(Note: Today, in honor of Father’s Day, all the inspiring father’s, and especially my own, I have invited my sister, Erin, to author the blog posting. Following is her essay, originally published in 2009.)
Many players in the National Football League ran faster, threw farther, and blocked harder than Stan Fanning. But during the 1961 season, my father earned his own superlative—the local media named him Chicago Bear’s “Biggest Bear.” His statistics—6 ft. 7in., 270 lbs.—seem almost puny by today’s NFL lineup, but in 1961, when he swaggered onto the field and took his place as an offensive tackle, he was the biggest man in the game.
Dad had traveled a long distance from the small farm outside of Pullman, Washington, where he raised chickens to help pay for his expenses at the University of Idaho. But few who knew him would have been surprised—Dad had always attacked life with determination. “I’ve set my mind to making the team,” he said in an article about his chicken farming and upcoming NFL career, written a few months before he headed off to the Bears’ training camp.
He translated this intense drive into his own personal playbook—a combination of hard work, optimism, and courage—that took him from rural America to the NFL to a career in international sales. Early on, life threw him curve balls that could have thrown him off course, or at least turned him into a pessimist. Instead, my dad turned disasters into triumphs, and used them to strengthen his resolve to succeed.
“I never made state all-conference while in high school,” he said in the same article, explaining some of the challenges he had faced in his football career. His choice of words were an understatement, so typical of Dad to downplay the hardships that stood in his path to the NFL.
He didn’t mention the battle with dyslexia that had made schoolwork a constant struggle, or that a discouraging football coach had once proclaimed (loudly), “You’ll never play in the pros.” Dad didn’t mention that his dream to play in the NFL dissolved during his final years of high school when Ken, one of his four younger brothers, the one closet to Dad’s age, was diagnosed with cancer.
Dad didn’t mention these things because he didn’t believe in complaining, and he was stoic. I’m sure my dad didn’t think a fluff piece was the right venue to discuss his brother’s cancer, which had attacked Ken with an endless supply of artillery.
Ken eventually lost his leg to the disease, but when he returned to school, he resumed his duties as sophomore class president. Prior to the cancer, Ken had also been a state-ranked wrestler, but rather than feel bitter, he coped by becoming the wrestling team’s manager and assistant coach.
My father decided to join the wrestling team—if his brother could no longer wrestle, Dad would become his legs. And he attacked it with his typical gusto. Between his motivation to play on his brother’s behalf and his work ethic, Dad’s wrestling career took a meaning larger than the sport, and propelled him farther than a rookie wrestler deserved to go. With Ken on the sidelines, Dad tackled local tournaments, then district matches, and finally state contests. In each, he drilled down the competition, eventually winning second place in the Washington state championships. Ken stood next to Dad on the podium, sharing what my father would have seen as their mutual success.
And behind all this—struggling with school, dreaming about the NFL, and watching his younger brother battle with a fatal illness—my dad always had a long list of farm chores and chickens to tend. In the photograph that accompanies the article, Dad held up a football in one hand and an egg in the other. Black-framed glasses perched on his nose, giving him the look of Clark Kent—his superman persona hidden until unleashed on the football field. In the photograph, Dad grinned, his chin jutted out, as if he were already marching forward to meet his dreams.
Dad played professional football for about five years, but after his first year, he rarely started. He played for the Denver Broncos briefly, and then ended his short career with the Los Angeles Rams. He may not have fulfilled all his NFL hopes, but in typical Dad fashion, he moved on with enthusiasm—traveling the world and throwing his energy into downhill skiing and bicycle touring.
Most importantly, though, he won big as a father. He developed his own playbook for life, teaching courage and optimism through his example. He might have earned the title “Biggest Bear” for only one season, but he remained so for me the rest of his life, not only in size but also in deed.
This essay was first published as Chicken Farmer to Chicago Bear in My Dad is My Hero (Adams Media, 2009).