Face to face with inspiration
Regardless of how this season shakes out for No. 2 USF, Monday afternoon will be one of the moments I remember most about covering the Bulls this year. Jeff Wagner, who has been an inspiration in the Bulls' 6-0 start, met the team before Monday's practice, thanking them for inspiring him as he battles leukemia, then taking a knee to pray with his favorite team.
Here's the story you'll find in Tuesday's paper, with some great photos from the Times' Chris Zuppa. The great thing about this blog is the way I can pass along to readers things there isn't room for in the paper, and correspondent Brendan Galella got some great quotes from defensive line coach Dan McCarney and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. Quotes like these reinforce my belief that "FINISH STRONG" has been one of the best stories in what has been the best story in college football this year.
Dan McCarney: "Everyone in life needs examples, needs role models and people to inspire you. We all do. In sports and athletics, he can inspire anyone that gets near him or reads a story about him. To go what he goes through, if you haven't walked in his shoes, and I never have, you can only imagine what he's gone through.
"You talk about resolve and courage and toughness and heart and overcoming adversity, it's nothing compared to what he goes through every day. I look forward to those Friday nights, the notes and letters he writes. Coach Leavitt shares it with the team, and I love it. It makes my Friday nights. It touches people different people in different ways. I just have a special place in my heart for people with health issues and one of the things I loved doing every Friday at Iowa State was taking 12 players to the hospital every Friday. Jeff brightens our day and puts a smile on our faces every day. Coming out here and seeing the strength that he shows, he's fighting a lot of health issues.
"He's stronger and tougher mentally than anyone we've got on this football team, I'll promise you that. What a neat story. It parallels off the field what we're trying to do on the field: overcoming obstacles and adversity and climbing the mountain. That's exactly what he does. Jeff is a shining example to all of us at this football program. We're blessed to have him on our team and his presence strengthens all of us."
Wally Burnham: "It means a lot. He's fighting a battle that's hard. It means the world for him to be out here, to come out and show these kids that there's more to life and to worry about than a game. It's tough out there. I think (Finish Strong) means so much. He writes to Jim (Leavitt), and he shares those things with the team. Now that he's been out here, I'm sure it means more to the kids. It's great that he's our biggest fan. He's sincere, comes from the heart and soul. Jeff means every word he says. He's not some bandwagon fan, so that means a lot."
What a great privilege to meet Jeff on Monday; I tried to convey to him how many people he's already touched with what he's done. Again, to learn more about him, visit his personal site at wagnerlee.com.