Woollum's life celebrated at CNU

Brandon Jones and his Christopher Newport teammates came into the locker room feeling pretty good after a less than artistic win, he told the throng at the Freeman Center. They were undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into the holiday break.

Coach C.J. Woollum stormed into the room, Jones recalled, slammed the door, banged the desk and said, "You guys are the worst 12-0 team ever! You need to go home over this Christmas break and beat up on your old high school teammates and beat up on your friends and come back with a game plan."

"We had lost the killer edge," Jones explained, "and that was his way of letting us know that we were complacent and we weren't there yet."

Jones was one of a dozen who spoke glowingly, lovingly and, at times, humorously about Woollum, who passed away last week at age 64 after a battle with brain cancer.

Approximately 1,300 packed the Freeman Center on Sunday evening for a 90-minute tribute to the life of one of the giant figures in CNU and Peninsula athletics.

CNU president Paul Trible called Sunday's ceremony a teaching moment, particularly for young people with long lives ahead.

"Think about this moment in your life," he said. "Who will come to your funeral? What will your sons and daughters and nephews say? Will you have friends come to pay their respect and young people whose lives you have touched?

"What we've seen tonight is powerful testimony to a life well lived," he said. "A life of love and engagement and service, embrace that. Live that kind of life and the world will never be the same."

The Freeman Center lights were dimmed, with one spotlight illuminating a lectern at center court on the floor named for Woollum. Two other spotlights at opposite ends of the court illuminated red roses laid on the floor in his honor.

The ceremony concluded with a big-screen photo montage of Woollum's life to the soundtrack of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" — Woollum's favorite song by his favorite band.

Several people mentioned that Woollum would have been profoundly grateful and deeply humbled by Sunday's outpouring of affection. He was a selfless soul and one of the rare people who led a public life, but was genuinely uncomfortable as the center of attention.

Woollum did what he did not for glory or ego, various speakers said, but to inspire others to accomplishment and greatness. They described a fastidious, meticulous man who demanded as much of himself as of others.

"He was not only a coach and a mentor, but a dear friend," said former CNU women's basketball All-American Chelsie Schweers. He wanted to know more about people than simply what they were doing on the court or on the field.

They told of a man whose personality and persuasive powers belied his stature.

If you were going to tell him 'no,' interim athletic director and longtime CNU basketball assistant coach Jon Waters said, you had better do it over the phone, because you couldn't do it face-to-face.

Rev. Marcellus Harris, who like many watched in awe as CNU transformed from a sleepy, little neighborhood commuter school to a vibrant, regional and national institution, themed his remarks around the old Frank Sinatra tune, "High Hopes."

Woollum, he said, was the ant who against all odds moved the rubber tree plant.

Longtime CNU assistant coach Roland Ross fittingly bounced a basketball to the lectern and touched the ball often as he spoke. Woollum used athletics in general, and basketball in particular, as a means of reaching and teaching.

"I am who I am because of him," Ross said. "There are a lot of men who are who they are because of him."

Former All-American Lamont Strothers, the greatest men's player in CNU history, didn't talk basketball when he discussed Woollum's impact on him.

"One of the biggest things Coach (Woollum) helped me with was being a father," Strothers said. "I was a father early, here at CNU, and seeing him interact with Emily and his daughters, and the many conversations I had with him about being a father helped me be closer to my kids."

Woollum's older brother, Charlie, the former basketball coach and now analyst, returned to a message that he often conveys to groups in speaking engagements, a message that resonated more deeply Sunday.

"Who we are," he said, "is God's gift to us. Who we become is our gift to God. I feel very confident that God is pleased with who C.J. became."

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