Calkins: Will Drennan died a hero. His friends want everyone to know.

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 12, 2022 5:23 PM CT | Published: August 12, 2022 3:25 PM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

He didn’t hesitate.

That’s what you should know about Will Drennan.

That’s what his son, Hayden, should know about his father, who is now gone.

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When the rains came Tuesday afternoon, when the torrent swept a child into a culvert under Neshoba Road, Drennan did not stop to think about it, he did not care that it was a child he had never met.

He sprinted toward the torrent.

He didn’t give a thought to his own life.

“I was right there,” said Chris Fussell, one of Drennan’s longtime friends. “There is no question. The only reason he was in that water is that he saw a child he had never met, about to go into the water and potentially lose his life. He was a hero. I want to make sure everyone knows that about Will.”

Fussell is standing near the 18th green at TPC Southwind, with a cluster of Drennan’s closest friends. One of them is Darrell Smith, the former director of the Memphis golf tournament. Another is Matt Young, who worked alongside Smith at the tournament up until this year. Fussell and Jimbo Robinson coached flag football with Drennan — and were at the practice Tuesday night when the sudden storm flipped all of their lives upside down.

The four men came to the tournament Friday because they wanted to be together. Because they wanted to talk about — to celebrate — their larger-than-life friend.

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“Will volunteered here,” Smith said. “He was a standard bearer for five or six years. Saturday and Sunday, they are going to give all the volunteers purple ribbons in his honor because this is a tragedy that impacts everybody. It’s a community loss.”

Drennan, 37, was the sort of person who knew everybody — who connected everybody — with a personality that could light up Southwind at night.

“Here,” Fussell said, pulling out his phone to show off a photo.“Look at that smile. That smile was Will.”

The smile stretches across Drennan’s entire face. It is the smile of a man who got the most out of life. Drennan loved duck hunting even when he didn’t shoot any ducks. He loved Arkansas football even when the Hogs lost. He loved his friends even though he had more of them than he could count.

More than any of that, he loved being a dad.

Indeed, that’s another thing that bound the friends together. They all had kids the same age.

Last Friday, they all got together to celebrate Hayden’s sixth birthday. They had a dunk tank and everything.

“We were sitting on the driveway, just talking,” Smith said. “And Will started talking about what a tragedy it was that this kid, who was connected to the party, had suddenly lost his dad. And four days later, that was his reality.”

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The details, you may have seen on the TV news. They are still hard to comprehend. One moment, Drennan, Robinson and Fussell were getting ready for the first practice of the year for their kids’ flag- football team. The next moment, everyone’s lives had forever changed.

“The rain started just about when practice was supposed to begin,” Robinson said. “A lot of the parents realized it would be canceled and stayed away.”

The kids and coaches took shelter, as best they could. When the rains lightened, they started moving toward their cars.

“As we were kind of getting to the cars, we look off to the right and you see a kid too close to the water,” Fussell said. “Will just reacted. He ran to save that kid from being sucked into the water, as he knew was going to happen. There was so much water. It was like a raging river. But he just went.”

Tommy Parker is the father of the boy that was swept through the culvert. Both are bruised but otherwise fine today.

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“I had never met Will before Tuesday,” he said. “I coach a different team. We met, shook hands and said, ‘Hey, let’s have fun today. We’re all going to practice together on the same field.’”

After the rains, Parker was packing up his car when he heard someone scream, “He went in!”

“I looked and I saw Will in the water,” he said. “I didn’t even know my son had gone in.”

Parker then went in, as did Fussell. They were swept through the culvert, too.

“There was no air at all,” Parker said. “When I realized I was going under, I held my breath and said, ‘Hold on as long as you can. I don’t know if this is how I’m going to die, but hold on.’”

Several seconds later, Parker popped up on the other side. As did his son. As did Fussell.

Drennan did not.

“When we found him, it was too late,” Fussell said. “He was gone.”

He loved life more than anyone I know. And he gave it up to save a child. That was Will.

Jimbo Robinson
Friend of Will Drennan

That devastating truth is almost impossible to fathom. How can larger-than-life Will Drennan be gone?

He was just here, planning a hunting trip to North Dakota. He was just here, spending all day Saturday with his son and with Lauren, his ex-wife.

He should have been at the golf course with his buddies Friday, watching Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. He should be smiling that smile and making every one of his dozens of friends feel like they’re the one friend that matters most.

“He loved life more than anyone I know,” Robinson said. “And he gave it up to save a child. That was Will.”

Parker, the father of the child, hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy. But he wanted to say something about Drennan for this piece.

“I recently retired from the Navy,” he said. “I’ve seen people do things and I’ve seen people not do things. I’ve seen some of the biggest people cower down when the moment calls for them to rise up. I’ve seen people you’d never expect step up. You never know what you’re going to do until that moment hits. Are you going to react the way we like to think we’d react? Will did. He rose up to that moment. He reacted instantly. I never really knew him but that tells me what kind of character he had. He is absolutely a hero. He gave his life to save my son and my son is alive.”

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The family hasn’t yet finalized plans for the memorial service. There will be a fund set up for Hayden, so keep an eye out for that. 

Drennan’s friends have already vowed to be a permanent presence in Hayden’s life. 

“He lost his father but he now has about 12-15 uncles that are ready to take charge,” Robinson said.

Added Smith: “He doesn’t know what he’s in for.”

They choked up, talking about their friend. They paused between words they couldn’t quite get out. 

“But we want everyone to know he was a hero,” Young said. “That’s what this is about. When Hayden Googles his father, we want him to see what a hero he was.”



Will Drennan Flag-football Drowning FedEx St. Jude Championship Darrell Smith Jimbo Robinson

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