Father of Pitt's Duhart realizes dream
When watching Pitt on his satellite dish from Boynton Beach, Fla., Tommie Duhart Jr. hits redial on his phone and repeats the lyrics: "Come off the ball. Get to the ball. That's your song. Play that song in your ears."
When he listens to his voice mail, Tommie Duhart III hears his father's joyful voice after every play, cheering and coaching, when he listens to his voice mail.
"When he watches games, you wouldn't even think he's sick by how much energy he has," said Tommie III. "He'll call me during games, leave messages on my phone. He always tells me, 'I'm so proud of you. You're the strength that I have.' That would mean a whole lot to me. That's why I go out and play with so much intensity.
"It's like I'm playing through him."
Tommie Jr. passed along to his son his name and likeness, his massive frame and his passion for football. What worries the old man is that his son is susceptible to inheriting the disease that stole his eyesight and destroyed his kidneys to the point he was on dialysis three times a week for the past two years and two months.
Diabetes runs in the Duhart family, which is why both Tommies are giving special thanks this holiday for the kidney transplant that saved the life of the father and allowed him to fulfill a dream by watching the son play college football for Pitt.
Tommie Jr. had been declared legally blind by Tommie III's senior season at Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Central High School. That's when Tommie Jr. started listening to games on the radio, started calling his son's phone every time he made a play. The disease brought them closer, even after Tommie was forced to go to junior college in Kansas.
"I used to just sit by the radio and listen for the name," Tommie Jr., 42, said. "I'd call and tell him, 'If you do something fantastic, they'll call your name on the radio.' I used to cry a lot just because I couldn't follow him."
When the father's health started to fail, the son offered to help. Forget football, a tearful Tommie III told his dad, and let me donate my kidney to save your life. Keep it, Tommie Jr. replied, as you're just as prone to this.
At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, Tommie III's size and athleticism at defensive tackle drew attention from recruiters. He had signed with Pitt out of high school, but the University of Florida remained in hot pursuit after it won the national championship. Tommie Jr. had played for the Gators, but he learned to rely on his other senses when his eyesight went bad. He trusted Pitt's coaches and steered Tommie there.
"With all the stuff that was going on, it was very tempting to stay home - and I was on the verge of doing it, too," Tommie III said. "But he came to me and said, 'I went to Florida, but I think you have a better chance at Pitt, son.'"
Pitt assistant coach Charlie Partridge, who had been recruiting Duhart for four years, said the disease strengthened the bond between father and son.
"All he wanted was what was best for Tommie, regardless of all of those things," Partridge said. "Without the strength in their relationship, the easy thing for Tommie would have been to go closer to home, just to be close to dad, as opposed to having the strong enough relationship to say, 'Do what's best for you and your future.'"
Tommie Duhart Sr., always working the fields, only saw his son play football once, and it turned out to be Tommie Jr.'s best game. That was one tradition that would not be passed down through the Duhart family.
The father made a promise: If Tommie III graduated from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, Tommie Jr. would attend Pitt's first home game this fall.
"All I wanted to do was be able to sit in the stands and him know I was there," Tommie Jr. said. "I really wanted to be there in the beginning, so he could see me. I truly feel like the support from the family makes a big difference in a child."
Guess who hollered when Tommie made his first career tackle in the second quarter against Eastern Michigan?
"It was a proud moment for me," Tommie Jr. said. "I never felt like that in my life. I felt like I was on the field with him."
Tommie Jr. only worried that it would be the last time, until he received life-altering news when Rhondy Weston volunteered to donate a kidney to his childhood friend and former high school and college teammate.
The Nov. 6 transplant was successful, and Tommie Jr.'s health has improved to where he's dropped 18 pounds and taken a few spins behind the wheel. He was waiting Wednesday afternoon to receive medical clearance to attend Pitt's home finale against South Florida on Saturday at Heinz Field, but won't risk his health to do so.
There is the satellite dish, the phone and the song.
For the Duharts, that connection makes beautiful music.