ISHPEMING - In the last moments of his young life, Bubba Croley did what he always did: He tried to take care of the people he loved.
"The EMT told me Bubba said he was fine and we had to save his sisters and his mom first," said Jodi Betts Croley. "He said 'please help my sisters.' He said I love you Taylor and I love you to Gabby. He said, 'I love you mama' and that's when he fell over."
Christopher Croley, 13, died on the way to the hospital. He, his mother and his two older sisters were in a car struck head-on by an alleged drunk driver late in the evening of Oct. 5 in Middle Inlet, Wis. He died in the early hours of Oct. 6, one day before his 14th birthday.
Christopher “Bubba” Croley is pictured. (Croley family photo)
The family was on its way to Green Bay to celebrate both Bubba's birthday and a cousin's. Jodi Croley said they had attended the Ishpeming High School football game in Negaunee, then got on the road.
"I didn't want to try to wake the kids up the next morning to get them in the car to go to Wisconsin," she said.
According to police, the Croley vehicle ended up in the path of a truck, driven without headlights on. It rammed into them. Emergency vehicles and responders rushed to the scene. The Croley women had suffered broken bones and other injuries; Bubba was trying to help get his mother out of the badly damaged vehicle when he collapsed.
Helping others was a hallmark of his brief time on earth.
"He's always been Bubba. It was Bubs first," his mother said, smiling. "He was short and chubby as a little kid."
His father, also named Christopher, said, "I used to call him Bubba Beans. Pretty soon his school teachers were calling him Bubba and all our family was, too. Even in the school grade book, it said Bubba."
An eighth-grader in the Ishpeming Middle School, Bubba was a popular young man.
"He was a teddy bear," Jodi Croley said. "He always had a smile on his face. He had dimples. When he smiled, his eyes shined. If there was a new kid in school standing by himself, Bubba was the one who would go over and talk to him.
"He never wanted anyone to feel left out."
Already, Bubba was an imposing figure on the football field at 5-8 and 160 pounds.
"There's one picture we have when he's standing next to his sisters and he's just as tall as them," Christopher Croley said.
His father recalls a football game from earlier this season during which Bubba's friend Michell Uhl broke his wrist.
"The coach told them to huddle up, but Bubba left the huddle to check on Mitch. That's the kind of boy he was," his father said. "That's the spirit of who he was."
Living in a neighborhood near the Ishpeming playgrounds, Bubba was one of the older children there. Often, younger kids would come to the door and ask Bubba to go out to play. And he good-naturedly would.
"He was reaching young manhood," his father said. "His voice had been crackly. The night of the accident, when he came over at the end of the game to me and my wife (Tracy), there was no crackle in his voice when he said goodbye."
When his maternal grandfather, Gary Betts, was dying earlier this year, Bubba expressed his concern.
"Bubba always checked on him before he went anywhere," Jodi said.
Jodi and the kids live in the upstairs of the house, while her parents lived downstairs. Bubba spent a lot of time downstairs with his grandfather, who passed away Aug. 8.
"They watched sports on TV together a lot," Christopher Croley said. "Sports were big in my son's life. He played sports, went to school and spent time with his friends. He was a great, great kid."
More than 650 people attended Bubba Croley's funeral last week, some bringing bags of Skittles, his favorite candy, many wearing the special T-shirts made in his memory.
The family is still healing from the injuries sustained in the accident. Harder still will be the recovery from the loss of one so young and promising as Bubba.
"I have some peace knowing he's with his grandfather, who was in heaven alone," Christopher Croley said.
"Bubba will be missed by so many people," Jodi Croley said. "So, so many."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.