People aren’t at their best when they’re disappointed or exhausted, and Hayden Fry was both on the morning of Aug. 30, 1992.
His Iowa football team had lost, 24-14, to North Carolina State the night before in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. At the time, it was an allowed extra game for the two teams, an unofficial season-starter for college football.
The Hawkeyes, coming off a 10-1-1 season the year before, were 0-1 before September had started and facing a home game against national power Miami (Fla.) six days later.
That was an era when not everything was a charter flight for even high-profile college teams. Then-Gazette sports writer Jim Ecker and I not only were on the same connecting flight from Chicago to Cedar Rapids with Fry on that day after the game, we were in the same block of three seats with him.
Fry wasn’t thrilled with that twist of fate. Before we even got seated, he bluntly said “No interviews.” We assured him none were sought. We were tired, too.
There was no corn pone from Fry on that hourlong flight. Coaches put their lives into those games. They have to bounce back ahead of everyone else following losses because they have to get their assistants and players off the carpet before another week begins. It was a safe bet Fry hadn’t slept a wink the night before.
But he loosened up a little as time passed. There was small talk. I don’t remember what led into it, but at one point the discussion was about money. Fry made a comment about how some people resented how much he was paid.
“They don’t know how I busted my ass to get here,” he wearily said.
I knew I wouldn’t trade salaries with him if it meant trading commitments, being responsible to and for as many people as he was, never really having a day off no matter where you were or what you were doing, having to wear dozens of hats, putting out all sorts of fires at any given moment, maybe trying to start a few of your own.
He’d taken Iowa to three Rose Bowls at that point, and was coming off a heck of a year when the Hawkeyes opened the 1992 season in New Jersey. But you go right back to 0-0. Then, poof, you’re 0-1 and playing the mighty Miami Hurricanes next.
To use a phrase often heard from Fry, tough duty.
So, I saw and heard someone who wasn’t in front of a camera or a banquet room full of true-believer fans. I saw and heard what defeat really felt like. It’s hard and it’s haunting.
Of course, two days later Fry was at his weekly news conference bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, right back in the fight he stayed in all the way to the end of the 1998 season. There were no more Rose Bowls, but there was a 38-18 stunner of a Sun Bowl rout of Pac-10 co-champion Washington in 1995 and a 27-0 romp over Texas Tech in the following year’s Alamo Bowl that capped a 9-3 season.
Only one of Fry’s final six teams had a losing record, and that was the last one. Excuses don’t hold up much in big-time sports, but Fry started chemotherapy treatments for prostate cancer shortly before that season began and kept it secret from all but his family and hospital personnel. He didn’t begin to reveal details until well after his retirement.
As the years passed, Fry repeatedly invited me to his home in Mesquite, Nev. I wasn’t sure how much he meant it. Some people doubted me when I told them about it, since he famously sparred with local sports media types from time to time.
When I finally did try to take him up on the offer, he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to be seen that way. I kicked myself for waiting too long.
I had a trip to Las Vegas planned in 2015 for another reason, and took one more shot at seeing if Fry would meet me in Mesquite. He told me to come on out, as long as I called the day before to make sure he was feeling up to it. Thankfully, he was.
He had me drive to a convenience store in town, where I would then follow him back to his house. He showed up in a black Hummer with a metallic Tigerhawk logo on the back bumper.
I was following this 86-year-old man driving a tank of a vehicle through this small town, thinking “How much would a lot of people in Iowa pay to trade places with me right now?”
Fry loved it when I told him I was going to play in a World Series of Poker tournament for people 50-and-over the next day in Las Vegas. He told me about an article he had read about the event.
Success didn’t come early for me in the tourney, but I wasn’t edgy or impatient like I usually am and gradually built a chip-stack. I lasted two days, and was among the 10 percent or so of the 4,000-plus players who finished in the money. It may sound silly, but it was a huge delight, something I doubt I could ever do again. I credit it to being in a good, relaxed mood because of the day before when I spent with Fry, listening to his stories and observations, and sharing a lot of laughs.
The next time I saw him was back in Kinnick Stadium a couple months later. He had come back for Coralville’s FRYfest the day before. The first thing he said to me was to ask how I did in the poker tourney. When I told him I cashed, he said “I knew you would.”
In the hours I had spent listening to him at his house and over lunch at a nearby golf club, he didn’t mention a single football game he coached. Not one. He talked about growing up, talked about his family, his high school team, his hometown, jobs he had as a kid, jobs his parents had, people he befriended throughout his life. He also described what it’s like to be old and battle cancer for so long, how keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor are essential tools.
I honestly remember nothing about that football game in New Jersey. Nothing. That day in Nevada? Even if I live to be 90, I’ll never forget it.
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