Updated: December 1, 2011 at 12:00 am
The letter in the mail surprised Keith Boyea. He was living in Los Angeles, had graduated from the Air Force Academy a few years earlier, and he was certain Fisher DeBerry couldn’t have known his address.
Boyea, a former Air Force quarterback, opened the envelope and found a handwritten letter from his old coach with some pictures of himself playing for the Falcons. The letter said DeBerry had found the pictures in his desk, and thought of Boyea.
The letter was appreciated, but Boyea didn’t quite get why his old coach would go out of his way to track down his address and send him a note.
“I don’t think I understood at the time: That’s Coach DeBerry,” said Boyea, who was Air Force’s offensive MVP in 2001. “He doesn’t have to do stuff like that. He was already a legend. It showed he cared about his players. He cared about everyone.”
Since then, Boyea has heard similar stories from other former players. The number of people who have received a note from DeBerry over the years has to be well into the hundreds, maybe into the thousands. If you played for DeBerry, were a part of the Air Force program during DeBerry’s 23 years as head coach, or simply knew DeBerry, chances are you experienced getting a handwritten note out of the blue.
“It didn’t matter if it was the guy who double bagged his groceries, he sent a letter,” Air Force equipment manager Dan Siermine said.
As DeBerry gets inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday, the notes are heartfelt reminders of the old fashioned, down-to-earth personality that he is still well known for at Air Force.
“My mom every once in a while will get a letter from him,” former Air Force quarterback Dee Dowis said. “Which is amazing.”
DeBerry would write Dowis’ parents occasionally when he was at the academy. Many years after Dowis’ playing career ended, he had made a brief mention to his former coach that his mother was a little sick. Dowis was surprised to hear from his mother that a letter had shown up at her house from DeBerry, wishing her improved health, and that her son’s old football coach would be praying for her.
That was far from the only time DeBerry sent a letter like that. Jeff Cosky is Air Force’s chief of football operations, and his mother Pat would come from Pennsylvania for a game maybe once every couple of years. When DeBerry heard she was getting her knees replaced about eight years ago, Pat Cosky got a note from DeBerry, saying the coach was hoping she was recovering well.
“That’s just his caring nature and his personality,” Jeff Cosky said. “It was phenomenal. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor and friend.”
Kathy Shipley was DeBerry’s secretary. She had to type out the letters he didn’t have time to hand write, but they were DeBerry’s words. She would get calls from DeBerry when he was on the road recruiting, asking to dictate a letter. Or he would speak into a microcassette recorder and she would transcribe. Many times, when he handed her the tape, both sides were full.
He always signed the letters, and Shipley said there were more than 40 to send some weeks. There were thank you notes to friends, get well cards, inspirational letters to kids, and sometimes they went to people he had never met.
“If he read something in the newspaper about someone he knew – or even someone he didn’t know - he’d write them to congratulate them,” Shipley said.
Shipley laughs as she tells a story of DeBerry’s wife LuAnn saying the coach would write letters in bed. Shipley wasn’t kidding, either. DeBerry said after he had watched the 10 o’clock news with LuAnn, and she had fallen asleep, he’d read notes or emails in bed and form replies.
“You may not get it immediately, but the kid who would write “Go Falcons!” to him in crayon would get a handwritten letter from Fisher DeBerry, saying ‘One day you’ll grow up to be a Falcon,’” Cosky said. “It was amazing.”
DeBerry said his wife once told him she’d rather get a letter than a phone call. It was something she could keep and read again later. That’s one of the reasons DeBerry still takes the time to write those notes, to old friends or players or even to a current coach, congratulating them on a win he saw on television.
“I always just felt like if someone took the time to write me, I felt like I owed them the courtesy of responding,” DeBerry said.
DeBerry has caught up with technology. He sends text messages now, which makes those who have known him for years chuckle a bit. That might help those who have tried to read his unique handwriting over the years (“The only problem with his handwritten notes is his handwriting,” Siermine quipped). Sometimes he’ll call Air Force’s football secretary during the season, asking her to send an email to all the players before big games (she has the master email list of players), letting them know he’s rooting for them.
He still writes letters, too. Dowis said he got one after appearing at an event for DeBerry’s foundation a couple of months ago. His friends will shake their heads over the seemingly insignificant reasons they’re getting a note, or laugh about trying to read his handwriting, but they all know it’s a reminder of how DeBerry cares for them.
“He’s just a very caring and loving person,” Shipley said. “He takes all of his relationships to heart. He’s just that type of person that doesn’t take for granted his friendships.”
Contact Frank Schwab: 476-4891
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