Little A came back to Chester this week to spend Thanksgiving with the man he calls Big A. It’s a tradition that started in 2014 with a mix-up, a broken-hearted little boy from Pennsylvania, and a kind sheriff in Chester County.
They don’t look alike. Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood of Chester is a big, burly guy. Alex “Little A” Collins is an 11-year-old. Amid the differences – in looks and geography – they’ve found something far more important, something that lasts forever.
“I love hunting with Big A,” Alex said. “It’s fun. I always wanted to do it and he took me. He taught me.”
Underwood has for the past two years made time for Little A. When Little A cries, Big A puts those big, thick arms around him and tells him he will always be “my Little A.”
“Little A is part of the sheriff’s office now. He will always be one of us,” Underwood said. “He’s a part of my family. We love Little A. He has his own room in my house. We tell him he is the greatest, because he is.”
And when Little A says, “Nobody was ever there to teach me things,” those days are long gone. When he thinks about a father figure, he has one. Because the sheriff is right there for him.
“Always,” Underwood said.
A friendship was forged
In the fall of 2014, Underwood advertised online a hunting and fishing trip for Chester County kids. He received dozens of responses.
“I always have been an outdoors person ever since I was a little kid,” said Underwood, 53. “The outdoors is where kids can be kids. Where they explore and learn. It is part of a larger thing we are trying to do – to show people the human side of law enforcement.”
But on the last day of the application period in late 2014, a 9-year-old boy got his letter in within five minutes of the deadline. It was written on a piece of notebook paper. He wrote that his mother was sick and he had no father to take him outside to hunt and fish.
“I hope you pick me,” the note said.
The kid and his mother delivered it to the sheriff’s office in Chester County. The problem was they were in Chester County, Pa., not Chester County, S.C.
Alex Collins cried when the chief deputy in Pennsylvania told him the bad news. But law enforcement officers in both places did not let Alex Collins go home disappointed.
Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, longtime sheriff of Chester County, Pa., called her friend Alex Underwood. She told Underwood what happened, and the deputies from both places bought a plane ticket for Alex Collins to fly to Chester and be part of the hunting and fishing.
After The Herald reported the story, it was spread in England, Australia and South America. Television stations flocked to show the new friends.
Alex Collins arrived days after Christmas 2014. He was christened “Little A” by all the officers because of the shared first name, and he stayed with Underwood and his family. Little A got all kinds of clothes and fishing gear that year. Little A went fishing and hunting and had the time of his life.
When Little A went home on New Year’s Eve, so many people had read and seen the story of friendship and love that dozens of people at the airport clapped and cried and hugged Underwood and the boy he had befriended.
Underwood wept and vowed to stay Little A’s friend forever. The two share phone calls at least twice a week.
“Little A is a part of all of us,” said Angel Underwood, the sheriff’s wife and a Chester County magistrate judge. “After the first story, we received more than 2,000 messages on Facebook. People were just overwhelmed by the special bond. The two of them together. It is just so special.”
After Little A arrived Monday, the two rushed right from the airport in Charlotte out to the hunt club in rural Chester County. They stood there, together, under the blue sky.
Little A never left Big A’s side.
Tuesday was more hunting preparation, and Wednesday there were Little A and 15 other local Chester County kids hunting with deputies as part of the sheriff’s annual holiday hunting and fishing event. On Thanksgiving, there will be football. Big A will root for his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys; Little A, from near Philadelphia, is an Eagles fan. Last year at Thanksgiving, Little A fell asleep during the game with his head on Big A’s shoulder.
Underwood, who has spent 30 years putting criminals in jail, was asked what Thanksgiving is all about. He wiped his face, tried to hide his tears, and he pointed at the kid who has grown a foot since the two met.
“That young fella right there is what family and friendship is all about,” Underwood said.
Little A is a shy kid who loves coming to his second home in Chester.
“I love Thanksgiving,” Little A said. “I’m here with Big A.”