The following is an article I wrote 11 years ago while a sports writer, republished verbatim and borrowed with permission from The Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance. Please find commentary about the piece at the bottom.
‘To a perfect best friend’
Cancer broke up hunting duo after two decades
By Kurt Culbert
BEDFORD (Va.) – It doesn’t take long to see that Mike Cottrell is an avid outdoorsman.
Eight or so mounted bucks hang throughout his house, evidence of the countless hours Cottrell has spent working the woods for the majestic whitetail deer.
Most of those hours, though, doubled in enjoyment for Cottrell because he was spending time with his best friend, Al McFaden.
This season marks the first time in 21 years Cottrell won’t be venturing into the woods with McFaden, who died May 7 at 47 after a battle with cancer.
The excitement that normally precedes hunting season for Cottrell isn’t quite as strong this year. Hunting without his best friend just won’t be the same.
“Without question, this is going to be the hardest hunting season I’ve ever experienced,” said Cottrell, 42. “I’ve hunted with Al for the better part of my life. He is the perfect hunter.”
Cottrell pauses for a moment and just shakes his head and smiles.
“He was the perfect hunter.
“I’ve had a real hard time with this. I guess I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.”
No one ever said losing a best friend is easy, but Cottrell says that McFaden was more than a best friend.
“I was thinking the other day of a headline for Al,” Cottrell said. “I thought of ‘A tribute to a perfect hunter.’ Then I said, ‘A tribute to a perfect best friend.’ He was both of those and so much more.”
Cottrell remembers the day the pair met in November 1978 as though it were yesterday. They were both starting their first day on the job at Siegwerk Ink, in the prime of hunting season.
“I had just left the farm for public work,” Cottrell, of Bedford, recalled. “The city life was kind of new to me. The first guy I meet is Al and he sticks his had out and says, ‘Nice to meet you.’ He had a huge smile. I like to call it a ‘magical Colgate smile.’”
It didn’t take long for the two to start taking their hunting interests afield and begin the bond that would carry them for the next 21 years.
“From that first day we met, we never had a cross word,” Cottrell said. “Heck, I seen him more than I seen my own wife.”
The memories Cottrell has of hunting with McFaden seem countless. Most of the time, the two hunted with Cottrell’s brother-in-law, Randy Walker.
But a few stories stick out in Cottrell’s mind. Judging from the smile on his face, they’re all no doubt pleasurable.
An article was written about the adventure the two had in November 1985, when Cottrell shot his first bear.
On a dreary, rainy day, the two went into their normal hunting area in Bedford County for a quiet, still hunt. To get out of the rain, Cottrell crouched at the base of a tree and awaited the rain and his friend.
“All of the sudden I heard (a whistle),” Cottrell said. “I looked up and saw Al sitting under a … bush. I waved back at him, but when he pulled his hand down, I see this black blur running away from him. I thought, ‘Heck, that’s a bear.’”
Cottrell grabbed his gun and shot the bear on the run. It turned out the bear had actually been sitting under the same tree as McFaden.
“He didn’t even know it,” Cottrell said. “He was as excited as I was. But that’s the kind of guy he was. He was my rabbit’s foot and my lucky charm.”
Another time, the two had rested from an early hunt and were standing, talking and drinking soda and eating a candy bar. They could hear a housedog chasing deer just over a ridge.
“Al had just missed an eight point the day before,” Cottrell said. “I know his bullet must have hit a limb or something, because there was no better shot in the state of Virginia. But Al gave me his gun and told me to go after it.”
Cottrell went out looking for the deer, which ended up being a “huge buck.” With a broadside shot well within range, Cottrell pulled the trigger only to discover he had no shell chambered.
“Al was always safe,” Cottrell laughed. “I thought, ‘what in the world have you don’t to me?”
After getting a shell loaded and finally getting re-situated, Cottrell ended up getting a shot at the monster buck.
