Remember 13 years of age?
Everything seems possible, spread before you like a buffet, simply waiting for you to start making those “adult” decisions that will alter the rest of your life.
That’s the precipice Christopher Croley perched — not still a child, not yet a man — the day before his 14th birthday. He could play sports. After all, he enjoyed baseball, basketball, football and pretty much all the sports.
He could go into law enforcement. His dad worked as an undercover officer. His two older sisters would later both choose a similar career path.
Or maybe he, like so many teens, would just play video games for a little longer before making any big decisions.
“He hadn’t told me yet what he wanted to do,” said his father, Detective Sargent Christopher Charles Croley.
Chris didn’t have to yet; he had time. Or so he thought.
The day before Christopher’s 14th birthday, he and his two older sisters attended a Friday night football game. Then, the plan was to stop by his dad’s place to say “bye” and head three hours away to Green Bay with his mother and sisters for a celebratory weekend.
“He came in to say goodbye, and I gave him a hug and kiss. We told each other that we loved one another, and I mentioned that we would celebrate his birthday when he returned,” said his father. “Out the door, they went.”
His father, tired from watching the movie Deer Hunter, went up to bed later that night, only to hear a loud pounding on his front door. His coworkers, fellow officers, were standing on his porch, shining their flashlights on their badges so he would realize they were “friendlies.”
“The first thing they said was, “Chris, the kids are fine. But they were in a crash,” said Detective Sargent Croley. “So, I kind of let my guard down.”
His current wife called Detective Sargent Croley’s ex-wife’s sister to get an update on the situation while he quickly threw some items together to hit the road.
The next thing he heard was his wife cry out, “What do you mean he didn’t make it?”
A drunk driver pulling out of a bar on the side of the highway with his lights off. Christopher’s ex-wife tried to swerve out of the way at the last second, but it wasn’t enough. Christopher, who had tucked the chest strap of his seat belt under his arm, sustained massive internal injuries.
Still, when help arrived, he was conscious.
“He had the fortitude to tell his mother and sisters that he loved them. My ex-wife could tell he was struggling to breathe. She begged the first responders to help him,” he said.
The offender was found to have a BAC of .27. It wasn’t his first alcohol-related offense. He was given 15 years with an additional three years plus 15 years mandatory supervision.
The Croleys received a life sentence.
“It may sound strange, but I still talk to him,” said Detective Sargent Croley. “As a survivor, there is a little bit of guilt attached to everything you do. It’s a life-changing event.”
“I’ve arrested drunk drivers. Being a police officer, I’ve made it my life’s work to protect other people’s families. So, when you cannot protect your own family, especially someone as innocent as him, it takes its toll on a family.”
In Memory of Chris
Detective Sargent Croley doesn’t think about the way his son looked when he, against medical opinion, insisted on viewing the body. He never read the autopsy report, just to keep those details from forever rattling around in his head.
What does he remember?
Moments like when one of Chris’ friends was injured playing football. Other teammates immediately took a knee. Chris, he made sure to take a knee right next to his friend so he could comfort him.
“That’s the type of person he was to so many people. Tender-hearted. With our divorce and me being six hours away for so long, it couldn’t have been easy on him. He could have allowed it to really impact him.”
But he didn’t.
“People talk about his infectious smile. He had a good heart, and he would have had an amazing future. He deserved a chance to live it.”