Tigers and Opening Day and every World Series from ’34 to ’84 and every character that had cavorted at The Corner since his boyhood in the 1920s.
It seems like everyone eventually heard about, or from, The Ripper. He always had something to say, and there was usually somebody there to record it or write it down. But not today. He was not worth quoting today, not interviewed on this refreshing afternoon.
Rip, though, WILL make news tomorrow. Will be in the news, in fact, on perhaps the day after that. Because he’s going to die tomorrow, or the day following. Or, God willing, maybe he’ll see one more week of life.
For time, as it has the damnable habit of doing … a service it provides for us all … now closes in on the Ripper. And the medical people at the hospice tell his wife Cathy and those who have tried to rally about him, that the end is nigh, that a week is about the limit to his 91-plus-year run. And how it hurts to know, to realize that this eccentric character whom history has embraced, our friend who has personified our city and done so much at the center of our local world must tip his garish cap, or his fighter pilot helmet … and step through that open door.
Rip’s friend Bill Dow saw him today. A working journalist and a man worthy of the Ripper‘s friendship, Bill set up a phone conversation between Rip in his hospice bed in Livonia with Lions legendary receiver Gail Cogdill, who is himself in hospital recovering from medical work out in the state of Washington. The two worked together and became friends during Cogdill’s 1960-’68 starring role with the Lions.
From what could be discerned from the local end, it was a warm and rewarding conversation. And as the Ripper handed the phone back to Dow, he deadpanned what will probably be recalled as one of his last jokes: “Wrong number,” said our boy.
Rip hasn’t been out of bed for more than a year. It’s a medical dilemma too involved and too heartbreaking to go into. That bed will serve as the old fighter pilot’s chariot to the stars. Dammit.
I’ve known Rip Collins since 1970. We hit it off from the first time we met, and we’ve remained friends all this time, though he was nearly 30 years my senior. We once played hockey together, on a popular media team, and Gordie Howe was our teammate for two years and Rip, a goalie, would tell you all about that. If he could. He would have told you all about it … with many of the stories true or nearly … but no more. Dammit.
He treated me exactly as a contemporary, and I remain amazed at his largesse, at the charity and character in his soul. Such a gift — a hero for a friend. At times in his life, Rip — like most men — could be a handful, a test, for even those who loved him most. But he has taken on this last challenge like the Marine that he is. He has smiled, and laughed, through his year in bed, refusing to let life’s final mission bring him down, diminish him.
And I’ve never had a more loyal friend.
I think of Rip when I hear a great Jerry Jeff Walker country song (written by Guy Clark), called “Desperados Waiting For a Train.” With a few small changes:
“One day I looked up and he’s pushing 90
With brown tobacco stains all down his chin
To me he’s one of the heroes of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men?
“We were friends, me and this old man
And his life was like some old western movie
Like Desperados Waiting for a Train…..”