Abe Collinsworth Remembered As Outstanding Educator
By Peter Kerasotis // October 19, 2012
ORLANDO, FLORIDA – The news arrived like a thunderclap, and it arrived on national TV. Abe Collinsworth, one of the best and brightest educators and administrators Brevard County has ever known – and certainly one of the most beloved – had died. He was 76.
The announcement came from his son, Cris Collinsworth, the multiple Emmy Award winning broadcaster, and it came during NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast.
It was Collinsworth’s TV partner, Al Michaels, who prompted him.
“Cris, this has been a fantastic performance for you under circumstances that are very different,” Michaels said. “Your dad, Abraham, passing away over the weekend, and we just want to wish you and your mom and the entire Collinsworth family, the very best with our prayers. And you are some trooper, I gotta tell you, to even be here, period. We’re thinking about you, buddy.”
”My hero, man,” Cris replied. “He was something special…passed away early in the morning on Saturday morning…was able to be there with him. Former national champion of the UK Wildcats, played basketball for Adolph Rupp. Was the principal of my high school, and I used to tell him I loved reading about him on the bathroom walls. And he’d get a laugh out of it. Was self-deprecating with his humor…always was. He was the mayor. Everywhere he went he was loved.”
Especially by his son.
And vice versa.
I saw that firsthand early last year, when I spent a day with Abe at his home in Orlando. And then again, a few months later, when we spent another day together tooling around Bay Hill at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Cris had commissioned his dad to research the family’s lineage and Abe was knee deep in genealogical history that he shared with me that day at his house. Yes, his full name was Abraham Lincoln Collinsworth. But no, there was no relationship, other than he was born on February 12, the same day as the Abraham Lincoln. Mostly, what we did that day was sit around and tell stories about the old days along the Space Coast, eating takeout Chinese food from a nearby restaurant on Sand Lake Road.
A few months later, I got Abe a special pass to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, picked him up that morning at his home, and spent the day walking the course, watching golf, talking. He especially got a kick out of how I got him a pass into the media workroom, where he got to sit in on interview sessions with Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.
We were going to make it a date at Bay Hill again this past spring, but the New York Times had hired me to cover seven straight days of Yankees spring training baseball, which fell during the same week as the golf tournament.
Had I known.
But who knows, really, when death is going to tap you on the shoulder?
Funny, but I had talked to Cris earlier this year and asked how his dad was doing. He never mentioned any health concerns, but his dad had been battling leukemia, which finally took him this past Saturday.
Cris spoke at his father’s funeral service at the Woodlawn Memorial Park & Funeral Home on Thursday, one of four who eulogized him – the other’s were Jay Donnelly, who was Cris’ football coach at Astronaut High, Cris father-in-law John Bankemper and one of Abe’s golf buddies Joe Calabrese.
Donnelly spoke of the glory years at Astronaut High, during the 70s, when Abe hired a bright group of young coaches – all under 30 – and mentored them as the flourished, creating the greatest all-sports decade from one school that this county has ever known.
“Abe was the most impressive people person I ever knew,” Jay Donnelly said. “Everybody who knew Abe adored him. Cris told stories of their early years in Eau Gallie, when his father taught at Eau Gallie High and the later, glory years in Titusville, and what a wonderful father he and his brother Greg had. “He had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the world,” he said. Most of the stories Cris told were fun, upbuilding, light. It was when he got serious when he got emotional. “My dad loved being a dad, and he was good at it,” he said. “He loved being a grandparent, and he was probably even better at that.” He paused. “But what he really loved was my mom …” He paused again. Seconds passed. Just when it seemed Cris might not be able to continue, Donetta Collinsworth rose from her seat, walked toward her son and deadpanned, “Not that much.”
“Abe was the most impressive people person I ever knew,” Donnelly said. “Everybody who knew Abe adored him.
Cris told stories of their early years in Eau Gallie, when his father taught at Eau Gallie High and the later, glory years in Titusville, and what a wonderful father he and his brother Greg had.
“He had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the world,” he said.
