May 17, 2011
Fisher DeBerry rode into the College Football Hall of Fame on the shoulders of players like Dee Dowis.
These were the most unlikely of shoulders. The first time DeBerry saw Dowis play in 1985, he could tell the quarterback boasted talent.
He could also tell Dowis was ridiculously skinny with a bony 5-foot-10, 148-pound frame. Dowis looked fully prepared to lead a junior-high team.
But DeBerry saw past the skin and bones. He saw a player with transcendent will, a player who would gleefully attack massive, vicious defenders. Dowis rushed for 3,612 yards in his career and finished sixth in voting the 1989 Heisman Trophy.
For two decades, DeBerry won games at the Air Force Academy with athletes like Dowis, athletes unwanted by college football powers.
He delivered victories with joyous, southern-fried, utterly distinctive style. He was a football warrior, but a relentlessly happy one. He walked through his football life, even his final trying seasons, with unbending kindness.
That’s why the Hall of Fame announcement started a mass celebration. Sure, a few thousand goofed-up BYU, Army and Navy fans dislike DeBerry, but that’s their problem. Disliking DeBerry is similar to disliking The Beatles. It’s not normal.
On Tuesday morning, Fisher and his wife Lu Ann took their usual three-mile walk along Isle of Palms Beach, which beckons only a couple of football fields away from their home near Charleston, S.C.
It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky as husband and wife considered the rewards of a grand football life.
For two decades, DeBerry and the Falcons conquered football factories with a stripped-down yet complicated option attack known as The Fishbone. From 1984 to 2003, DeBerry led Air Force to 156 wins and 88 losses and twice flirted with perfect seasons, finishing with 12 wins in 1985 and 1998.
“When you have players who are not sure they can do something and you make them believe that they can, that’s where you get satisfaction," DeBerry said a few minutes after his long walk on the beach.
“For me, it was always about the academy. It wasn’t about me, and it still isn’t about me. I was blessed to have a wife who sacrificed a lot of things and assistant coaches who worked their butts off and a lot of players who loved each other and loved the academy.”
His final three seasons, all losing, blurred his mastery. The recruits who nobody else wanted played like recruits nobody else wanted, and DeBerry lost 23 of his final 36 games before escaping to his happy retirement.
Tuesday was not the time to remember the sad ending to his magnificent career. It was the day to remember the many highlights of DeBerry’s 23-year reign.
Dowis was standing in elevator when he answered his phone. He was, and is, a quiet man, but his voice rose after hearing the news of Fisher’s election to the hall.
“The most positive person I’ve ever been around,” Dowis said. “Coach makes you think you should be favored in every game you go into.”
DeBerry installed a system that allowed players who weren’t fast enough or big enough to win. He was a tireless, precise technician, always tinkering with his offense.
Behind the smile lurked a coach who was never satisfied. Dowis and dozens of others played superb games on Saturday and were greeted on Monday by a coach with one simple demand.
He wanted more.