Luke DeCock

A friend (and ECU fan) named Busta, and the goodbye I never got to say

Busta Howard, right, who died last week at age 60, with N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock in August 2014.
Busta Howard, right, who died last week at age 60, with N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock in August 2014. ldecock@newsobserver.com

It's hard to say when I actually met William Newton Howard Jr., known to everyone, including his mother, as Busta. I do know he was sitting at the bar at the Hibernian, on Glenwood, with a pint of Harp in his hand. It must have been 2001 or so.

The first time we played golf together, Busta had a mini-keg of Heineken in his cart, at 9 a.m. That wasn't typical for him, but it certainly made an impression. I couldn't even try to count the number of rounds we must have played after that, Busta contorting himself on one foot trying in vain to wrangle a wayward drive: “Cut, baby!”

He was a big man, barrel-chested with a head like a gallon can of paint, a loud voice, a barking, bellowing laugh, an exuberant personality and a generous heart. We were unlikely friends, almost a generation apart, a fast-talking northerner from Chicago and a native North Carolinian in every fiber of his being – he grew up on the water in Bath, went to East Carolina and bled purple, but nevertheless loved the Pittsburgh Steelers – who played some golf together and drank some beer and told some stories.

It wasn't just because I was single and he was divorced. When I met the woman who would become my wife, nothing changed. She and Busta got along famously. He'd come over for dinner. We'd go over there. When Busta would dog sit her (later our) dog, he would grill a filet mignon and share it with Louie. When we closed on the sale of our old house and the purchase of our new one hours apart, we left our stuff on the truck in the August heat, but we left Louie with Busta.

He was 15 years older than anyone else at my bachelor party and had more fun than any of the rest of them. Busta was the star of our wedding, a magnetic force at the center of the room. My father and his two brothers joked that Busta was the lost DeCock brother, oversized heads tending to run in our family. And when I turned 40, he was there at Pinehurst with us, like he was family. That trip wrapped up on No. 2: My father, my brother, me … and Busta.

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Busta Howard, left, with the rest of the DeCock family at Pinehurst No. 2 in August 2014. Courtesy DeCock family.

My wife used to send him links to adoptable dogs; finally, one clicked, a Chesapeake Bay retriever at the Durham shelter. Busta named her Lucy. Her previous, older owners had surrendered her because she was an escape artist. Busta didn't even have a fence. She'd trot off his deck and down into the creek that ran behind his house, then come running right back as soon as he called. When he built a home office above his garage, Lucy would spend every day at his feet.

For one birthday, he rented a house at Topsail and invited a bunch of different friends to spend a day or two there with him. I stayed for two nights, watching Lucy run on the beach and buying shrimp right off the boat in Sneads Ferry. (From the family, it later turned out, that includes my tree-removal guy now. North Carolina can be a very small place.) We smoked a few cigars. We drank some good wine. We ate fresh seafood. We did nothing. Which is all Busta wanted.

His presence ran through my time in North Carolina like a contrasting thread, until the fall of 2016. We'd never really agreed on politics, but it never bothered either of us. Obviously. But something about that particular moment in this country triggered something. He apparently didn't feel my column about East Carolina beating N.C. State gave the Pirates enough credit and, out of nowhere, sent me several scathing texts about that and politics and the N&O. I wrote back that I got paid to take that abuse from readers but not from friends, hoping for an apology so we could all move along. He doubled down with more angry texts and we had not spoken since. For 21 months. Until it was too late.

Busta died last week, and it breaks my heart to think of Lucy sitting at his side. It breaks my heart that I'll never be able to tell him what he meant to me. It breaks my heart that we were both too stubborn. It breaks my heart that even when I made it a point recently to tell so many people that I loved them, I never reached back out to Busta. It's my fault as much as his, maybe more, and I have to live with that.

Don't be stubborn. Don't hold grudges. Life really is too short for that.

He was as big a part of my 18 years here as anyone, someone I knew from the beginning, or close to it, in some ways my guide to aspects of this state's history and tradition and lore and secrets I would never tumble across on my own. Just knowing him made my writing, whatever fills this space on the page, better. Especially when it came to East Carolina.

Thursday night at the Hibernian, we'll lift a Harp or two to Busta. I could tell stories for hours, but I'll have to pick the best one, because so many people will have them that I'll probably only get one shot. I'm so sad about the way things ended, and there's nothing I can do about that now, but my life was richer to have known him at all.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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