May 14, 2011
Chris Howard could probably tell stories about former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry as long as someone was willing to listen.
Howard, a former Air Force running back who was nominated for President Obama’s National Security Education Board in March, has a good one for you. A year after Howard’s older brother Reggie was wooed by big-name football coaches like Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, promising stardom and championships, DeBerry showed up in Chris Howard’s living room to recruit him. DeBerry offered his own promise.
“I’m waiting with bated breath,” Howard said between laughs. “And he said ‘Chris Howard, by golly, I promise I’ll work your butt off.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to go play for this guy.’”
Howard used that story in his letter to the National Football Foundation, telling voters why DeBerry deserved to be in their College Football Hall of Fame. DeBerry is on the ballot for the first time. The class of 14 players and two coaches, picked from a final ballot of 79 players and nine coaches, will be announced in full Tuesday. Former Air Force safety Scott Thomas (1982-85) is also on the ballot.
A number of former Air Force players wrote letters to the foundation explaining why DeBerry should be elected, as did some of DeBerry’s coaching peers like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno.
Howard tells another story, but he isn’t laughing anymore. Before his senior year at Air Force, his girlfriend died in a car accident. DeBerry was one of the first people to reach out.
“He went from being like an uncle to me to being like a second father,” Howard said.
Other players have a similar bond to DeBerry. Defensive tackle Chad Hennings, perhaps the best player in Falcons history and one of the players who wrote to the NFF, rattled off DeBerry’s coaching accomplishments. Hennings said he figured it was a matter of time before DeBerry is in the Hall of Fame, if it doesn’t happen this week. But what he tried to get across in his letter was how DeBerry impacted lives off the football field.
“Whether he makes the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame is a secondary matter because I can tell you, a lot of Air Force brothers, faculty members, parents - he’s in all of our hall of fames,” said Hennings, one of two Falcons in the College Football Hall of Fame.
One member of the new class will be announced Monday on ESPN, the rest will be announced Tuesday morning. DeBerry is modest as ever when asked about the possibility of getting the call.
“I haven’t thought anything about it,” DeBerry said. “If it happens, it happens.”
Howard wants to tell another story. Well, two. The first is about Josh Miller, an outstanding linebacker at Hampden-Sydney, where Howard is president. Miller wanted to get into coaching so Howard asked DeBerry if he would talk to him. DeBerry had never met Miller, but became a mentor to him almost immediately.
“How cool is that?” Howard said. “Only coach DeBerry would do something like that.”
OK, now the story about an old DeBerry saying. Howard knows DeBerry is going to use it if he gets into the Hall of Fame. The moral of it is that nobody gets to the top by himself.
“I told my players every, every day,” DeBerry says a little later, right on cue, “a turtle sitting on a fence didn’t get there by himself.”
Howard heard his old coach used the exact story he predicted. All he can do is laugh again.