So much can change so quickly.
Just three weeks ago, it was a joyous time for legendary former Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden and his family.
Grandson Taylor Jeffrey Bowden graduated from FSU with a degree in criminology. T.J., as he was known, decided not to receive his diploma then, though. A cousin would be graduating later, and he wanted to walk through the graduation ceremony with her.
Bowden softly told that story to me over the telephone Friday because T.J., 23, will never have that moment. He was one of two men killed Thursday, the day after Christmas, in a car accident near Winter Haven.
“Until you’ve lost someone like this, you can’t know what it’s like,” Bowden said. “He was just fixing to make his name ...”
He is the second of Bowden’s grandchildren to die in a car wreck. In 2004, 15-year-old Bowden Madden was killed along with his father in an accident on Interstate 10 in Gadsden County.
Bowden and his wife, Ann, have 21 grandchildren — he had to stop for a second and count to make sure the number was correct — but Bobby let it slip that T.J. was his favorite.
Maybe that’s because while he was a student at FSU, he dropped by his grandparents’ home in Tallahassee several times a week just to say hello. You always form a special bond with grandkids.
“Ann spent so much time with him,” Bowden said. “Help with this, help with that. It’s so hard.”
The elder Bowden knew something was terribly wrong when T.J.’s father, former FSU offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, called about 1 p.m. Thursday.
He told the family their grandson was gone.
Just like that, everything changed.
“Jeff was in pretty bad shape,” Bowden said. “And it does hurt. It does hurt.”
T.J. was a passenger in the front seat of a Mitsubishi when it careened into a watery ditch and landed on its roof about 2 a.m. The driver, Rafael Fernandes De Aguiar Valim, also died. A passenger in the back seat survived.
“I remember driving around all those roads around Winter Haven on recruiting trips,” Bowden said. “You can be driving along and all of a sudden there can be these sharp turns.”
The car was discovered by workers on a garbage truck about 7:45 a.m. Thursday along Country Club Road South in Winter Haven. It had broken through a fence, the front end submerged. The initial cause of both men’s deaths was listed as drowning.
Now, instead of planning for graduation walks and other joyous events, once again the family is planning a funeral and trying to make sense of the senseless.
I asked Bobby Bowden to introduce his grandson to those who would never have the chance to know him.
“He had a great, happy personality,” Bowden said. “He was a very happy young man. He always had a smile on his face. He was outgoing. I don’t think he ever met a stranger.”
He wasn’t an athlete, but he was fascinated by police work and probably would have had a career in that field. He was Catholic and, Bobby Bowden said, had a deep faith.
So does Bowden, as anyone who knows him understands. It’s what helped get him through the death of his first grandson.
He relied on it when learning Monday that Alan Arrington, an assistant on Bowden’s son Terry’s football staff at the University of Akron, was killed while driving home to Mississippi for Christmas.
“I knew him real well, and that news was hard,” Bowden said. “We were dealing with that all through Christmas.”
But like I said, faith is a cornerstone of Bobby Bowden’s life. He has witnessed frequently to that in churches and conferences all over the country. He did that while speaking more than nine years ago at a grandson’s funeral.
If he is asked to speak at this one, he knows what he will say.
“It’s something we talk about a lot,” he said. “It’s about not wanting to die, but being prepared for it. I’m 84 years old and I’m not eager to die, but I am prepared for it. And you have to be. It can happen to anyone, at any time, and anywhere.”