An Unthinkable Tragedy

I don’t often write about NASCAR. I used to follow it a lot closer than I do now, but it was seldom anything more than a late-winter distraction as I waited for the IndyCar season to get cranked up. But something happened over the weekend that has stirred feelings I rarely experience.

In the 1970s, most teenagers I knew were Dallas Cowboys fans. The two closest teams to western Tennessee were the not-too-successful St. Louis Cardinals and the hapless Atlanta Falcons. But we rarely got those team’s games. We got a full diet of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s Team. I grew up following Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Drew Pearson and Harvey Martin – all coached by the ultimate gentleman, Tom Landry. Of course, if you were a fan of the Cowboys, you also hated the Washington Redskins. Redskins coaches George Allen and Jack Pardee were pretty to easy to dislike – at least back then.

But in 1981, the Redskins hired a coach I had never heard of – Joe Gibbs. Although I still cheered against the Redskins, Joe Theismann and The Hogs, it was hard not to like and admire Joe Gibbs. He was a man of deep faith, who lived by his principles.

After going 8-8 in his first season, he won the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Gibbs ended up winning three Super Bowls with the Redskins – with three different starting quarterbacks (Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien). In 1992, one year removed from his last Super Bowl win – Gibbs surprised the football world by retiring to focus on the NASCAR team he had started one year earlier; Joe Gibbs Racing.

It did not take long for the team to find success. Dale Jarrett won the 1993 Daytona 500, exactly one year after the team had its debut. Over thirty years, Joe Gibbs Racing became one of the major teams in NASCAR, winning five NASCAR Cup Series championships and four championships in what is now the Xfinity Series – the last of which was this past Saturday, with grandson Ty Gibbs in the car.

In the process, not only did Joe Gibbs successfully follow his passion in his second career; he was also building an empire that his heirs could operate for generations. Racing became the family business. Both of his sons, JD and Coy, had successful college football careers – but after graduation, they went into the family business of racing. All the while, Joe Gibbs led the organization that carried his name with the same integrity that was such a mark on his football teams.

Joe Gibbs seemed to lead a charmed life. I read his book, Racing to Win, just as Gibbs embarked on what would be his first true failure – returning to coach the Redskins in 2004. Many coaches would consider that four-year stint to be a success. He took the Redskins to the playoffs two of those four years, including his final year in 2007. But his previous stint with three Super Bowl championships was a hard legacy to live up to – even if it is your own. Gibbs stepped down after losing in the playoffs.

I found his book fascinating, and it detailed a fairly candid look at his early life, his courtship and eventual marriage to his wife and the birth of his two sons. Throughout the book, he describes events that shaped his character that we began to publicly see as coach of the Redskins in the eighties.

The charmed life just seemed to keep getting better. His sons were both pretty much running the race team, and almost all of his grandchildren were involved with the team in some form or fashion. Many were up and coming drivers and all seemed to thrive in the family business. Joe Gibbs was truly blessed as he entered his golden years.

But things changed, beginning in 2015. After a college football career, and a career driving in the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch series, JD Gibbs had been president of Joe Gibbs Racing for several years. But in May of 2015, JD Gibbs was diagnosed with a neurological brain disease, that affected his motor skills. JD died in January of 2019, at the age of 49.

JD’s little brother, Coy Gibbs, had assumed most of JD’s duties and roles as JD’s condition worsened. This past weekend, Coy’s son Ty Gibbs (Joe’s grandson), won the Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix on Saturday. That night, Ty posed with his father, Coy, and his mother Heather, in a celebratory photo.

Gibbs 1

As we all know now, Coy Gibbs died in his sleep that night at the age of 49, less than four years after JD passed away at the same age. It’s hard to look at that photo. You see how happy and proud they all were when it was taken, but you also know that in a matter of hours, Coy would be gone and his wife and son would have their lives turned upside down.

This is just not right. Joe Gibbs will turn 82 in a couple of weeks and both of his children are gone. I’m not sure what’s worse on a family; watching a loved one whither away for several years before passing away, or to have a family member seemingly in perfect health, only to have them taken away in an instant. Joe Gibbs and his wife Patricia have experienced both ends of that spectrum with their children.

Everyone expects that the day will come when you will have to bury your parents. You hope it comes later than sooner, but it is the inevitable circle of life. No married couple likes to think of it, but one of them will outlive the other. Except for the fact that women tend to live longer than men, you have a 50-50 shot of burying your spouse. It’s an unpleasant fact of life.

But no one, and I mean no one, should have to see their children buried. I have longtime friends who have lost a child and I can truthfully say that they never recovered – none of them. Each one of them carries a sense of sadness that has stayed with them for years. It will be with them forever.

Joe Gibbs, a man who has lived his life in a way we can all hold up as an example, had two children – sons JD and Coy. Today they are both gone. Having witnessed the pain that some of my friends have gone through in losing one child, made me think there could be nothing worse. I was wrong. Joe Gibbs outlived all of his children.

I am now in my mid-60s. I have gotten more hardened to death as it has become more common among my contemporaries. Hearing about a friend’s death in my 30s would have shaken me to my core. At this age, it is far too common and I seem to shrug it off too easily these days. But seeing what has happened to Joe Gibbs over the past few years has resonated with me. It is something I cannot personally imagine, and I hope I never experience anything close to this.

Please keep the entire Gibbs family and the Joe Gibbs Racing team in your prayers.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “An Unthinkable Tragedy”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Very shocking and very sad. I caught a lot of the Phoenix pre-race show on Sunday and was struck by how much Coy Gibbs’ death seemed to affect even the folks who weren’t part of the Gibbs team. Prayers for the Gibbs family.

  2. jvolgarino Says:

    I started following Joe Gibbs on the football field even though I’m not a football fan. But I had read he was a gearhead and was determined to do things the right way, so I was intrigued.
    I’ve followed NASCAR off and on the past 20 years and admit to still being intrigued by the Joe Gibbs legacy. I’ve rekindled my racing interests by paying more attention to things like IndyCar (thanks, George) and NASCAR, now that the young guns are really pushing some excitement into the sport.
    I also have friends who have lost children and the grief never completely subsides. I’ve stood in an emergency waiting room as a couple witnessed their son dying following a tragic car accident. That experience never left me and the Gibbs family has to be beyond devastated.
    Joe is a man of deep faith, but this situations can put that faith at extreme risk. If you are a prayerful person, please include the entire Gibbs family in your prayers.

  3. you are right.
    my sister lost her daughter,
    and my cousin lost her son.
    neither have recovered.

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