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Speaking of Sports: 54 Steps

by Brent Harris
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Rob Tomey was too weak to undergo his chemotherapy sessions, yet he worked his way to the press box, pausing a few times to catch his breath and gather his strength to do the job the Little Giants had counted on him to do for 15 years.

Every home football game I walk up 54 steps to the press box at the top of the stands at Byron P. Hollett Little Giant Stadium. I’m so used to going up and down those stairs over the past eight years I don’t really think about it anymore.

But this year I thought about those 54 steps more often. That’s because it meant so much more to one person who climbed those steps every game.

It takes a great deal of setup and work to run a Wabash game. From people like Tom Perkins, equipment manager for the Little Giants, who spends his Thursdays lining the field and checking all the equipment to make certain all is ready for Saturday; to Gary Livengood, who handles the PA system and scoreboard setup; to Jim Amidon and Howard Hewitt, who photograph the games and post stories to the website; a great deal of care and pride is poured into each event.

For the past 15 years, Rob Tomey has run the game clock. Rob meets with the officials before the game and has everything in place and ready to go for the opening kickoff. Intercollegiate Officiating Association Supervisor of Officials Andy Pfaff says he has never met a clock operator so in tune with what officials look for.

During the games, Rob checks with the stats crew to make certain he has the accurate down and distance posted on the scoreboard. He stays in touch with the play clock operator to ensure they stay in sync. Rob takes care of all of that.

I hadn’t given a second thought to calling Rob to run the clock for the 2006 season. Then I got a phone call from Rob’s wife, Cindy. Rob had just gone through colon cancer surgery. She was calling to assure me he was still planning to work the game against Millikin. Cindy just wanted to know if it would be okay for her to stay in the press box with Rob to make certain he had no problems during the game.

Saturday came, and I learned exactly why Cindy wanted to be in the box. Rob’s surgery had taken place only ten days before the game. He was still weak from having had a major portion of his colon removed to combat the cancer. In fact, he was too weak to undergo chemotherapy sessions. Yet he carefully worked his way to the top of those 54 stairs, pausing a few times to catch his breath and gather his strength to get to the top.

When he reached the press box, I walked over to say hello and thank him for coming, to make sure he would be all right for the game. He told me everything I needed to know.

"There’s no way I was going to miss the opening game of the season."

He was at that same spot for every game this season except one. He called during Homecoming Week and said he was just too tired to be able to make the game, but he would be listening on the radio. And he told me he was determined to make this year’s Monon Bell Game.

I shared Rob’s story with Coach Chris Creighton, who had already named all of his honorary coaches for the 2006 season. Creighton and his staff take the honorary coaching position very seriously, recognizing individuals who have provided support to the team in unique ways. But after we talked about Rob, Chris didn’t hesitate to add Rob as honorary coach for the Monon Bell Game.

What Chris wasn’t ready for was the impact of that decision.

"I’ve had several people come up and thank me for naming Rob Tomey the coach of the week," Chris told me when I sat down with him to discuss the media schedule for Bell Week. "And I just ran into Ruthanna Williamson [organizer of the Relay for Life cancer fund-raiser in Montgomery County]. She hugged me and thanked me for what our team was doing in recognizing Rob. The response has been amazing."

Friday afternoon, the day before the Little Giants’ 23-20 win over DePauw, Rob and Cindy were back at Hollett Little Giant Stadium, this time in a different role. They were both seated on the sidelines, watching the team go through its final preparation for the game. Creighton brought the team to the bench, introduced Rob and Cindy, and shared their story. A cheer rose up from the team and echoed throughout the stadium, welcoming Rob and Cindy to the Wabash football family. And you could see that familiar smile on Rob’s face, the same one I’d seen time and time again in the press box after a Wabash victory.

Other than that brief ceremony, Rob followed the same routine that day that he’d followed for 15 years. Only this time it was Coach Rob Tomey climbing those 54 steps, watching his team claim the Bell for the second year in a row. And as we wrapped up another season, Rob had only one other thing to say.

"See you next season."

Editor’s Note: We are sorry to report that on Saturday, December 2, Rob Tomey lost his battle with cancer.