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Cancer can't keep the man everyone knows as Taco from the WCWS

Tom Collins, who is in his 27th year as an event volunteer at the Women's College World Series, is battling pancreatic cancer. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Tom Collins, who is in his 27th year as an event volunteer at the Women's College World Series, is battling pancreatic cancer. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

Spend any time at the Women’s College World Series with the man everyone calls Taco, and you realize that aside from the players and the coaches, he is the most well-known person at the ballpark.

Earlier this week, he was on the concourse when a woman wearing Washington purple approached.

“Hey, sweetheart!” she said with a smile.

“How are you?” he asked, smiling back.

They hugged, then she looked at him with a serious expression.

“Hang in there,” she said.

He nodded and replied, “Thank you.”

During a week when the WCWS is seeing record crowds, new fans are coming in droves, but this 72-year-old whose given name is Tom Collins is a reminder of the ties that under gird this event. How long-timers have gotten to know each other. How softball fans have become unofficial family.

Never have those connections meant more to Taco.

“Well,” he said, his voice wavering, “I have pancreatic cancer.”

He swallowed hard.

“But,” he exclaimed, verbally batting away the sad vibes, “the good part is it’s all contained in one spot. The last CT scan we did … it had shrunk a little.”

Chemo treatments and doctor appointments have become a regular part of Taco’s life. But he wasn’t going to let any of that keep him from the WCWS.

This is his 27th year as an event volunteer.

Back in the early 90s, the lifelong resident of Norman sponsored and coached the slowpitch softball teams of some former OU players. Along the way, he got to know former Oklahoma softball coach and athletics administrator Marita Hynes, and when she needed volunteers to help at the WCWS during its early days in Oklahoma City, Taco jumped in.

He started out ferrying players and coaches to press conferences on a golf cart, but it wasn’t long before he was putting some serious miles on that cart. He would help older folks get from their cars or the shuttle bus drop-off to the main gate. He would run supplies around the stadium.

“Just a little bit of everything,” he said of his duties.

Truthfully, he has become the unofficial ambassador of the WCWS. The smiling face that has greeted so many. He has become a friend to fans, reporters, players, administrators, coaches.

It’s no wonder the Big 12 put him to work at their events, too. Taco, a Dutch Irish Mexican who got his nickname from a college buddy, has done media days and football title games. Baseball, softball and basketball tournaments, too.

The WCWS, though, is his favorite.

“Always has been,” he said.

He remembers the first time he took flame-throwing lefty Monica Abbott to a press conference. She was just a freshman at Tennessee, already supremely talented but completely terrified.

“Where are we going?” she asked Taco. “What is this all about?”

A few years later after Abbott had made the Olympic team, she was no longer a timid teen. As Taco maneuvered his golf cart around and between people, Abbott goaded him, “Go, Taco! Go!”

His memories are many, but he is quick with his favorite — Sooner slugger Lauren Chamberlain’s walk-off home run against Tennessee in the 12th inning of the 2013 championship series.

Taco happened to be watching from his regular spot, a concrete perch near the pressbox that he nicknamed “The Taco Stand.” He was with OU athletic director Joe Castiglione, longtime Sooner administrator Larry Naifeh and OU superfan Toby Keith when Chamberlain golfed the ball down the left-field line and over the wall.

“And we were all dancin’ around like a bunch of little girls,” Taco said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”

He’s seen lots in his nearly three decades at the WCWS, including four national championships by his beloved Sooners. But the games and the memories aren't what he loves most.

The people are.

When he found out about his cancer, friends began to rally. They’d call and text. They’d post on his Facebook page. There were offers of food and rides to see the doctor.

This week, a group of gals from Iowa who’ve come to the WCWS for 15 consecutive years told Taco they were bringing their travel trailer.

“They said one of the main reasons was so I’d have a place to lay down,” he said.

The chemo has zapped his appetite causing him to lose nearly 50 pounds. He’s doing everything he can to gain back some weight — the fish from Long John Silver’s always seems to hit the spot — but he still tires easily.

He gets worn down, but he's not beat down.

“I’m finding so many people who have been through it and survived it,” he said of cancer. “Then when I go do my infusion, I sit there and look at the other people and think, ‘Don’t you ever feel sorry for yourself. There’s people a lot worse off than you.’

“I’ve got a million friends, a million prayers.”

More chemo remains. He goes three consecutive Tuesdays, then has one Tuesday off, then repeats the cycle at the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Med.

Later this month, there’ll be another scan to see how the tumor is reacting. Because it’s near some blood vessels, the tumor needs to shrink before surgery to remove it.

In the meantime, Taco is continuing to do what he loves. He may move a little more slowly, a bit more gingerly, but he isn’t stopping.

“I’m not going to let it beat me,” he said. “If I stay home, it’ll beat me.”

He doesn’t look beat this week.

He’s one of the first ones at the park and one of the last ones to leave. Yes, he’s lost some hair and some weight, but he’s still quick with a smile and a hug.

Lots of folks have stopped him to ask if he’s doing all right.

“I’m at a softball park. I’m at the College World Series,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Why wouldn’t I be doin’ all right?”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›