Dying Man Got His Wishes and Says All's Well Because Huskers on the Right Track
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"My goodness, they're great," Harrington said of Nebraska's football team. "I watched at least eight college football games over the weekend, and I didn't see any offensive line block like Nebraska's did. My conclusion is we're going to have one heckuva good year, and people around the world are going to be able to brag about our team being at the very highest level again."
Harrington is convinced that the Huskers - with exceptional speed and athleticism at quarterback, a high-powered running game and a line that finally has the depth to bring back the physicality of years past - are on track to compete for a national championship.
Saturday night was the only performance Harrington needed, or may get, to reach the conclusion he's been longing to have.
"I wanted to watch this team at least one game to see if this is the big year or the breakthrough season, and I saw enough to be convinced that it can be and hopefully will be," Harrington said. "When this season is over, they might have to make Tom Osborne a knight or declare sainthood for him hiring Bo Pelini and bringing this program back to life long before it could have ever happened with anyone else."
Harrington used that analogy, knowing full well that odds are slim that he'll be around to see how everything plays out.
Told a month ago that his heart disease had reached the point where he had maybe three weeks left to live, Harrington finally told his hospice care worker that yes, he did have a couple special wishes that went beyond having at least one of his four daughters and families (including six grandchildren) visit him from out-of-town almost every weekend since last January.
At 84, Harrington Made the Opener His Top Goal
Harrington, 84, said he was hanging on to his personal goal to watch Nebraska play in its season opener on pay-per-view, so he could see if the Huskers met his standards for national title consideration.
Oh yes, there was that one other thing Harrington told his hospice worker. While he was waiting to watch that season opener against Western Kentucky with his wife, Phyllis, his daughter and son-in-law, Holly and Russ Maloney, and grandson Randy Maloney - all from Princeton, Ky. - Harrington said he wouldn't mind if he could meet one Nebraska football player.
He made the request on one condition - that such a meeting would not distract the team because all Harrington wanted was to tell someone how inspirational and meaningful it's been for him to watch the Huskers play through all these years.
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, had the perfect person in mind to visit Harrington - Sean Fisher, a returning linebacker starter who just happened to be a 4.0 pre-med student that envisions becoming a cardiologist someday.
Fisher immediately accepted the opportunity to visit Harrington, who tried to play twice as a Husker in the fall of 1946 and the spring of 1947 only to see injuries block him from continuing down that difficult road.
You might suspect what happened next. The day before Fisher was to visit Harrington at his home, Nebraska's linebacker was in the hospital, where Dr. Dave Clare surgically repaired his broken fibula and torn ankle tendons with screws and a plate.
Zimmer called Harrington to tell him that his scheduled meeting with Fisher would have to wait.
This Hospice Patient Couldn't Reason with Fisher
"My goodness, this kid's ankle is torn up, and he's out for the season. I told Mr. Zimmer to forget about the visit," Harrington said. "I told him that young man has bigger things to worry about than talking to some old-timer he doesn't know. When I talked to Sean, I tried to talk him out of coming, too, but he wouldn't listen."
Fisher, the son of former Husker Todd Fisher, learned long ago to keep his commitments, no matter how difficult they might be.
"We had conversations over the phone, and I made sure he knew I was still coming to talk to him," Fisher said. "I'm glad I did. It was a great experience for both of us. We spent a good 90 minutes talking about his life and what he thought was important and how important he thought it was for me to focus on academics while dealing with my own disappointment of being injured.
"It was an amazing situation to know what he's been through and an honor to visit him and hear what he's facing and what his last wish was," Fisher said. "It's a testament to the support we have in this program - to know how much people really care. It's really humbling to talk to someone with such a strong will. Our conversation meant every bit as much to me as it did to him."
Harrington told Fisher how he went straight to the Army out of high school to follow his brother's commitment. He ended up in General Patton's Third Army where he was "babysitting Germany" and starting at offensive guard for the regiment's football team that won the Eastern European Theater of Operations championship.
Working his way up to Sergeant, Harrington had a Colonel who said he would put in a good word for him to play football at Ohio State. "No thank you, sir," Harrington told his Colonel. "Since I was a kid growing up in the 1930s, all I've ever wanted to be was a Husker, so I'm going back to play for Nebraska, my home state."
And sure enough, at age 21, Harrington showed up at Nebraska ready to put his GI Bill to good use. "Back then," he said, "there were no scholarships, no dormitories, no training table, and practically speaking, no coaches and no teaching."
Two Injuries Later, Harrington Learned How to Study
Harrington's dream was short-lived. In his first exposure to Nebraska football in the fall of 1946, he hurt his arm and that next spring, he banged up a knee. "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Harrington said, "because I was entirely too wrapped up in football. My grades were very poor, and after I got hurt, they got much better. I taught myself how to study and started figuring how to get better every day - kind of like Coach Osborne and Coach Pelini preach now."
Harrington spent three years as head football coach at Pierce (Neb.) High School and went head-to-head against former Doane College Coach and Nebraska Athletic Department Administrator Al Papik when Papik was head coach at Laurel.
