[Part I of II ]
In the moments leading up to my meeting Collin McKinney, 42, of Fairfax, I readied myself for a seriously sad encounter. There are newsworthy triumphs and tragedies in life every day, and all I knew of McKinney was that he was a huge hockey fan and that he’d endured a sudden and unimaginably tragic misfortune a few years back. This was to be a happy hour meeting devoid of the happy, I imagined. But adversity, I learned over the course of two hours in McKinney’s company, even of the most shocking and harrowing kind, can summon untapped resolve and renewed purpose within the afflicted. In Collin McKinney I found the story of a man who endured one of life’s most savage blows, turned to hockey as a comfort on his road to healing, and emerged an inspiration to his Northern Virginia community.
Life in general didn’t deal McKinney, an Arlington native, much of a strong hand to begin with, health-wise. He’s diabetic, and he battles thyroid and heart problems. He also has severe arthritis.
“I have a lot of bills and pills,” he told me with a chuckle.
When I met McKinney in Ballston on a recent Monday night he stood at the very entrance of our restaurant waiting for me, wearing his Alexander Ovechkin Caps’ jersey so that I could easily identify him. I noticed the black sweater enveloping his frail, 150-pound, world-weary frame, and a blind stick in one hand.
Over our first beer he shared with me the tale of his very first Caps’ game, back in 1986. Somebody had given him tickets at work. Collin took his brother to the game.
“I had a blast, and I was hooked,” he told me.
His attendance at Caps’ games in the immediate years that followed was sporadic; working a handful of modest jobs in offices and maintenance, he attended as often as he could on a modest salary. But one visit to the old Capital Centre that featured a Peter Bondra hat trick upped the ante. He became a puckhead of the first order. Today his home is a shrine to all things Capitals — he has three sweaters, signed hats, “every ‘Rock the Red’ towel ever handed out” he noted with pride, and scores of signed player cards and photos. He owns a Caps’ Tiffany glass lamp, a Capitals’ rug, a big wall hanging of Alexander Ovechkin. “T-shirts like you wouldn’t believe,” he emphasized. I asked him how many games he attended during last season’s stirring run to the Southeast division title. “I think pretty much every one,” he told me. McKinney’s email prefix starts out “bonzai.”
“I just love the Caps, I just love hockey,” he told me. “I used to be a giant Redskins’ fan, but that’s taken a back seat to hockey.”
A Life Forever Changed
On May 10, 2001, McKinney, then working his way through more school with three jobs, was in a hallway at his job at Neiman Marcus. He dropped a paper, bent down to retrieve it, and met a brutal fate.
“There was a guy doing trash, and he had a whole bunch of folded over cardboard boxes,” McKinney began. “He came up as I was going down . . . and he caught me across the bridge of the nose.
“Both of my retinas detached.”
In an instant Collin McKinney’s world went black.
“I dropped a piece of paper and my life changed forever,” he said.
He went immediately to an ophthalmologist. “‘You need surgery and you need it now,’ he told me,” McKinney related.
His left eye was operated on first, as it was believed to be the more seriously damaged. That surgery proved moderately successful, and today McKinney has, in conditions of bright light, a tiny bit of vision out of it. But during surgery on his right eye McKinney woke up out of the anesthesia, bringing the procedure to an immediate halt. In the delay between his second surgery on the eye, damaged nerves failed to regenerate. His right eye began to die.
Thirty-plus years of battling diabetes greatly complicated both the surgeries and the recovery.
“Diabetes, what it does, it produces very weak blood vessels in the back of the retina, so they had to go in and laser them, and that’s what caused me, ultimately . . . to lose everything,” he explained.
“What made me blind is my eye would hemorrhage, the blood vessels would burst and my eye would fill up with blood and I couldn’t see through it. I could see for like a week and then all of a sudden I’d have one of these hemorrhages and I’d be blind for four or five months.”
McKinney endured this fluctuation between partial vision and total blindness for fully two years. His right eye literally bled to death. Then it started shrinking.
“Once is started shrinking, it started pressing against the optic nerve, and this went on for five years, and the pain started getting so intense that I had to go on some pretty heavy painkillers,” McKinney told me.
“I don’t know about you,” he added, “but I don’t do drugs very well. It was a pretty ugly time.”
“It was highly depressing,” he said, with obvious understatement. “It got to the point where [the eye] just had to go. That was this past June.
“I finally just said, ‘Look man, it’s gotta go, it’s either that or I gotta go.’ I just couldn’t go on [in that pain].”
