My phone rang again, the sound for a text message, as I made my way through the Pittsburgh airport terminal.
It was from Tomah Jim.
We spent the better part of the last week, hustling from one end of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to the other. The Wheelchair Games are a big deal, and Pittsburgh pulled out all the stops, with celebrity athletes galore on hand, like Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, two of my childhood favorites.
Bleier himself had come back from a devastating Vietnam War injury that could have left him in a wheelchair. That didn’t happen. He walked again, and helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls, so it was only natural that he was the honorary chairperson for the week.
Usually if I was at one end of the convention center, they were at the other, shaking hands, taking pictures and signing autographs. The only time I got close enough was during the opening ceremonies, when I was taking pictures of them, with our paralyzed veterans, the way it should be.
Still, Jim couldn’t help but needle me about it. He tried to help, sending me text messages throughout the week when he saw them, but I was always somewhere else. Jim and his daughter, Anna, 16, who was a volunteer for the games, had a knack for finding famous people in Pittsburgh that week, including some actors from the "Twilight" movies.
He did it again in the early evening hours of Aug. 7. Since he and his daughter were leaving by train around midnight, they were still at the Omni William Penn Hotel, when he ran across the owner of the Steelers.
He had to send me a text to brag.
“Just met Dan Rooney in the lobby of the Omni," he wrote. "How cool is that?”
Normally I’d be ecstatic and jealous and text back a swear word or two.
Not this time. And thus, Jim became one of my first friends to learn the news.
“Very nice, Jim. Just found out my son was killed in a car accident last night. Headed back to Kenosha,” I texted back.
“I just sat there. Stunned. What do you say to that?” Jimmy later recalled.
After a few moments, my phone rang again.
“Oh my…I am so sorry to hear that. Horrible just horrible. Anna is in tears. God be with you and your family,” Jimmy wrote.
Putting the words in a text made it even more real, if that was possible.
Jim notified Susan Varcie, director of the Wheelchair Games, who was the next to send a heartfelt text message.
That started the domino of people within the public affairs community hearing about Devin, and a few more text messages followed -- one from Kathleen Pomorski, and others from the Wheelchair Games.
All I could write back was, “Thank you.”
I was numb and felt, once again, outside my own body.
All around me, people were happy, talking with family, and getting ready for flights. Surrounded by hundreds, I felt empty and alone. I looked at some of them with their children and wondered if they realized how life could really, truly change in an instant.