His next move was to Lexington where Harrington coached ex-Huskers Monte Kiffin, Mick Tingelhoff and Dallas Dyer in junior high school. He ended up teaching 30 years, including eight years at Central Community College while living in Hastings and his final 12 years at Oklahoma City Community College.
Through all those years, Harrington was a devoted Husker fan, attending watch parties before and after his retirement while living in Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Padre Island, Texas.
"I played line, coached the line, and I always watch the line, even on TV,' Harrington said. "I loved watching Andrew Rodriquez play as a true freshman. You can talk about anyone you want, but national championships are won in the line, both defensively and offensively. I'm sure glad that Rodriquez moved from the East Coast to Aurora. What they've done with him and all of those other young men in that line is amazing. I think we're going to be well off, now and well into the future."
Harrington marveled listening to Fisher explain his interests outside of sports, including how he rebuilds and refinishes cars, including his prized Mustang. Such work became quality time for him and his father together.
Young and Old Men Learn from Each Other
"I still can't believe I got to meet Sean Fisher," said Harrington, who continues to surprise his caretakers with a strong will to live. "It took about two minutes to see Sean's character. I was totally impressed. He's a student first and an athlete second. He's convinced that the team won't miss a beat without him, but I know better. It was very obvious how much they missed both Sean and Will Compton Saturday night. But Sean's right. They'll overcome losing those two in due time, but not in these first few weeks."
Harrington pointed out that Fisher didn't complain once about getting hurt. "He just talked about what he needed to do to come back and play again," he said. "In the meantime, he told me there couldn't be any excuses now about him not getting a 4.0."
The conversation inspired Harrington to continue taking his bed-ridden realities with the same kind of passion and compassion he heard from an inspiring young football-playing doctor-to-be.
Being in pre-med, Fisher has seen reconstructive surgery, studied burn victims and watched how to correct childhood deformities.
This though was a first-time experience listening to the positive thoughts of a dying man.
"The ultimate goal of being a doctor is to learn how to help others," Fisher said. "I learned a lot from having this experience."
Fisher took a football to Harrington -- a football that was signed by Tom Osborne.
Nebraska's sophomore linebacker added his own signature to the football.
Holding the ball up and giving it close examination, Harrington told Fisher he was going to be a great doctor.
"Do you know how I know that?" Harrington asked.
"How?" Fisher replied.
"Because you've already got a doctor's illegible signature down pat," Harrington said.
A Visit That Became an Important Lifetime Play
Zimmer, the man smart enough to set Fisher up with someone more than four times his age, smiles when he remembers hearing the quip in the midst of an otherwise serious conversation.
"You know what?" Zimmer said. "Sean was in a cast and basically immobile. Mr. Harrington didn't even want him to come down the seven steps he had to navigate just to meet him. Sean was hurting when he made that visit, but he took the time to see someone who is literally living every day like it's his last.
"We all know that every football game is important around here, but when you really think about it, what Sean did in this situation was even more important. In my opinion, he made one of the biggest plays of his life."
Voices from Husker Nation
Oh my gosh. Now I am crying. I have read the story on Bob Harrington and Sean Fisher, as well as the comments. Whew! I am Bob's #3 daughter from Kentucky mentioned in the story. What a great tribute to Husker spirit and drive to excellence as demonstrated by my dad and by Sean, Keith Zimmer, and the Athletic Department at Nebraska! I was there when Mr. Zimmer came to see Dad before kickoff against WKU on Saturday to bring him a photograph, shake his hand, and to say how much their visit meant to Sean. You know that smile that comes over the face of a 16-year old with a brand-new license when he gets behind the wheel of a car, and he's trying to mask his excitement but just can't quite pull it off? That was my dad on game day! He was just a happy man with lots to be thankful for. Thank you Husker Nation! GO BIG RED! Holly Maloney, Princeton, Kentucky
Thank you so much for posting the article about Mr. Harrington. What an uplifting story. I have a 9-year-old who loves the Huskers. To watch him practice kicking and throwing for hours and see how his eyes light up when he watches a Husker game, and then see his mouth hang open with nothing to say as he gets a Husker player's autograph, is about as good as it gets in my eyes. His entire room is red with Husker posters and pictures. Even his bedding is red. We have talked about how his grades are important, as football is a great dream, but injuries happen. I read him this story, and his eyes teared up. He is in the Junior Husker Club and is working very hard in school and at practicing in the front yard. If you ask him why, his answer is simple. He wants to be a Husker and give back the joys that he has had while watching and meeting them. Thank you so much for this inspirational story to pass on to my son. Shannon Pfohl, Lincoln, Nebraska
