Iowa Football

At 86, laughter is still Hayden Fry's best medicine

Former Iowa football coach toughs it out in Nevada desert as cancer-survivor

Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry in his Mesquite, Nev. home (Mike Hlas photo)
Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry in his Mesquite, Nev. home (Mike Hlas photo)
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MESQUITE, Nev. — This spring, more than 16 years since the last football game he coached as the University of Iowa's head coach, Hayden Fry walked through The Eastern Iowa Airport.

Fry had arrived in Cedar Rapids on an Allegiant Air direct flight from Las Vegas. Once someone recognized the College Football Hall of Famer, it set off a chain effect. Total strangers offered applause and warm words. Fry soaked up love and respect as he made his way to securing his ground transportation to Iowa City, where he had a medical appointment.

He still poses for every photo asked of him, still spends more time (and postage) than he might prefer sending autographed items back to those who have found his home address. Fry left Iowa City not long after his 1998 retirement partly because he couldn't as much as go out to dinner without drawing a crowd of appreciative Hawkeye fans. But the main reason was warmer winter weather.

Fry and his wife, Shirley, didn't move to Florida or Arizona like many other Midwest retirees who can afford to do so. Rather, they chose Mesquite, a city of about 16,000 people in the Virgin River Valley in southeast Nevada, adjacent to the Arizona border and 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

People know Fry in Mesquite, for sure. But he said when he goes out and someone asks him who he is, he replies “Humphrey Bogart.”

He laughed after saying that. No one likes Fry's jokes more than the old Texan himself, and he tells some of the same lines every time you meet him. But coming from him, they're still funny.

Stepping outside his house after recently spending two hours inside it listening to Fry talk about his life and times, his visitor felt like he had opened the door of an incinerator. It was 107 degrees on a June afternoon, one of a long string of days here with triple-digit temperatures.

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You commented on the heat, and he said “I was in Iowa for 20 years. I've been out here for 16 years now, and my rump still hasn't thawed out.”

He has told that same line many times before. But coming from him, it still was funny.

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If you really reach, you could compare Fry coming here to when he arrived at Iowa in late 1978 for what would be a 20-year tenure that changed how Hawkeye football was viewed.

When he first visited Mesquite, it had but 800 people, one restaurant, one casino and one hotel. A gambling machine (slots, video poker) pioneer named William “Si” Redd was building a multidimensional resort in Mesquite. Redd enlisted Arnold Palmer to design a golf course, and made Palmer and former Utah State/NFL great Merlin Olsen honorary founders. He also asked Fry to serve in that capacity, having been an admirer of the coach's career.

“He said since I took a team to the Rose Bowl, I qualify,” Fry said. “I said 'I'm sure glad I didn't have to win the game.'

The Frys quickly grew fond of the area and got a condominium there. They bought a house after they moved to Mesquite full-time.

“You can't believe the interesting people in this town,” he said. “There are a lot of very rich people who lived in California, but taxes there just got out of sight. That's probably half or three-fourths of the population of Mesquite. The rest of them are from the Midwest.

“Snow doesn't get on the ground. There's no ice. I've seen snow on the ground here three times in 16 years. There's only been rain five or six times. There's very little humidity. It's not like Iowa, or Texas, where I was raised.

“The elevation's 2,000 feet here. You want to cool off, you can go 35 miles where it's 6,000-something. It's a great place to be.”

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As for anonymity, Fry doesn't really have it here, either. On that recent afternoon, he and his visitor went to his golf club for lunch. He said he hadn't been there in several months and was afraid no one would remember him. But the young woman who was his server knew who he was immediately and grinned when she saw him.

“I can't believe it!” Fry exclaimed with a serious expression and tone.

“What?” she replied with concern.

“You got better looking!”

A slow but steady stream of people approached him during 90 minutes in that dining room, from a Florida multimillionaire to a busboy. A bald man of maybe 35 approached him and hugged him. “I see you're letting your hair grow curly,” Fry told him.

When many remember Fry's news conferences from his days as Iowa's coach, they point to firestorms. Many media people and outsiders would expect Fry to blow up once a year, over slights or irritations, perceived or invented. It sometimes was straight from the heart, and sometimes simply theater.

Divert attention from struggling or hurting players. Make someone in the media the bad guy for a day. Let his players and his fans know he is standing up for his team. Fry put his master's degree in psychology from Baylor University to use on much more than painting the visiting team's Kinnick Stadium dressing room pink.

Had there been YouTube then, Fry might have had his own channel.

However, far more of those Tuesdays with the media had far lighter feels. If Fry got some laughs early in a news conference, he would often veer off the topics of the day and into more-interesting places.

“Did I fill your notebook?” he would often ask at the end of such sessions, pleased with himself.

Football coaches, as a rule, weren't and aren't like that. Fry was as militaristic as any of his peers. As an ex-Marine, he probably was more so. But unlike the majority of coaches, he seemed able to at least have some fun during the season.

It's something that has carried over to the present. The day that visitor called him to confirm their scheduled visit, Fry answered his phone by saying “Mule barn.”

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“If you can keep your humor, if you can experience something that you enjoy, that helps your health,” he said. “That's the only reason I'm still here.”

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Fry's body has taken much more of a beating from cancer than it ever did from playing quarterback at Odessa High School, Baylor, and on top-notch Marine Corps teams in Japan.

