One of the first messages I received after Walt Snelling passed away Wednesday was from my middle sister Kristi, “I believe Gainesville may close down for a day,” she wrote.
A notorious provider of tongue-in-cheek material, this particular message from my sister was void of that sentiment. There was no sarcasm in her words, why?
Because if a city were to mourn in the aforementioned collective fashion, who better to make it happen than a man who represented it so well for so long?
No matter where you’re from, it’s hard to think of Gainesville football without thinking of Mr. Snelling, and not because of his long-ago prowess for Big Red on the field, but rather his voice booming over it.
As someone who grew up in Gainesville, I have a hard time thinking of the city at all without, in part, envisioning Mr. Snelling striding the streets at a hare’s pace, always carrying that dang stick.
From Longstreet Cafe, to Bobby Gruhn Field; Ivey-Watson to First Baptist Church on Green Street, he simply was Gainesville.
But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know, right?
I grew up less than a mile away from Mr. Snelling and his wife of more than 60 years, Carol. I marveled at the man who walked by, punching a walking stick into the ground, headphones always on, and honestly was frightened of his furrowed, purposeful brow, until I grew up some and got to know the man behind the scowl. Now, mind you, even as we got familiar with each other he wouldn’t stop and speak (see: furrowed, purposeful brow and headphones; he wasn’t playing when he was walking), but he would manage to grumble a few breathless pleasantries (I think) my way.
When I was a junior in high school, my AAU team made the national tournament, which was held in Spokane, Wash., that year. A cross-country, round-trip flight combined with board, food and tournament expenses weren’t exactly doable in the family budget, so Kristi started a fundraising campaign on my behalf. Mr. Snelling was one of the first to contribute, knowing he’d get nothing in return other than seeing a fellow Red Elephant get an opportunity: that was enough for him.
“Hey beautiful,” was how Mr. Snelling greeted me from the moment we met, no matter the time or place, no matter his lack of time or space - even when walking.
Truth be told, he had a line for everyone, some too colorful for these pages, but that was part of his charm: he had a crazy good sense of humor. “Big boy,” “handsome,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” “ugly;” he used them all and never was offense taken because after the line, came the smile and laugh, the pat on the back or handshake, the kiss on the cheek or hug, and the question, “How are you?” But he actually wanted an answer.
When I came back to Gainesville after college, I was as lost people get. Most former college athletes will tell you there’s an adjustment period, mainly because your identity has been so wrapped up in being one thing, and then it’s just gone.
I had no idea who I was outside of who I’d been and it led to some deep depression. I avoided people because I wasn’t the person who left Gainesville to play college ball in 1997, but I also didn’t know the person who returned to Gainesville in 2003.
On the flip side, people sometimes avoided me, except for Mr. Snelling. During a Christmas Eve service at First Baptist, when I was trying to slink out unnoticed, he sauntered right up to me and said, “hey beautiful,” put his arm around me, kissed me on the cheek and asked how I was doing.
He uplifted me, and in that moment reminded me exactly who I was by being who he’d always been.
It doesn’t take much to make people feel worthy and good, even though it isn’t necessarily our responsibility to do so. Mr. Snelling spent his life doing for many what he managed to do for me that Christmas Eve.
Whether it was the lineman on the opposing team whose praises he sung out over Bobby Gruhn Field, the young person whose name he’d remember on a Saturday morning at Longstreet, or the countless others he made contact with daily, he treated everyone like they were Nathan Deal, Tommy Aaron or Deshaun Watson.
There’s a consummate quote used by coach and player alike when they’re asked to comment on the void left by a departing star, “You can’t replace a (insert name here).”
This morning an immense void was left in Gainesville. There is no replacing a Walt Snelling, but hopefully, collectively, we can carry on his legacy of love; for family, for life, for our youth and for our communities. The last line spoken at my baccalaureate many moons ago was, “You’ll always be a Red Elephant.” Nobody lived that better, nor with more class and dignity, than Mr. Snelling.
And here’s hoping upon arrival at the pearly gates, he’s greeted justly, “Hey ugly, how did you ever get that beautiful Carol to marry you?,” followed by a smile, a kiss on the cheek, a hug and a hearty thanks for being a beautiful servant to so many.