This story was incredible. I sat here crying and wondering how Mr. Harrington must have felt inside to meet the Sean Fisher. As a longtime Husker fan who grew up in Verdigre, Nebraska, I served 20 years in the Air Force. I can tell you what I use to do when I was overseas at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I would get up at 2 and listen or maybe watch a few Nebraska games. I would get rowdy. When it is Husker time, it is my time. So what Mr. Harrington is talking about. The dedication is there for the players again. They have a need to be Husker player. I love that. I may live in California, but I support my Huskers all the time. GO BIG RED! Peggy Crosley Marcelo, Indio, California
If I can wipe away a tear emailing this, I just want to say thanks for a great article. What strength of character, and love, both from Mr. Harrington and Sean. This goes far beyond the Husker "Hoo-rah," which is good. Don't get me wrong. I am so impressed with the emphasis on character that has come about in the last several years. Thank you, Coach Osborne, Bo, and everybody that has helped in re-starting what we are so proud of. To the Harringtons: blessings to you. And to Sean: WOW!! Paul Rath, Omaha, Nebraska
Great story on another Cornhusker who connects football with life in a values kind of way. Mr. Harrington is a sharp man who knows where the real battles are won - in the line. I couldn't agree more with him when he said that no one else could have done what Bo Pelini has accomplished in his first two years. Not Vince Lombardi, not Knute Rockne. Not anybody other than Bo and Tom, the Hall of Fame coach who hired him. What a tandem they are and what power they bring. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
Your article about Sean Fisher visiting Mr. Harrington just confirms my faith that the people of Nebraska are the best in the country. God bless Sean for taking time out and making Mr. Harrington's day. As they say, "There is no place Like Nebraska." Go Big Red! Mike Nimrod, La Mesa, California
What a tremendous piece on Messrs. Harrington and Fisher. Thank you for sharing the story and for the way in which you made us feel like we know both men. Matthew Eickman, Overland Park, Kansas
The story about Mr. Harrington and Sean was incredible. This is why the Cornhuskers are so much a part of our lives here in Nebraska. Sean has done himself, the team and our state proud. Thanks. Scott Smith, Omaha, Nebraska
Thank you, thank you, for this very touching story. My prayers are with both Mr. Harrington and Fisher. May both be touched by God's grace and healing touch. This is what being a Nebraskan and especially a Husker is all about. It's beyond words that generations apart can connect in spite of their health problems. Thanks again for this moving story. Sharon Weremy, Omaha, Nebraska
I enjoyed your story on Bob Harrington and Sean Fisher. I have known Mr. Harrington since 1967 when the family moved to Hastings from Lincoln. His youngest daughter, Judy, is my "oldest" friend. Mr. Harrington has always been a fair and decent man. His love of education and athletics represents many men of his generation, including my own father, Richard Crabtree (who was also an injured former Husker and coach/educator). We learned much from our fathers - honesty, integrity, playing fair, humility and the value of an education. They didn't have the fancy weight rooms and the benefits that are afforded college players these days. They didn't get free tuition or other perks for playing football. They didn't get drafted into the NFL. What they did have, and what they passed down to us, was a strong work ethic, the love of the game, and that give-it-all-you-have mentality that says 'We are the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and we are the best we can possibly be!' I'm glad these men had an opportunity to meet! They have a lot in common, those two. They share much more than the love of football. They are two men from different eras, beating the odds. They are two fighters, two true champions, two Nebraska Cornhuskers! ReNae Crabtree Allen, Overland Park, Kansas
I worked in the Athletic Department for 10 years before I retired three years ago. This is one of the most inspiring stories I have read and a big thank you to Keith Zimmer for helping to make this happen. What an inspiration to this gentleman and to Sean for his inspiring gesture. This gentleman's family will remember this for a lifetime. There are so many devoted and dedicated people in Nebraska Athletics. I loved the 10 years I was there and miss the quality of people that are employed there. Dedication to excellence is what the University of Nebraska stands for. Keep up the excellent work. Dianne Streeks, Lincoln, Nebraska
My name is Brie. I'm 18, and Bob Harrington is my grandpa. I'm the youngest of all six grandchildren he has, and I just want to say I really appreciate you doing this story about my grandpa. He has lived through it all, and survived and overcame all the battles that life threw at him. I love my grandpa, and I know this last wish with Sean visiting him has made my grandpa so happy and has really brought his spirits up. Thank you again! Brie Maitland, Shawnee, Kansas
I want to thank Sean and everyone involved for making this possible. These are the kinds of stories we need to hear more of - inspirational and unselfish. Bob is my uncle and one of the big influences in my life. On family visits Uncle Bob always made time for us to go fishing or just hang around. I was born in Lincoln but we ended up in Minnesota. With so much family in Nebraska, I've always been a Husker fan, and it'll be even more fun now that the Huskers are headed to the Big Ten. Doug Kitrell, Medina, Minnesota
Outstanding story on Fisher/Harrington. Fisher's parents should be proud. It had to be a great conversation. Kay Peters, Juniata, Nebraska
Thank you so very much for your article about Sean Fisher's visit to Mr. Zimmerman. And thanks for the reminder that football, even Husker football, is not the most important issue in this world. I need that reminder every once in a while. Thanks again. Doug Johnson