McKinney and I were seated in a booth in a chain restaurant surprisingly crowded on a Monday night. As I listened to him detail his tragedy I worried about him getting emotional and overcome with his story’s sadness, but it was apparent early on that I was in the presence of a young man of exceptional fortitude and perseverance. He relayed his circumstances to me without the slightest semblance of self-pity. He’d had seven years to live with his misfortune, and in his narrative there was no account of buckling under the woe.
McKinney went through more surgical procedures and specialist visits than he can tabulate. Neiman Marcus kept him insured for a solid year while he was out of work and receiving treatment initially, but McKinney’s pre-existing conditions transformed a bad accident into a malevolent mishap — one he was left to grapple with with only the support of friends and family.
“It was quite a life-changing event,” he said. “I was scared. I didn’t know to operate as a blind person. To learn all that I had to in mid- life, was . . . a weird stream.”
“I couldn’t take care of myself — I couldn’t see. I couldn’t check my blood sugar levels.”
Fortunately, McKinney has family in Northern Virginia. His father passed years ago, and he moved in with his mother, today his principal caregiver.
“I couldn’t get through my daily existence without her,” he said. “I had to go to a lot of doctors. She got me through all these different surgeries. She knew what I needed.
“Thank God she was there.”
Determined to try and establish some normalcy in his life, McKinney enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College, in some computer training programs. Computer programming, he explained, is a relatively common pursuit by the vision-impaired. But programming he found boring. Next he tried business classes, but the further he went along with those the more he realized how limited he was by virtue of being unable to work in common business software.
McKinney had a friend whose father went blind, and their intervention helped him in his early struggles.
“I was lucky I got a really good teacher who taught me how to get around with a [blind] stick, how to get on Metro.”
He spent “seven or eight” months departing his house only for followup surgeries and doctors’ visits, and another four months after that “just sitting around.”
“I was sitting there in my house trying to figure out what to do with myself.”
‘I See Ghosts on the Ice’
One day a friend suggested to McKinney that they go downtown together and take in some hockey. It was just a street hockey event outside the Verizon Center, but McKinney found himself getting reacquainted with an old friend — the game he loved. Next he would get rides out to Caps’ practices at Piney Orchard and strike up conversations with the players after practices. McKinney has been able to forge relationships with various Caps’ players over the years. Whenever Nicklas Backstrom sees him he offers McKinney a high five.
“Olie [Kolzig] was always extremely nice to me,” McKinney noted. “I used to go up to Piney Orchard, and all the players were nice enough to sign stuff, but at one point Olie saw me and actually got out of his truck and found me — I guess he saw my blind stick — and stopped and talked to me for a little while. I thought, ‘That’s an awesome guy.'”
Then, at a friend’s urging, McKinney agreed to try and attend a Caps’ game.
“It’s still a little scary trying to get through the crowd in front of Verizon Center,” McKinney noted. “I may as well have a target on my back.”
Inside Verizon Center McKinney isn’t known by many except in his section as “the blind guy,” but he does have important help. Season ticket holders “Bonnie and Mike” sit immediately behind McKinney and make sure he gets everything he needs, and that unsuspecting, newcomer fans in the section don’t infringe on his experience.
“I turned around to high-five them one night and we’ve been fast friends ever since. They really watch out for me,” he told me.
He gets regular help from the arena portal attendants, ‘special’ care from some arena bartenders who pour his drinks, he explained with a broad smile, even aural guidance from an otherwise silent Slapshot.
McKinney of course can’t follow the action on the ice as do the rest of Verizon Center’s patrons. When the Caps wore black sweaters he could make them out a bit with his left eye. Now, he’s only able to tell when a goal has been scored by the flashing red goal light, and the euphoric eruption that follows.
“I basically see ghosts on the ice — ghost figures moving back and forth.”
“Red ghosts, I hope,” I offered.
“Yes,” he replied, smiling.
“I feel like the team helped me out a lot. A lot. They are so nice to me. All the players, all the staff in Verizon Center.”
“All I care about is hockey,” he said.
Today McKinney has a passion for sharing his passion for hockey in his neighborhood.
“I want to get the neighborhood kids into it. They’re going to be fans after we’re done. So I get kids who are six and ten and twelve in my neighborhood to come over and watch Caps’ games, and I take them to games.”
Hockey, the game McKinney fell in love with at first sight, pulled him up out of his darkness by virtue of the people in it, its atmosphere, and the challenge of passing along his passion for puck to his community’s youth.
Coming Tuesday in Part II: Collin McKinney’s remarkable request of the Washington Capitals
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