Commentary

The most special game ball of all

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Ed Dyas had given up.

Two years ago, the former Auburn All-American fullback and kicker was in his 50th and final year of eligibility for the College Football Hall of Fame. Dyas, a respected orthopedic surgeon in Mobile, Ala., had held out hope throughout nearly his entire adult life that he would be selected.

But a man has to face facts. Dyas had stomach cancer. He had lost 80 pounds. On the evening of April 29, 2009, he and his wife Diane sat at home, watching the news.

"He finally gave up on ever going in," Diane Dyas said the other day. "He knew the selection was about to be made. He said, 'I guess I didn't make it again.'"

He was wrong.

"The phone rang," Ed Dyas recalled in December 2009. "It was the FedEx people saying they had a package for me. But they couldn't deliver it because it was the wrong address. The next day, I knew that the announcement was coming out about the winners, and I knew they would have notified me had I won.

Ed said to Diane, "'I better go see what in the world that is.'"

In 2007, the National Football Foundation searched for a way to honor the newly elected members of the College Football Hall of Fame. As long as anyone could recall, the foundation had mailed a letter advising the recipient of the good news. Ho, meet hum.

"We wanted to do something more special than a letter," chief operating officer Matthew Sign said.

[+] EnlargeHOF
Courtesy of The National Football Foundation Starting in 2007, newly elected Hall of Fame members are informed of their induction with a "game ball," such as the one shown here given to 2011 inductee Eddie George.

The NFF began sending each of the new members a "game ball." Printed on the football is a colorful message of congratulations on the recipient's election to the Hall of Fame.

"They know they are on the ballot," NFF president Steve Hatchell said. "Until they get this, they don't know they are going into the Hall of Fame."

Give a college football star a game ball in a postgame locker room, and it's just one more backslap from a world constantly telling him he's great. But wait 30, 40, even 50 years. Let life knock him around a little bit. Let him understand how special that time was, when he was young and strong and all things were possible.

Then hand him a game ball honoring him for his long-ago achievements. His reaction may be a little different: a little more appreciative, a little more emotional, a lot more human.

Dyas, with a surge of energy that belonged to a man oh, 80 pounds healthier, bolted out of his house and drove to the local FedEx office. In all those years that he held onto his dream, through all of the disappointment, it never occurred to Dyas that he would find out he had been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame standing alone in the lobby of the FedEx, holding a football with his name on it.

The tears started right there and continued until he returned home. Dyas burst into the house yelling, "Diane! Diane! Diane!"

"It was the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," Ed Dyas said in December 2009. "I surely feel like I've reached the pinnacle of success in the game."

Two years later, almost four months after her husband finally succumbed at age 71, Diane Dyas laughed as she recalled the sheer joy they both felt.

It was the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. I surely feel like I've reached the pinnacle of success in the game.

--2009 HOF inductee Ed Dyas

"It certainly couldn't have come at a better time," Diane said. "We cried. We hugged."

Once the ball arrives, the emotions move quickly from shock to awe. Last year, former USC fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham walked around his neighborhood, knocking on doors to show off the ball. In 2007, former Oklahoma All-American Tom Brahaney carried the ball around the house as if it were a newborn.

Brahaney had spent the day dealing with his dying father. Frank Brahaney had collapsed in the hallway of an office the men shared in Midland, Tex. The paramedics came and took Frank to the hospital. Tom came home from the hospital late that afternoon.

"I was talking with [wife] Kay about Dad," Brahaney said. "She said, 'By the way, a package came and it's a fairly large box.' I picked it up and shook it. I said, 'This feels like a football. It sounds like a football.' As a former center, I guess I had handled a lot of footballs.

"I opened it up," he said. "We both looked at each other, astonished. I said, 'This must be a mistake.'"

Former Central Michigan coach Herb Deromedi saw the box four years ago and left it for his wife. They were leaving the next day for a vacation to Washington, D.C., and Marilyn had ordered a new pair of shoes for all the walking they planned to do.

"Up pulls the FedEx truck," Deromedi said, "and I'm excited. She got her shoes! I didn't bother looking at the box. We open the box and the thing that hits you is the football: 'Congratulations. You've been selected.' I'm just about floored. It was just a total stunner. I hadn't really thought of it. I just wasn't expecting it. It hits you like a brick wall.

"She never did get her shoes," Deromedi said.

One of Dyas' Hall of Fame classmates, former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman, didn't have the wait that Dyas did. As one of the most celebrated players in Buckeyes history, Spielman had collected awards with the same emotion he attached to Halloween candy. And that included the 1987 Lombardi Award.

"I never understood why individual awards are given in football," Spielman, 45, an ESPN analyst, said the other day. "I understand them in golf and basketball. Numbers back them up. But in football, your success depends on the people around you."

His wife Stefanie didn't think much about the trophies, either. Spielman, who played for 11 seasons in the NFL, remembered hearing that he had been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He went online, printed out the story and hung it on the refrigerator. He called Stefanie down to the kitchen.

"Come look at this," he said. "What do you think?"

"That's good," Stefanie replied. "Can you get it off the kids' artwork?'"

"That put it in perspective," Spielman said, laughing.

But a couple of years went by, and Stefanie Spielman -- Chris' high school girlfriend, college sweetheart and the mother of their four children -- began to lose a long battle with breast cancer. When Chris and Stefanie opened the package that May and saw the football, they both fell apart.

"I don't know why it meant so much to her," Chris said the other day. "She wanted to tell everybody how proud she was. I remember, later that night, she said, 'Listen, I'm not going to be there.' I said something like, 'You'll be there one way or the other,' or 'You don't know.' I might have encouraged her. She knew. She knew."

Stefanie Spielman died in November 2009, two weeks before the dinner at which her husband would be honored. Chris Spielman may have been a generation younger, but he understood better than most the depth of emotion that surged through Dyas.

FedEx delivers an average of more than 3.5 million packages per day in the United States. Few deliveries Monday carried the emotional wallop that a few footballs did.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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