Kroner: 'I'll shake your hand'
FAIRBURY — There were telltale signs, but teenager Erich Fisher didn’t notice.
The Prairie Central boys’ basketball team received a shipment of new warmup T-shirts last week. They were camouflage in color.
“I was the only one who didn’t have to pay for his,” said Fisher, a sophomore.
Friday’s junior varsity game against visiting Mahomet-Seymour was late getting started by about 10 minutes.
“The cheerleaders kept going out on the floor,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s mother, Kari Davies, said as the game clock was winding down “they’d add a few more minutes to the clock.”
Then there was the actual start to the game.
“We hadn’t done a single starting lineup (announcement) all year,” Fisher said.
Against the visiting Bulldogs, lineups were announced and each starter went to the other team’s huddle to shake hands with the coach.
This was after the national anthem was played, which is a ceremonial tribute that generally precedes varsity contests.
Even the presence of a Peoria television station didn’t arouse the suspicions of Fisher.
And yet, another sign.
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Other than it being the final home game for Prairie Central in a frustrating season that has produced more losses than victories, everything else seemed normal as his name was announced as the final Prairie Central JV starter, and he ran to the M-S huddle.
“I went to shake the coach’s hand and he said, ‘You don’t want to shake my hand,’ ” Fisher recalled. “I took that as an insult and turned to walk away.”
A voice said, ‘I’ll shake your hand.’ ”
Erich Fisher turned around to see who had been kept hidden in the M-S team huddle.
His father, Steve Fisher, had returned from a year’s deployment in Afghanistan.
“I just lost it,” Erich Fisher said. “I went over and gave him a big hug.”
The teenager knew his father was safely back in the United States, “but I thought I wouldn’t see him until the week after.”
From her seat in the stands, mom Kari Davies said, “it was priceless to watch.”
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Reunions like this don’t just happen. A person doesn’t just show up at a gymnasium and say, “I want to give my kid a hug before the game. I haven’t seen him since July.”
It takes planning and — even after all the details were worked out in advance with PC administrators and coaches, as well as the M-S coaches — it still almost didn’t happen.
Steve Fisher and his wife, Carrie, left Clarksville, Tenn., on Friday morning with their two young children, 3-year-old Thomas and 7-month-old Jonathan.
“We hit snow at Mount Vernon and got slowed up as the conditions got bad,” Steve Fisher said.
Throughout the remainder of the commute, his wife was texting his ex-wife, Kari Davies.
“It was quite nerve-racking,” Kari Davies said. “I was getting mile-by-mile reports.”
When the Fishers arrived at the school, all parking places were filled and they parked illegally in front of the building and hustled into the gym.
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After the fact, Erich Fisher learned how many people knew about the event. He could only find one person — his eighth-grade sister, Gretchen — who was also unaware.
“Everyone else knew,” he said. “I look back at the video and see how I was doing my normal pregame and didn’t think of a single thing except the game. I was even nonchalant going over to the (M-S) huddle.”
Davies wondered, in fact, as she prepared for a spaghetti supper at the school, if the secret was out.
“Parents asked me, ‘Do your children know?’ and to tell the truth, I was not sure,” she said. “The whole school and the whole town knew and we had so many family there that don’t normally come to games, my grandmother, my aunt. The whole stands were packed.”
Prairie Central varsity coach Rick Schertz said the evening is one he won’t soon forget.
“You see those moments once in a while on TV,” he said. “To be a part of that is a memory I’ll have forever. Words can’t describe it. Being there was what was important. I don’t know anyone in that gym who had a dry eye.”
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No one objected when halftime arrived and the family wanted a few pictures on the court.
“That’s important to him,” Schertz said. “We want the kids to feel they’re first and we’re here to help them grow as kids into adults.
“We’re just playing a game. In the long run, it’s about making you a better person.”
Three days after the family reunion, Erich Fisher was still in awe.
“Everyone did a lot to make this night special for me and my family,” he said. “None of this would have been possible without the coaches.
“I still can’t believe it. My family recorded it and I’ve watched it and savored it.”
The idea was conceived when JV coach Joe Moore overheard a comment Fisher made in class several weeks ago to his friend, Jovanny Galvan, about being excited that his father was going to be returning home soon.
That escalated to freshman coach Josh Krone and varsity coach Schertz offering to drive Fisher to Fort Campbell to meet the plane when it arrived.
“That meant a lot to me,” Erich Fisher said, “but I wasn’t going to make them do that for me.”
As far as Erich Fisher knew, that was it.
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Steve Fisher, 37, is a Herscher native who is a career Army officer and is with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell.
“You never know what’s coming up,” he said, “but I think it will be a while before I deploy again.”
He has been in the Army 10 years. He has seen his son play basketball before, or compete in the marching band, but there was one change he couldn’t help but notice last week.
Before his latest overseas sojourn, he said, “I was taller than him, but now he is taller than me.”
Steve Fisher is 5-foot-9 and his son, he said, “is still growing.”
He welcomes the chance to be back home.
“You kind of get lost in a vacuum,” Steve Fisher said. “Every day (of deployment) seems the same. The only thing different is you’re not around family you love. There’s a lot of catching up to do.”
The perfect ending to Friday would have been if his son had played the starring role in a PC win. However, Erich Fisher was scoreless and the Hawks lost to Mahomet-Seymour.
“He had open chances but kept passing it,” his dad said, “and he was doing well on defense. Maybe he felt extra pressure with me being there. He scored seven points the next night.”
Erich Fisher said it was tough to keep his mind on the game against the Bulldogs.
“When I was on the bench, I found myself losing focus,” he said.
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The feel-good nature of the Fisher story encompasses more than the surprise that greeted Erich Fisher and his 13-year-old sister on Friday.
When discussions turn to life lessons, the biggest one was demonstrated by his parents who proved that even when two individuals are no longer together, they can still work for the best interest of their children.
“Obviously, Steve and I are divorced, but we have a special dynamic,” Kari Davies said. “We’re there for the kids and share special moments with them.
“They (Steve and Carrie) have been part of birthdays at my house. We’ve learned to appreciate and respect each other, and developed a friendship. That’s made it easier on the kids.”
No matter how it’s viewed, that’s the best victory of all.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s Executive Sports Editor. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5235, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.