He felt rotten and got a long overdue physical checkup shortly before his 20th and final season as Iowa's coach when he was 69. His PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test score was high. Way too high. He had prostate cancer, and he kept it a secret from everyone but family and physicians that season. He said he didn't even tell his assistant coaches.

“I was taking the back elevator at the University of Iowa hospital at 5 a.m. to get chemotherapy,” Fry said.

“It was a big surprise. If it hadn't been right before the opening ballgame, I would have retired. If I'd known in the spring, the school would have had time to get a coach.

“My doctor at the hospital said 'Coach, you may be the luckiest guy in the world. You're almost 70 years old and you're in real good physical condition other than the cancer.' He said I could live another five years. That was 16 years ago, and I'm still here.

“I've had nine cancer operations. I've been a guinea pig for a new serum, and it's worked. They haven't found a tumor in me in over a year now, and I go back in October for a scope job.”

The reality, of course, is that surgeries and rehabilitations are difficult and lonely at any age. Fans and television cameras don't line up outside operating rooms. Hospital beds are hospital beds whether you're a beloved football coach or a face in the crowd.

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Feeling foggy and frail is lousy. Asked how he didn't give up at some point after all his procedures over the last 16 years, why he didn't succumb to disease and self-pity, his simple answer seems boiled down to the fact he strongly wanted to keep living.

“If you get depressed, you get down, something's wrong and so forth, it affects your whole body,” Fry said. “It really does.

“A man's average life span (in the U.S.) was 74 when I started getting cancer treatment. I've had former assistant coaches die in their 50s, 60s, 70s. I'm 86. I thank the good Lord that surgery has worked.”

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The drive from Las Vegas to Mesquite is a flip of a switch from urban sprawl to little but mountains and scrub. There is no town of note between the two. Then you get to Mesquite, a modern-looking community built around retirees, golf and a few large casinos.

Fry's 12-year-old, one-story house covers about 4,000 square feet. It's in a gated community bordering a golf course. The house is very nice, but feels more comfortable than extravagant.

His hangout is what people popularly call a “man cave,” a room with two large, plush chairs, and a very large television screen atop two smaller screens. If he wants to watch three separate college football games at once on a fall Saturday, he can. And does.

The room is large, but feels the opposite because the walls and part of the floor are covered with memorabilia. Some of it is a collection of photos with him and elected officials. One area of a wall features a photo of him and Shirley with President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.

He met President George H.W. Bush in Fry's Odessa hometown in the late 1940s. He said Bush was looking for a place to rent, and he helped the future president find a temporary apartment in Odessa before George and Barbara Bush moved to nearby Midland. They remained friends.

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But most of the walls are full of pictures, plaques, paintings and other keepsakes from his football career. The Iowa portion takes up almost an entire wall. Numerous photos of his former Hawkeye assistant coaches and players are on display.

“I've got a lot more stuff in two storage rooms,” Fry said.

But in a few hours of conversation on this visit, he spent very little time reminiscing about games or seasons. Rather, he was more interested in discussing his life as a child and young adult, about people and experiences that made impressions on him. He spoke more of his days playing ball in Odessa and on Marine Corps teams than his 37 years as a college head coach, at SMU, North Texas State and Iowa.

“When I was in eighth grade our football team went 8-0. The ninth grade, we were 7-1. We lost one game, to Midland. Midland was 20 miles away. Our coach was also our school bus driver. There were 17 of us on the team. He drove that school bus back to Odessa by himself. We had to hitchhike home. That inspired me how important it was to win.”

“My senior year of high school, we went 14-0 and won the state championship. All 11 of us seniors got four-year scholarships to college to play football, from a town of 9,600 people at the time. Six of us were first-team all-state.

“Only three of us are still alive from that '46 team. I tried to reach the other two to invite them (to SMU when Fry received the school's initial Legends Award on May 1). But I couldn't get hold of them.”

Fry's father also was John Hayden Fry and referred to by his middle name, so John Hayden Fry Jr., was called “Lil' Brother” at home. In high school, he was commonly called “Crazy Legs” by his classmates because of his unorthodox running style as Odessa High's quarterback. He said he was highly motivated to dodge tacklers when he ran with the ball.

“You want to know why?” he asked. He paused for effect, then said “I didn't want to get hit.”

Then he laughed.

“Makes sense, doesn't it? I'm not a complex person.”

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So here Fry is now, living in warmth in this fairly isolated place in the desert. He said his doctor has instructed him to spend 25 minutes a day sitting in the sun to try to help reduce the risk of future cancers. He happily puts up with 100-degree days if that's the payoff.

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He said former players and coaches often swing by Mesquite to pay him visits. At FRY Fest in Coralville last year, eight former quarterbacks of Fry at Iowa joined him for a panel event. Matt Rodgers was the only invited quarterback who wasn't able to attend. But Rodgers recently phoned Fry. So did one of Fry's top Iowa players, Tim Dwight. There is talk of some of his former Hawkeye players holding a golfing get-together here next February.

As much as anything, perhaps, contact with his longtime friends and bouncing his jokes off others keeps him going.

“The treatments are working, but they make me feel real weak,” he said. “Plus, I've got two metal knees. They wore out 10 years ago.

“There are two things I do when I wake up in the morning and realize I'm still on the right side of the grass. Number 1 is I thank the good Lord. Number 2 is I reach over and chug-a-lug a quart of WD-40.”

He has told that same line many times before. But coming from him, it was still funny.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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