As a journalist, one often becomes hardened and cynical, seeing dark clouds on the horizon even when the sun is shining bright and the birds are singing.
Every year there is happiness in the world of college sports whenever a team wins a big game, scores a shocking upset or wins a national championship. However, in 2011, especially in the last few months, there has been so much darkness it almost seemed like a total eclipse.
The list of tragedies and scandals has been staggering while depressing many who seek sports as an outlet away from the usual maddening stories that land on Page 1. While seeking shelter from the bad news, I recently found comfort and joy in the most unlikely place: Waterloo, Iowa.
For months I knew him only as "Robert from Waterloo." He was just another faceless friend from a faraway town who called my radio show.
His name is Robert Fisher, a 33-year-old college football fan who has cerebral palsy. He's in a wheelchair, but works part-time at Hy-Vee, a supermarket chain based in the Midwest. He's smart and sensible and simply enjoys the games, never fretting too long on the wins and losses. He has no hate or bitterness and doesn't want pity or sympathy. He just wants your friendship and respect for his opinions. Every day when he calls, his customary salutation is: "Hey, what's up, buddy?"
He is always cheerful and wants to know how I'm doing. He spends a chunk of every day listening to my show. In his phone calls, Robert asks questions, pontificates about timely topics or about games he's seen on TV, and offers predictions just like other callers.
What is a bit different and refreshing about Robert is that he looks for the good in sports and in people. He gives "shout outs" to fellow callers instead of bashing them just for the fun of it. It is clear that he really enjoys sports very much and the constant debate about teams, coaches and players. The audience enjoys hearing Robert's enthusiasm as well.
I was fortunate to spend a few hours with Robert and his family several weeks ago. If the experience doesn't change my life forever, I'm wasting a rare and precious gift.
Not long after Robert began calling the show, he invited me to come see him in Waterloo. I said sure, without really thinking about it or calculating the distance (862 miles) from my front door. Several months later, the renowned sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Larry Lemak, a regular show guest, was in studio. Once again, Robert, while on the air, invited me to come to Iowa. Lemak, who owns a private plane, looked at me and said, "Let's do it." So, on a late October day in the middle of football season, we took off from Birmingham at dawn for the nearly two-hour flight to Iowa.
Waterloo is small town, Middle America. When you drive through town, it seems like you are tip-toeing through a collection of Norman Rockwell paintings. There are no tall buildings and nobody in the town on the Cedar River is in a hurry. Folks are proud to let you know that Waterloo is the hometown of Dan Gable, who won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling in 1972 and is considered the greatest collegiate wrestler in NCAA history.
As we drove down Ivanhoe Road to the Fisher's house, we saw a stream of black-and-gold Iowa Hawkeye flags, all to welcome us and honor the Fisher family's allegiance to the nearby school. Robert's parents are Hawkeye fans and season ticket holders. Robert's father, Mike, is retired from the John Deere plant in town, while his mother, Marsha, teaches at nearby Northern Iowa University.
Robert's parents waited until the day of our trip to tell him of our visit, waking him and breaking the news. Robert greeted us at the door with a big smile and wearing an Alabama jersey and cap with an Iowa hat on top. He quickly put on an Auburn jersey and cap, as a gesture to Tammy Hethcox, one of our fellow travelers and a well-known caller to the show.
"This is the greatest thing that could ever happen to him," Marsha Fisher said, as she was feeding us a delicious spread while showing us pictures of her other children and grandchildren plastered on the refrigerator.
Later, we had lunch at L.J.'s Neighborhood Bar and Grill, Robert's favorite place to watch football. We all had a great time talking and laughing. Out of the blue, Robert asked me how another caller to the show was doing. Shane Corn, an Alabama fan extraordinaire struggling in the final stages of cancer, had become a regular show topic because of his illness.
"Can we call Shane?" Robert asked. When he picked up the phone, Shane could barely speak. A once vibrant voice, used to daily boasting about Alabama, was now reduced to a weak whisper. Quickly, Robert grabbed my phone, saying, "Shane, I just want you to know we are thinking of you and praying for you."
Shane Corn died on December 1 at the age of 50. The next day, Robert was among the first to call into the radio show to talk about Shane. While choking back tears, Robert eulogized Shane with a poem and prayer he had written. Along with me, I'm sure most of my audience was not able to hold back the tears after hearing Robert speak so eloquently.
Nearly two months have passed since we all hugged Robert goodbye at the sports bar in Iowa. Nothing can take away the joy our group experienced that bright day. The warmth still radiates even now as winter has arrived.
Yet, when I think of the past year in college sports, there is no denying the tragic toll recent events have taken on so many iconic careers and lives, and the reputations of fine universities. One can't help but feel great sadness for all concerned, especially the many innocent victims and their families.
However, with the sports headlines full of despair, I can't get our trip to see Robert out of my mind as Christmas carols play on the radio and the shopping malls bustle with holiday traffic.
During this holiday season, it is nice to share a story that touches the heart and reminds all of us about the truly good people in the world. We went to Iowa hoping to bring good cheer to someone. Instead, Robert Fisher inspired us all -- and still does every day.