Florida State's Fisher in fight of his life
The portrait of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is that of a man in control of himself and others: self-assured, quick with a quip, decisive.
Fisher, 47, steers one of the premier programs in college football. His No. 11 Seminoles are preparing to meet Pitt on Monday night at Heinz Field.
The game matters most, but in Tallahassee, Fla., Fisher isn't far behind.
Despite his public persona, Fisher is as vulnerable to sadness and helplessness as anyone. Two years ago, a devil brought him to his knees, one he couldn't avoid but now he is unafraid to fight.
“He had a really, really hard time putting one foot in front of the other every day,” said his wife, Candi Fisher.
The trigger was a rare genetic blood disorder known as Fanconi anemia. The Fishers' son, Ethan, 8, is one of only 26 people in Florida afflicted by it. FA, as it is known in the medical field, compromises a person's bone marrow and platelet levels, possibly causing cancer and other life-threatening complications. There is no known cure, and the average life expectancy is 29.
Candi Fisher saw the news of their son's condition hit her husband hard, coming almost immediately after the end of the 2010 season, his first as FSU head coach.
“He really, really struggled in the beginning of all of this,” Candi said. “You question a lot of things, and you worry, ‘What did I do to cause this?'
“Men, even more so than women, they feel like they are supposed to say everything is OK.”
Jimbo Fisher's struggles partially stemmed from his high-profile job and the demands it places on him and his family.
“You felt guilty for being here and not home with him,” he said last week from his office in Tallahassee.
Still, the Fishers are not the type of couple to run from a challenge.
“We knew from pretty early on we had to do something,” Candi said.
The Fishers started the Kidz1stFund, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising awareness about Fanconi anemia and funds for the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, where Ethan has received treatment.
In two years, Kidz1stFund has raised more than $1.5 million, said Candi Fisher, the chairwoman. Plus, a partnership with Be The Match bone marrow registry helped add 2,300 names to a database of people willing to donate bone marrow.
Others have taken up the cause. Several ACC coaches have written sizable checks, she said. Donations from Florida State students have reached $40,000.
But Pitt coach Paul Chryst made an offer that meant more to the Fishers than anything money can buy.
Earlier this year, when the coaches were in Greensboro, N.C., for ACC meetings, Chryst suggested that their teams wear “I Fight Fanconi” helmet stickers during their game on Labor Day night.
“Coach Chryst approached Jimbo and said, ‘We do things all the time to represent causes,' ” Candi said. “This is a nationally televised game on Monday night. Why don't we do something for Fanconi anemia?' ”
Jimbo Fisher was touched.
“That is an unbelievable gesture by coach Chryst,” he said.
The Fishers also have reached out to others touched by the disorder.
Last month, 2-year-old Logan Stevenson of Jeannette died from complications of an aggressive form of Fanconi. His story traveled around the world when shortly before his death, he served as the best man at the wedding of his parents, Sean and Christine Stevenson. The Fishers have invited the Stevensons to be their guests Monday at Heinz Field.
“His mom and dad will be with me,” Candi Fisher said.
Living life to the fullest
Amid the adult angst, Ethan Fisher lives a normal life and is nearly as active as his 12-year-old brother Trey, his parents said.
“He is better than we are,” Jimbo Fisher said. “We gain strength from him. He is enjoying a great life, like nothing is wrong.”
The Fishers must take specific precautions around Ethan such as ordering high-grade sun screen and keeping him from participating in contact sports. He must get his platelet levels checked every three months and have his bone marrow drawn yearly.
But he plays baseball, tennis and golf, and he loves to hunt and fish. He has shot 10-, 8- and 7-point bucks, his dad said.
“Doctors told us to let him be a little boy as long as he can be a little boy,” Candi Fisher said.
The Fishers didn't immediately tell Ethan about the nature of his condition, but when friends at school asked about a story that ESPN aired, he came home with questions.
With a doctor's help, they explained FA to help ease his mind.
“I didn't want him to be scared,” Candi said. “As long as I can shelter him from the worry of it, I am going to do it.”
The Fishers are grateful for the stage provided by Jimbo's prominence, which helps raise awareness of the fight.
“Being successful and helping these young athletes at Florida State fulfill their dreams, through that platform we can bring attention to it,” he said. “That's the best way I can help.”
Candi believes the disease struck Ethan when it did “for a reason.”
“It could have happened when Jimbo was an assistant. What would we have done then? No one knew who he was,” she said. “It could have happened when he stopped coaching or been fired.”
In the end, the Fishers adopted the fight as their calling.
“It wasn't something we could choose to do or not to do,” Candi said. “It was something we were supposed to do.”