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June 23, 2003

Billy Gaines, R.I.P.

John P. Snyder

I never met Billy Gaines. Like so many others, I admired him from afar. You had to, because the fact that he was 5'7", 160 lbs., didn't hamper his ability to be a dominate player for the Urbana Hawks football team.

His accidental death in Pittsburgh last week looms over our area like a blackened cloud of heartbreak and sorrow. Just try to read the newspaper accounts of his life and death and not have tears in you eyes.

Few schools in Maryland have enjoyed the kind of success Urbana has in football. Led by Coach Dave Carruthers, the Urbana football program won three state championships and once had a streak of 50 straight wins.

Urbanaís teams have always been large, fast and skilled at key positions.

To see them in their Penn State-style blue and white uniforms, one might think they are watching the Nittany Lionsí jayvee team, for they had the size that other high schools dream about.

If you are going to be undersized in football and expect to play, you'd better be quick, be able to catch and not be afraid to hit someone. Billy Gaines had all three attributes.

If he wasn't catching a clutch pass, he could be seen throwing a devastating downfield block on a hapless defensive back. Once he caught the pass, his speed made him a threat to score every time he got the ball. He never lost a football game in high school.

Normally, a player with that size would have to continue his football career at a Shepherd, Frostburg or Towson State. Not Billy Gaines. He caught the eye of the coaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Walt Harris, the head coach for the Panthers, said that Billy cried when they offered him an athletic scholarship.

Who could blame him? Despite his size, a top 20 school wanted him. It was an affirmation of his skill and success on the field - an outstanding accomplishment.

To those who knew him, it probably was no surprise to see him returning kickoffs for the Panthers as a true freshman.

When you are a strong 19-year-old male, you often take chances. What prompted him and teammate to explore the crawl space of a church attic at 2 A. M. in the morning will remain unexplained. For those of us who still don't understand that life is fragile, here you go.

All of us can understand the crushing pain his parents, siblings and friends will have to endure. But even as the full weight of the loss sinks in, a ray of light emerges.

His life will inspire others who need to persevere to overcome the obstacles that confront them in their lives. Some, who are deemed too small, will recall Billy Gaines and make the extra effort to succeed.

He'll be recalled as one of the best to play ball in Frederick County, and those who stand out will always be measured against his accomplishments. Itís another lessen that tells us that if your going to live on earth, be prepared to have your heart broken a couple of dozen times.

Rest In Peace, Billy Gaines!

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