A lesson in finishing strong

Leukemia patient and USF alumnus Jeff Wagner (left) has been an inspiration for coach Jim Leavitt and the Bulls this season with his motto “Finish Strong.” PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

This job certainly has its perks.

I’ve witnessed the craziness of this college football season from the sidelines.

I was standing behind the end zone when Jessie Hester Jr. caught the game-winning touchdown at Auburn. I was on the field for USF’s monumental win against West Virginia, and I was caught in the middle of students rushing the field at Rutgers.

All are moments I’ll never forget, but none are as meaningful as the experience I had watching Saturday’s game against UConn.

It was possibly my best view all season – from the living room of Jeff Wagner, the USF graduate with leukemia, the man who has inspired Jim Leavitt and the football team all season with his motivational letters and his patented phrase, “Finish Strong.”

We went to Wagner’s house to interview him for a video story for the Oracle’s Web site, and we left with an appreciation for getting to know the most genuine Bulls fan out there.

Wagner can’t leave his house much because of his weak immune system, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying the games.

With kickoff 45 minutes away, Wagner was like a kid waiting to open his presents on Christmas, and his stocking was stuffed with a West Virginia win over Rutgers.

The atmosphere screamed fanatic – two televisions, green and gold pom-poms, bull horns and all kinds of USF memorabilia in every direction.

“This is kind of my life right now since I can’t get out in public,” said Wagner, 44, who is battling leukemia for the second time. “I can still contribute to adding on to the USF pride and passion.”

His pride and passion for his alma mater extends to anyone who reaches out to him.

As game time approached, Wagner’s living room filled up with about 10 people he invited to watch the Bulls try to move into first place in the Big East. Most of us didn’t know each other, but there was something about Wagner’s presence that made it seem like we were all good friends.

One by one he went around the room doing introductions, making sure nobody went unnoticed or felt out of place.

There was Kyle Fanning, a senior at USF, who also just met Wagner on Saturday. He introduced Fanning as the student behind the “Surf for Turf” campaign, a fundraising effort to get Leavitt to paint himself green and gold and crowd surf to raise money for a dining hall.

Then there was Tony Grier, a guard for the USF basketball team from 1980-82 and the author of Raging Bull. Grier sought out Wagner a couple weeks ago after hearing his story.

Next was Rich Heruska from the class of ’99. Heruska traveled to Alabama with Wagner last season to watch the Bulls play in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, and he was with Wagner in his hospital room at the Moffitt Cancer Center watching as the Bulls took down Auburn on Sept. 8.

Finally, he introduced my colleague, Chris Twohig, and me as the guys from the Oracle who captured Leavitt on camera saying he should paint his body and crowd surf – prompting Fanning to try to make it actually happen.

What I expected to be a routine interview turned into an afternoon of getting to know a group of people who walked the USF campus before me.

“Having people here from different eras – the ’60s guys weren’t able to be here, but we’ll get them out for future (games) – it’s an opportunity to have different decades of USF folks come together,” Wagner said.

After doing introductions Wagner gave everyone a choice between two pieces of “Finish Strong” gear – a shirt or a wristband. Even his dog Dixie walked around the house wearing a “Finish Strong” shirt.

Also sporting the “Finish Strong” mantra was kicker Delbert Alvarado, whose picture was stuck to Wagner’s TV with the phrase etched into his hair.

The outcome of the game came as a disappointment to the people who packed that living room, but being around Wagner made me appreciate just being able to watch the game. And I don’t think I was the only one.

“Today was great – meeting people like Tony Grier and having the chance to hang out with fellow students … and just seeing the message that Jeff has conveyed to the team, seeing it here in person, people finishing strong,” Heruska said. “We lost. It’s a little upsetting, a little disappointing, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Wagner has made it a goal to attend USF’s final home game of the season against Louisville on Nov. 17.

If his doctors allow him to, he’ll sit in a suite with 15 of his friends. It’ll be just like watching from his living room, except all the lives he’s touched will be right in front of his eyes – including mine.