DHS’s Espy honors departed friend

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 23, 2006

Everyone who watches Demopolis High’s Collins Espy take the court can see that he’s not the typical Black Belt basketball player.

But it’s not only the color of his skin. It’s the number over his chest.

Espy’s number 24 wasn’t randomly assigned, or selected out of any kind of superstition or childhood preference. The senior picked it out because it was number worn for Hubbertville High’s basketball team by his one-time best friend and closest teammate, Jeremy Peoples. Peoples was tragically killed in a one-car accident Aug. 13 near Fayette. He was 18.

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“It’s in honor of him,” Espy says. “I’d thought about it, and when we were picking out jerseys, I just thought it would be a good way to remember him.”

Espy and People had been friends and teammates for several years at Hubbertville, growing closer on and off the football field and basketball court.

“He was pretty much my best friend,” Espy says. “We were always friends in PE, and in the ninth grade I talked him into playing varsity ball. He’d always come over. We’d go swimming, or work out, or play cards.”

Espy’s father, then-Hubbertville principal and current Demopolis principal Dr. Isaac Espy, remembers Peoples as a respectful, courageous young man who he considered a member of the family.

“Jeremy was like one of my sons,” he says. “They played ball together, they’d work out together, they spent their weekends throwing toilet paper in someone’s yard together. Jeremy was very pleasant, very polite young man. He was a real joy to have as a student. He had challenges in his life that it took a special person to overcome.”

When Dr. Espy accepted the principal’s position at Demopolis, Collins already had to deal with the disappointment of not being able to finish his basketball career playing alongside his good friend. But that disappointment was nothing compared to the pain of having Peoples’s promising life cut short.

“To lose somebody that close,” Collins says, and pauses. “It’s just really weird when he’s not there.”

By the time of the accident, Collins had already participated in summer camp with the Tigers and was a full-fledged member of the Demopolis team. Despite his loss, he never wavered from his commitment to the Tigers and is a regular member of head coach Jesse Bell’s rotation.

“He really blends well with our kids,” Bell says. “You can tell he enjoys playing basketball and he hit some big shots for us vs. Livingston. We’re so glad he decided to play basketball with us. He’s been a big addition to our team.”

Sticking it out hasn’t always been easy, though. Collins admits that basketball isn’t quite the same without a teammate to relate to and joke around with the way he could with Peoples.

“It’s really weird not having someone to talk to like that,” he says. “We’d thought a lot about senior year. It’s sad, when you look back at how much we both anticipated this season.”

Collins says things reached their emotional low point after Demopolis’s season opener, a 45-35 loss to Francis Marion in which he struggled. But he has kept pushing, thanks in part to a group of teammates that have welcomed him as one of their own.

“The guys have treated him like a brother,” Dr. Espy says. “They have a good time as a team. It means a lot to Collins, and it means a lot to me to see him come in and be accepted by the team the way he has … This is something he’ll look back on years from now and have a lot of war stories to tell.”

Neither Dr. Espy nor Collins nor Bell says that Espy’s race–he is the only white player on the team–is anything close to being a factor.

“It’s not awkward or anything,” Collins says. “It’s never been a big deal.”

“That has no effect,” Bell says. “He just gets out there, and our team loves him for doing that.”

Collins is “getting out there” despite the massive adjustment of going from competing against football-first 1A schools to the best 4A basketball schools in the state.

“In a very brief amount of time a lot changed for him, and he responded,” Dr. Espy says. “Playing basketball in West Alabama, he’s surrounded by tremendous athletes. He’s playing against schools where basketball is king. It took a lot of courage to accept that challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Collins says he is more than glad he accepted. But every time he pulls on his No. 24 jersey, he also has to face how different these challenges are from the ones he expected, and how he has to face them without the person he most wanted to face them with.

“It’s not that I’m not enjoying (playing for Demopolis). I’m having fun this year. We’re winning,” he says, and pauses. “It’s just not what I expected my senior year to be.”