Most of the stories Cris told were fun, upbuilding, light. It was when he got serious when he got emotional.
“My dad loved being a dad, and he was good at it,” he said. “He loved being a grandparent, and he was probably even better at that.”
“But what he really loved was my mom …”
He paused again. Seconds passed. Just when it seemed Cris might not be able to continue, Donetta Collinsworth rose from her seat, walked toward her son and deadpanned, “Not that much.”
The room inside the funeral home erupted in laughter, including Cris, and he trudged on with a fresh smile on his face.
Years from now, it’ll be another family story to tell, another memory.
That’s what we’re left with now with Abe Collinsworth – memories. And what I especially remember about that day I spent with Abe at his Orlando home was just how proud he was of Cris. Through the years, I had always gotten that vibe from Cris’ mother, Donetta, a feisty and fiercely protective woman. But Abe was always a low-key sort who walked around with an easy smile and a perpetual twinkle in his blue eyes, making you wonder what he was up to. It was the same twinkle you sometimes see in Cris’ eyes.
But that day at his home, when it was just the two of us – Donetta was off on a gambling excursion in Tampa – Abe showed me piece after piece of memorabilia from Cris’ athletic and broadcasting career, bragging about his son’s accomplishments as if I’d never heard of him before and needed to be brought up to speed.
Cris, as longtime Brevardians know, was a three-sport star at Astronaut High School, where Abe was the principal. In fact, he was the school’s first principal before becoming the Brevard County School Superintendent. Cris later went on to star for the Florida Gators, where he still holds the school record for the longest touchdown pass – 99 yards. The Gators’ young quarterback coach at the time, a fellow by the name of Steve Spurrier, saw different talents in Collinsworth, and had him moved to wide receiver, where Cris excelled and eventually carved out an outstanding NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Abe showed me jerseys, posters and various memorabilia while enlightening me about the web site –footballpros.com – that Cris was starting.
On a shelf was one of Cris’ Emmy Awards.
“What’s he got, seven of these now?” I said.
“Eight,” Abe quickly corrected.
Through it all, whenever he talked about Cris, Abe beamed, his face fairly glowing. It was a side of him I hadn’t seen.
I often saw how Cris revered his father and deeply admired him. A year-and-a-half ago, on his footballpros.com web site, he posted this about Abe’s 75th birthday.
“I just got home from a great weekend with my Mom and Dad celebrating Dad’s 75th birthday. He is a fan of the site and knows you guys by name (we have arrived). Dad played on the 1958 National Championship team at the University of Kentucky under Adolph Rupp. We played golf over the weekend, he almost shot his age and I shot more than double mine. He is without a doubt one of the coolest guys I have ever met in my life. People love him the minute they meet him. When he first came to Fort Thomas, Kentucky (my current home) the only debate was whether they wanted to appoint him Superintendent of Schools, or elect him Mayor. He instantly connects with everyone. He has touched so many lives in a way that people remember for a lifetime. Please join me in a very special birthday greeting for my Father, Mr. Abe Collinsworth. Love you Dad.”
Everybody loved Abe Collinsworth.
When the Collinsworths first moved to Brevard County in 1963, Abe worked at Eau Gallie High, where he was the head basketball coach. Just 27, and having been a former college play for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, he also still played the game. Blake recalls how good he was and the spirited AAU battles they would have. “Good Lord Almighty! Abe Collinsworth could shoot the basketball!” Blake said. “He was unbelievable, a hell of a basketball player. You didn’t want to leave him alone at the perimeter, because he would make that shot. He had that dead-eye shot, and he was very smooth.” Collinsworth, it turns out, was also deeply concerned about segregation and wanted to do something to affect change. There was a meeting at his house, and Blake remembers Cris and his younger brother Greg running around underfoot.
I also spent an afternoon recently with my friend Dick Blake, the retired Cocoa High principal who has done so much to champion integration and advance the black cause in Brevard County.
Blake, however, passed along a chunk of credit to Abe Collinsworth, bemoaning that with Abe’s death he’d lost “a great friend.”