The two waited an hour before beginning the search. They found a speck of blood where the buck was last seen and began what turned out to be a six-hour journey for miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“My eyes were just burned out,” Cottrell said. “Al said, ‘If he’s as big as you say he is, ‘I’m gonna find him.’ I couldn’t even see any longer, but after miles of tracking just prints in the dirt, Al said, ‘There’s the deer right there.’”
The buck turned out to be the largest Cottrell has killed with his gun, a 10-pointer with extra-long tines.
“I would’ve never found that deer,” Cottrell said. “I wouldn’t have half the deer I shot if it weren’t for Al. There wasn’t anyone better in the woods.”
Cottrell remembers McFaden as a family man who is survived by his wife, Cynthia, and two children, Scott and Tracy.
“He’d always bring up his family and how much he loved them and how fortunate he was to have such great kids.”
The hunting group grew a bit in recent years when McFaden’s son Scott began to join them. Cottrell remembers when Scott was able to shoot his first buck.
“Al was so happy and proud,” Cottrell said. “He dragged that buck to the creek and started to field dress it and ended up cutting his thumb because he was so excited.”
Last hunting season was memorable in other ways for Cottrell. After a nearly two-year fight with colon cancer, all indications were that McFaden had defeated the disease.
“He kept going back for regular check-ups and they gave him a clean bill of health,” said Cottrell.
During hunting season, McFaden began to get sick.
“I knew it was different than a normal sick,” Cottrell said. “I told him that he needed to go back to the doctor. They ended up telling him the cancer had spread and it was getting worse fast. He asked them for a timetable and they said they couldn’t be exact, but maybe two or three years.
“He just kept telling me that he wanted God to give him one more hunting season because he wanted to take Scott hunting one more time.”
His vigorous battle with the disease didn’t last long: He died six months later.
“You know, he was a real winner,” Cottrell said. “His battle with cancer was the only thing I’ve ever seen him lose. But, he was still a winner because of all the lives he touched while he was here.
“He asked me if Scott could hunt with us even after he passed. I told him that as long as there’s a breath in me and I can hunt, Scott will hunt with us.”
On one of the two best friends’ final hunt, Cottrell shot a dandy eight-pointer. He holds up the rack among other fine animals. “Al could have shot that deer. He ended up watching me shoot it and he could have shot it himself, but he wanted to let me.”
Cottrell paused one more time and stared at a picture of his friend with a monster buck. “To sit and watch your best friend suffer is so hard. What’s that Alabama song? God spent a little more time on you? That’s what he did with Al.”
Looking ahead, Cottrell hopes he gets excited for the upcoming season.
“It’s gonna be hard. Al’s not here with us to put a smile on our face, but he’s gonna be in our hearts doing it. I know he’s flashing that ‘Colgate smile’ in heaven.
“The woods in Bedford County aren’t going to be as perfect this season. The perfect hunter is not gonna be there.”
I remember the day well when Mike Cottrell was escorted to my desk in the newsroom in 1999. He had his hat in is hand and was hell bent on finding a way to honor his hunting buddy. He was clearly hurting from the loss several months earlier and I’m not sure he expected to find someone who shared a passion for the outdoors when we chatted by my desk. Then again, I’m not sure I expected to find one of the kindest-hearted human beings I’ve ever met.
This story was one of the easiest I ever wrote and ranks among the top-two articles ever in feedback volume. I am so thankful that I got to meet Mike that day, to get to spend a day with him at his house talking about his friend, and later sharing opening day of the 1999 Virginia opener with him in the same woods that he and Al used to travel. It was on that day that I shot my first Virginia deer, a basket racked buck on a beautiful mountainside atop a large rock that Mike dropped me off at before daylight. And to top it off, Mike shot a dandy 8 point that morning as well. Sadly, I have not connected with Mike in quite some time. Thinking of this article has sent me on a mission to find him and see how he’s doing. I will do that immediately.
I’m not sure the reach of this story really hit me until I walked into my cousin’s deer camp that same year, in Western New York, to find the article framed with a small note reminding his guests that the article’s homage to a hunting buddy was “what it’s all about.” The article still hangs there today.