Editor’s note: Dan O’Donnell, who died Dec. 11, was interviewed in November for this story.
“It’s a beautiful day for a ride.”
That’s what 78-year-old Dan O’Donnell said to a buddy on a recent sunny Monday morning with his biking group along the Snohomish River.
Ten seconds later, he slumped over.
He likely died before he hit the ground in Everett near Lowell.
His buddies did CPR. Paramedics tried everything.
It was to no avail.
Ann, his wife of 55 years, says it probably was a massive heart attack.
O’Donnell had been dealing with heart issues since his first cardiac arrest in 1995. To stay fit, he started biking and formed a riding group, the Big Shots, recruiting one buddy after the other.
He was the ringleader of the bunch of guys, ages 70 to 91, riding bikes as if they were 8 again.
For 20 years, on Mondays and Wednesday, in sickness and snow, they met at his house in Everett at 8:20 a.m. sharp for the route he planned.
Then off they’d go, for a 15- or 20-mile ride, straddling the seat and spinning the pedals as if it was 1957. At least until the arthritis and sciatica kicked in.
Snohomish to Arlington. The backroads of Silvana. Alki and beyond.
Always with a stop for lunch.
O’Donnell lived for those biking sessions with his chums.
“I saw my doctor a month ago and she said, ‘Keep biking,’” he said a few weeks ago. “I don’t push as hard as I used to, but I still have that image of pushing pretty hard.”
At that time, he mentioned that out of 16 guys in the club, there hadn’t been any funerals.
Men on bikes
Perhaps you’ve seen the Big Shots.
A dozen or so gleeful geezers in helmets and safety jackets.
No Spandex. No Fitbits. No shame.
If — no, make that when — they wobble or fall or run into fences, they aren’t the least bit embarrassed.
“If you are going to ride, you are going to get hurt,” said O’Donnell, who carried a first aid kit.
It’s pedal power untarnished by age.
“We’d rather wear out than rust out,” said rider Denny Brawford, 78.
O’Donnell had full authority over the group.
“I tell them where they’re going. They have no vote,” he said.
Fine with them. It saved time and debate.
After meeting at O’Donnell’s house for the day’s riding assignment, they’d carpool to the starting point, typically a trailhead, gulch or side road.
“We start off with good intentions and then disperse as we go,” Brawford said. “We describe ourselves as a herd of cats.”
Midway through a few hours of biking, they brake for a meal.
“Lunch is an important part,” O’Donnell said. As shot caller, he picked the place to eat. It might be the bowling alley in Arlington or the Chinese place in Anacortes, where they compete to see who gets the most wontons in their soup.
Most of the guys were athletes. In the mix are former football stars, basketball players, coaches, a wrestler and a cross-country ski champ. They stayed active and weren’t going to let a little thing like age get in the way.
O’Donnell played in adult soccer leagues. He began biking regularly after he found an old Schwinn in a trash bin at a masonry supply business he owned. After he took a tumble over the handlebars on a solo ride, he asked a soccer buddy to ride with him. Then another buddy. Then a buddy of a buddy asked to join the group.
It led to 16 diehards in the Big Shots club, including two Larrys, two Bills, and two O’Donnells who weren’t related. More than half went to Everett High School and two were in kindergarten together.
The group’s name came from Larry O’Donnell, 80. “My mother who is not a profane person at all, if she really got disturbed with somebody she’d say, ‘He’s a big shot. Dot both of the i’s,’ ” he said. (It was her polite way of changing the o in “shot” to an i without swearing.)
It’s a true old boys club. Men only. Then again, it’s not as if they’ve had any women ask to join.
In sickness and health
As for medical issues, you name it and these Big Shots have had it: Heart problems. Urinary plights. Bad knees. Cancer the size of a cantaloupe.
The Big Shots credit their vigor to biking. It has changed over time, but not diminished.
“It kept me going,” said Bert Larsson, who turns 92 in two weeks.
It’s more than fitness. It’s male bonding. Or bromance, as they say these days.
“We socialize as much as we exercise,” said Jack Wilson, 75. “Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s time to bicycle.”
“It has become a big part of my life,” said David Lande, 77.
“All these guys have stories to tell, and they tell it over and over and over,” added Loren Sand, 70. “We all laugh at it like it’s the first time.”
They come from different backgrounds and careers, including tradesmen and educators.
None of that matters in this cycle of life. It’s not about who they were back in the day, it’s about who they are now.
The men plan their weeks — and their medical appointments — around the rides. Illness is no excuse for an absence. Even a guy who isn’t up for biking has been known to show up, at least for lunch.
“It’s kind of like being on a team,” said Bill Rucker, 77. “When we see Bert and Fred (the second oldest at 89) out there riding on a cold, rainy morning we think to ourselves, ‘If they can do it, we better be able to do it.’ ”
OK, so maybe there is an ulterior motive.
Larry Jensen, 75, joked that in addition to the camaraderie, “It’s getting away from the house and the wives.”
It also gets them out of the state. Some Big Shots take biking vacations together.
“We’ve been to many beautiful places that I never would have gone if not for this group,” said Jerry Solie, 80. “And there’s many more to come.”
The group kicked off 2017 on Jan. 4 with cold buns on a ride in Anacortes. It was 24 degrees, but hot wonton and warm conversation awaited at the finish line.
Two summers ago, four Big Shots took the chairlift up Stevens Pass and rode down. Several times. Dan O’Donnell took a fall and split his helmet, but he didn’t rule out trying it again.
There have been some close calls for others. On an Oregon mountain biking trip, they rounded a corner going downhill where a group of bird watchers stood in the road. Here’s what they heard from those taking cover: “Run, Mabel, run. They’re older than we are.”
Don’t let the ages and ailments fool you. They’re still playful chaps at heart. On a trip to Utah, four bikers (including both O’Donnells) celebrated a rough climb by mooning the camera for the annual Big Shots photo calendar distributed among their group.
It’s more than biking, eating and behaving like they’re eighth-graders, not 80-year-olds.
The Big Shots also spread their joy. Every December, they collect gifts for Christmas House.
Another time, they bought a 3-wheeled bicycle for a boy with disabilities. An honorary Little Shot — just dot the first “i”.
The Big Shots will gather Jan. 13 for a celebration of life for Dan O’Donnell at his nephew’s restaurant, Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub in Everett.
They’ve continued the Monday and Wednesday bike rides since their leader’s death, knowing all too well that he’d be disappointed if they didn’t.
His widow, Ann, wants the group to keep meeting at her house to plan their route.
His pals take solace in his final words: “It’s a beautiful day for a ride.”
So, too, does Ann.
“I think God put those words in his mouth, and then took him,” she said.
Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; email@example.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown.
Meet the Big Shots
Laurie Baker, 72, Everett School District educator
Denny Brawford, 78, United Airlines pilot
Larry Jensen, 75, PUD crew dispatcher
David Lande, 77, Snohomish School District educator
Bert Larsson, 91, carpenter
Dennis LeMaster, 78, Purdue University professor
Larry O’Donnell, 80, Everett School District administrator
George Newland, 78, Newland Construction Company
Bill Randall, 81, Associated Sand & Gravel engineer
Bill Rucker, 77, H&L Sporting Goods/Soccer West owner and Everett City Council President
Loren Sand, 70, Snohomish County head engineer
Jerry Solie, 80, funeral home and cemetery co-owner
Fred Weyers, 89, tile artisan
Jack Wilson, 75, chief warrant officer U.S. Coast Guard
Doug Zook, 75, W.W.Wells Millwork