George Baltimore’s final conversation with Damon Bullock was unusually heavy.
The close friends had just finished playing three hours of pickup basketball at a fitness center in their native Texas last week, when the normally gregarious Bullock pulled Baltimore close.
“I recently became a dad. He just told me he was proud of me. He told me to raise my son the way we were raised,” Baltimore recalled Monday.
"(Bullock had said) 'I'm not going to be too far behind you. Our kids are going to grow up together. I’ll see you soon,’” Baltimore said.
At 6 a.m. Sunday, Baltimore got a phone call that left him shattered. Bullock, an Iowa Hawkeyes running back from 2011-14, had been struck by a passing vehicle and killed earlier that morning. Baltimore’s high school friend and mentor, a football teammate and confidant, was gone at age 25.
“He gave me a big hug when he left. I’m just glad we got to exchange those kind of words,” said Baltimore, 23.
Bullock was a star running back and track athlete at Mansfield High School before heading to Iowa, where he amassed 1,074 rushing yards and caught 71 passes out of the backfield.
Everyone who knew him said it was his easygoing sense of humor that defined Bullock off the field. Jordan Lomax, a defensive back on those Iowa teams, bonded with Bullock over their shared family connections to the Baltimore area.
On the field, they battled hard in practice, trying to “take each other’s heads off,” in Lomax’s words. Finally, after a particularly violent collision one day, they walked up to each after practice and agreed: “We need to chill.”
That was never a problem for Bullock. He was always quick with a joke and a smile. The last word Lomax exchanged with him, in a Friday afternoon group chat, was a joke Bullock told that had everyone laughing.
Bullock loved to shoot humorous videos on his phone. Lomax became his partner in making Vines — six-second snippets that they shared with their Hawkeye teammates — before one about Girl Scout cookies became a viral hit. It showed them singing a jingle about Girl Scout cookies while holding a box of Oreos. It took nearly three hours to film because Bullock was such a perfectionist, Lomax laughed.
Carl Davis, a Hawkeye defensive lineman and friend of Bullock’s, said the players used to anticipate each new Vine, grilling the pair about when the next one was coming out and what would be in it.
“Those two guys were masterminds. That was just Damon’s personality, joking around. And he was a hard worker, too,” Davis said Tuesday. “It was always fun when he was around.”
“It still doesn’t feel real today,” Lomax said Monday of his friend’s death. “I immediately just tried to think about the good times that we had, and found myself laughing. Then I just found myself tearing up, with tears streaming down my face. Knowing I won’t be able to see him personally again. His spirit was unmatched.”
Lomax said Bullock was so skilled at playing NFL and NBA video games that it provided them both with many meals. Bullock would play someone with the arrangement that the loser bought the winner a pizza.
“He had his dinner covered for pretty much every day of the week,” Lomax said. “I stopped playing him. But I would come into his room whenever he was playing somebody because I knew that meant a free pizza was coming, and Damon would share it.”
Davis, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, had a two-hour phone conversation with Bullock two weeks ago. They spoke about Davis’ upcoming birthday (he turned 27 on Saturday). They reminisced about their days playing at Iowa, laughing again about the time Bullock walked onto the field for pregame warmups complaining that his feet hurt. Davis pointed out that he was wearing two different cleats, both designed to fit on his left foot.
“I said, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Man, that makes sense now,’” Davis said.
In that final conversation, Davis chided Bullock for not calling more often. Bullock promised he would be better about staying in touch. His death has brought a wide range of former teammates closer, Davis said.
“Knowing how he is, I think he’ll appreciate that through his death, we all are going to be back together,” Davis said. “We all are reaching out to people, even people that we used to be close to that may have become distant. We’re just all talking. We’re going to celebrate his life. We’re going to mourn his death.”
Bullock earned his degree in leisure studies/health and sports studies. He was living in Grapevine, Texas. Baltimore said the last time they spoke, Bullock indicated he wanted to earn a certificate that would allow him to teach history and coach high school football.
Bullock crashed his car into a light pole in Duncanville, Texas, police there said. He was crossing the road to get back to his car when he was hit by a passerby, who called 911 and stayed at his side until help arrived. That driver will not face charges, police said.
Baltimore wondered if Bullock was attempting to walk to the nearby home of his parents, Roscoe and Kimberly Handy.
“I just woke up out of my sleep, letting it rain,” Baltimore said of the moment he received word of Bullock’s death. “It just didn’t make sense. He had just sent me a Snapchat earlier that night. I was going to a wedding. We were going to meet up later.”
Bullock broke his collarbone early in his junior season at Mansfield. It was Baltimore, then an uncertain freshman, who took his place in the lineup. Baltimore said he was impressed by how willing Bullock was to pass on his knowledge.
“I’m 14 years old, playing with grown men. I’m nervous as hell. He took me under his wing. By the end of the year, I was playing really well,” Baltimore said. “I can’t remember him ever losing his temper. Damon was someone who spread love to everyone he met. He was always so level-headed.”
Mansfield missed the playoffs that year. The next season, Bullock returned to rush for nearly 1,700 yards and get his team back in the postseason. Baltimore, no longer needed on offense, switched to safety and was good enough to eventually play for Texas Christian University.
Jeff Hulme was the coach at Mansfield then. He is at Waco Midway now, but still has an autographed picture of Bullock on the wall of his office. Bullock is in his No. 5 Hawkeyes jersey. The inscription reads: “Coach Hulme, thanks for everything, Damon Bullock, No. 5.”
Hulme was looking at the photo, one of only a few in his office, Monday when a reporter called to interview him about his former player.
“I never worried about Damon in anything. His grades. Outside of school. I knew he was a gentleman around young ladies,” Hulme said.
“Damon was a super young man that meant a lot to me. He’ll be a young man that I’ll remember forever. I spoke about him to my players (Monday). I was telling my team to embrace every day because you never know when your time is going to be called.”