DURHAM — They knew her first and foremost as the unofficial team photographer, always on the sidelines in practice and at games. Geri Collins would post the pictures on Facebook, tagging the Duke players so they could add the photos to their own pages.
I have some on my Facebook page, cornerback Ross Cockrell said. Im pretty sure everybody does.
They knew her as part of the family, a close-knit one when it comes to Duke football, the wife of linebackers coach Jim Collins, a fixture around the team and on campus, always with a kind word for the players.
Most of all, they knew her as a fighter, working out at the Yoh Football Center as she engaged in a two-year battle with cancer that ended Tuesday. Geri Collins was 60.
Everybody got to know her, defensive end Justin Foxx said. She was a great lady. Every time you saw her, she was always smiling, always upbeat. Everybody knew she had been going through some things, but every time you saw her she was still smiling. She was a great lady, a great part of the program. Shes definitely going to be missed.
Dukes season was cast in tragedy from the start, beginning with the July boating accident that nearly killed wide receiver Blair Holliday. And what should have been a festive day Tuesday, only nine days from Dukes first bowl game in almost two decades, instead had a distinct aura of sadness.
This is Collins third stint at Duke, going back to a season as a graduate assistant in 1983. A native of Greensboro, his roots run deep in North Carolina, having played at Elon and gotten a graduate degree from North Carolina A&T. A public memorial service for Geri is planned for 9 a.m. Saturday at Duke Chapel.
I dont think theres a player whos played at Duke since weve been here that hasnt had their picture made by Geri, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. So its certainly a loss that hurts us all, but its a celebration of a life that were going to focus on.
Still, as the Blue Devils prepare for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 27, this is nothing new to them. They have been hurting before, and come back stronger than ever.
Hollidays unexpectedly swift and miraculous recovery has given consistent buoyancy to Duke throughout the season, and the sight of him throwing passes in warm-ups before the North Carolina game unthinkable only 3 1/2 months earlier helped springboard the Blue Devils to their signature win of the season.
Cutcliffe said Tuesday that Holliday has completed his rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and has moved back to the Triangle to continue his recovery. He may not be too far off from re-enrolling at Duke.
Jamison Crowder, whose personal watercraft collided with Hollidays on Lake Tillery on July 4, responded with a remarkable season of his own, going into the bowl game with 70 catches for 1,025 yards and eight touchdowns including the game-winner against the Tar Heels.
So this is nothing new for Duke, and although the Blue Devils grief and sympathy for the Collins family might put a damper on their bowl preparations, it also gives them reason to refocus, to commit anew to the teamwork and family spirit that has characterized their entire season to this point.
We just want to be there for Coach Collins and get the win for him, and keep Geri in our hearts and our minds, Foxx said.
No one would know any better than Jim Collins how far Duke football has come. No one would appreciate it more if the Blue Devils can take the next step in his time of loss.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947