When the Collinsworths first moved to Brevard County in 1963, Abe worked at Eau Gallie High, where he was the head basketball coach. Just 27, and having been a former college play for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, he also still played the game. Blake recalls how good he was and the spirited AAU battles they would have.
“Good Lord Almighty! Abe Collinsworth could shoot the basketball!” Blake said. “He was unbelievable, a hell of a basketball player. You didn’t want to leave him alone at the perimeter, because he would make that shot. He had that dead-eye shot, and he was very smooth.”
Collinsworth, it turns out, was also deeply concerned about segregation and wanted to do something to affect change. There was a meeting at his house, and Blake remembers Cris and his younger brother Greg running around underfoot.
Abe proposed a holiday basketball tournament to run during the Christmas break in 1966, with all the county’s high schools invited, including the three black high schools – Melbourne’s Stone High, Titusville’s Gibson High and Cocoa’s Monroe High, where Blake coached basketball.
It marked the beginning of integration in Brevard County, and as it historically has been in American society, it started with sports.
Sure enough, in the championship game, Blake’s Monroe team met Collinsworth’s Eau Gallie team.
That’s when Collinsworth did something that 46 years later, Blake hasn’t forgotten. Collinsworth benched his star player.
Early in that championship game, Monroe’s cat-quick guard Alfonso “Butch” Davis stole the ball from Eau Gallie’s best scorer, Rudy Hannah. But Davis didn’t just dribble down toward an easy layup. He showboated. Hannah caught up with him and shoved Davis just as he was leaving his feet toward the basket.
“Abe took Hannah out and benched him for the rest of the game,” Blake recalled. “It wasn’t about winning with him. It was about integration. The tournament was all about helping to get integration going. He knew this was a movement, and he didn’t want to go backward. Abe made a statement, and I’ve never forgotten it. What a man.”
Monroe went on to win, 83-50.
Several years later, Collinsworth and Blake went on to work together at the new Cocoa High School and it was a superstar administrative team. Collinsworth and Blake were the assistant principals under Bob Blubaugh, who later became the school superintendent. But Collinsworth didn’t stay long, leaving a couple of years later to lead new Astronaut High as its principal. Blake cherishes those years together as assistant principals, where he got to see yet another side of Collinsworth’s sterling character.
“He was a super guy to work with, a really good team player,” Blake recalled. “He always had a good relationship with the students and the faculty. He was very selfless, and very student oriented.”
And then, years later, when Collinsworth became assistant superintendent in 1977 and then the superintendent in 1988, Blake got to see yet another side of him.
“He was a very caring and sharing administrator,” he said. “He never forgot where he came from. He never acted like he was now the big dog. We’d have lunch together and he was the same Abe. Very smooth. You never saw him sweat. He was the kind of guy who would do anything to make you a success. What more could you ask for than to work for someone like that?”
As was always Abe’s style, he always enjoyed a good chuckle, especially if the joke was on him and he was the one telling the joke.
Eventually, though, Collinsworth lost his superintendent post, something Blake blames on “politics.”
That came back in the ’90s, when Cris used to hold his annual charity fundraisers in Titusville, the proceeds of which went to Brevard County Schools. It was an wonderful, spectacular event. He’d bring in sports celebrities like Pete Rose, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Lawrence Taylor, Jim Kelly, Boomer Esiason and on and on and on.
Until his dad got ousted as superintendent.
He held the charity event in Titusville one more year, and then that was it.
I asked Cris about it back then; asked him if he was ending the event because of what happened to his dad. His face flushed. I thought he would shed a tear. He has since told me that his parents had retired and moved to New Smyrna Beach and that he was stretched too thin with annual charity tournaments also in Gainesville and Cincinnati. I also knew he had a young family of four children.
“Brevard County meant too much to both my Dad and me to ever carry a grudge,” he told me the other day in an email. “We both were very proud and feel deeply indebted to all the wonderful people in that school system. We owe Brevard County much more than either of us were ever able to give back, although we tried.”
But the hurt for his father that I saw that day was palpable. It said it all.
I can’t imagine the hurt he’s feeling today, on the day they laid his father to rest.