The request came from Donny Thiry's family in the days leading to his funeral. They asked the hundreds of friends attending services in Wayside Presbyterian Church to wear their Buffalo Sabres apparel, pallbearers included. If they didn't own anything Sabres, a Bills jersey would do just fine.
It was appropriate for a man who literally lived and died with Buffalo sports. He spent his life on the sidelines, with oxygen tanks in tow, never fully understanding what it meant to participate in the games he adored. With his ailing body came a strong, encyclopedic mind that overflowed with statistics and facts.
Donny was a sports commissioner of sorts in Hamburg. He worked the recreational leagues, shaking hands, keeping score, schmoozing with the refs. Tumors and spinal fusion kept his neck permanently crimped toward his shoulder, fitting because he always had a different view of the world.
The imbalance between how much he gave others and how little he took from them could be measured in the funeral procession, more than 2 miles long, one that snaked through the streets of his old neighborhood, not far from fields that brought him close to the action but distanced him from his ability to play.
Donny stood just 5 feet and weighed about 90 pounds when he died Jan. 12 at age 29. He suffered from neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow on nerves and produces bone and skin abnormalities. He had 38 surgeries, but nobody could ever remember him complaining. It was ironic that he had severe spinal problems because all anybody talked about was his backbone.
When he was 7, his spinal problems left him wearing a halo, the symbol of angels. It's how coaches viewed him for years at his beloved Frontier High. They used him as an example, an inspiration, when reminding their players about commitment and sacrifice and appreciating the opportunities they had.
"There are people who will never be the same because of the way Donny touched them," his sister, Kim Cook, said Monday. "He was put here to teach people how to appreciate life, how to look at life. It's what was so amazing. He had that gift. He left a lasting impression with everyone. He was a true angel."
Donny had a heart attack at 12, leaving him clinically dead for a few moments but full of life in the years that followed. He would have traded a decade for one at-bat, one twirl around the rink, one tackle that mattered. I'll say it again. Sports aren't life and death, but they are life. It's why his family for Christmas gave the Jeff Gordon fan a trip to the Daytona 500 next month.
Donny just a few weeks ago felt fine, by his standards. He attended the Sabres' loss to the Leafs on Jan. 11, showed no discomfort in anything but the score. He was back in HSBC Arena the following night for the Bandits' 16-14 thriller over the New York Titans.
He was riding home from the Bandits game with his sister, Shelly, and her boyfriend when suddenly he fell silent. His parents, Don and Bonnie, are hurting now because they weren't with him. Someday, they'll realize it was by design, just typical Donny setting others free before letting go himself.
He was buried wearing a Sabres' cap and an autographed jersey from Rob Ray, taking with him his favorite team and his favorite player. He had befriended Ray over the years, confirming opposites do attract. Ray is tough on the outside, a softie inside. Donny was fragile on the outside, the toughest kid around on the inside. It's how he'll be remembered.
Friends and family lined the walls inside the church for funeral services, a packed house to be sure. After each eulogy, they gave him in death what he richly deserved in life: a standing ovation.