NEW YORK – When Fisher DeBerry visits Manhattan, this smiling, backslapping, every-day-is-sunny, self-proclaimed country boy from South Carolina strolls the crowded sidewalks searching for happy faces.
He usually fails.
“I don’t like seeing people walking around with their heads down and never smiling and wearing those dark colors all the time,” DeBerry said.
This week is no different. As DeBerry roams the city enjoying one of the best weeks of his life, he still encounters overwhelmed grumps. To make matters worse, the sun has remained hidden by clouds during DeBerry’s visit.
Don’t worry. DeBerry still is smiling, slapping backs and enjoying a ridiculously good time anyway.
DeBerry, who coached Air Force’s football team for 23 years, arrived in New York Sunday to begin a celebration that ended Tuesday night at the swank Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when he joined Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach, Gale Sayers and dozens of other greats in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The award offered recognition for DeBerry pushing the Falcons to 169 wins and 17 winning seasons.
“A little ole’ country boy is in the Big Apple to be recognized,” DeBerry said. “I can’t believe it.”
“And make sure you write that O-L-E,” he said softly. “It’s not O-L-D. I’m not old.”
Good point, coach. At 73, you’re still just a kid.
On Tuesday at the Waldorf, fans gathered around DeBerry for autographs and photos. This was his reward for decades of labor at Air Force, where he crafted a run-obsessed offense that baffled opponents.
Yet DeBerry wants to make it clear he didn’t do this winning by himself. He talked with enthusiasm for Chad Hennings and Carlton McDonald and Dee Dowis and Scott Thomas and …
“I was just a part of it,” DeBerry said. “I was just blessed to drive the bus.”
For DeBerry, this trip to New York is another affirmation of his bond with the academy. Less than five years ago, the bond had been stretched to its limit when DeBerry walked away under pressure after losing 23 of his final 36 games.
It was not a happy exit. When he announced his retirement Dec. 15, 2006, many of his friends wept in a big room just outside Clune Arena.
But those tears have dried. When a coach or player departs the game, we don’t remember the bad times. We remember the best times, and in DeBerry’s case that means returning to upsets over BYU, Notre Dame and Texas and the 12-win seasons in 1985 and 1998.
On Monday night, a big group of DeBerry supporters from Air Force gathered at a Manhattan steakhouse to remember those good days and recognize a Hall of fame coach. On Tuesday, Fisher’s friends from the academy filled three tables at the Waldorf.
Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh was among those clapping for DeBerry.
“Fisher had a tough exit,” Mueh said, “but this gives us a chance to honor arguably the best coach ever at Air Force and one of the handful of best coaches ever.”
DeBerry has been busy all week here in New York. He watched a Broadway production of “The Lion King” with his grandchildren Sunday afternoon.
“I was just in awe,” he said.
Later, he walked past the sleek, 102-story Empire State Building.
“My Lord,” he said. “How in the world can they build that big a building up in the air? It just blows my mind.”
And, best of all, he listened to praise from close friends and complete strangers.
Once again, DeBerry was smiling in the city that never smiles.