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It was fitting that I learned of Bob Ware's death at an Anderson County sporting event.
I was sitting in the end zone at Henry County High School, getting ready for the Bearcats' Eighth Region Tournament opener last Monday when Tom Smith approached me with the news. “Did you hear about Bob Ware? He passed away this afternoon. Just happened about an hour, maybe two hours ago.”
I was stunned. Maybe I should not have been.
I knew that this man our readers had selected as the greatest football player in Anderson County history back in 2007 had been battling health problems for many years. I knew there were times he hurt yet fought through.
My phone went off several times as the Bearcat basketball team was playing Owen County. Text messages and e-mails were bearing the bad news.
Just a few days before, while entering some things on my calendar for my agenda after basketball season ends, I had typed, “See Bob Ware” near the top of my to-do list. More on that later.
I knew about Bob Ware from the first time I put on a pair of shoulder pads. At the time, boys in other towns wanted to be Joe Namath or Gale Sayers or maybe even Bart Starr.
But around Anderson County, the man was Bob Ware.
We laughed when the Lexington Herald ran a photo of Ware, at the time a giant lineman weighing in at all of 200 pounds or so, looking like he was holding a teammate in the palm of his hand. Most of all, we knew No. 61 was simply the best.
As a student at Anderson County High School in the 1970s, I was reminded nearly every day of what a great football player Bob Ware had been. His No. 61 jersey had been retired and was on display in the trophy case. His eyes followed me from a picture that overlooked the school lobby, where I would hang out during my lunch hour.
He really had been larger than life.
I never knew Bob Ware until years later when his son, Bobby, was etching his name in the books as another outstanding football player in the 1990's. We occasionally chatted, but nothing of major consequence. Maybe, even in my late 30s by that time, I was still in awe of a childhood hero.
I should not have been.
Over time, before additions gave the high school its current configuration, the sun's rays took their toll on that big picture of Bob Ware. It had faded, but the memories it evoked had not.
About 10 years ago, I learned that it would be restored with new technology. I was asked to interview Ware, along with 1971 Mr. Basketball Jimmy Dan Conner, whose photo was undergoing the same process. I contacted Ware, who graciously granted some time for an interview.
I might have blocked off an hour on my calendar. I really don't know. He shared stories and let me look through a scrapbook that had been meticulously kept. What I do remember is that the interview lasted much longer than planned.
But what I remember most was a day or two after the story ran, I got an e-mail from Bob thanking me for the story and admitting that he was a bit worried. You see, I am hard of hearing. At the time, I did not have the cochlear implants that have opened so many doors over the years. Thanks to a computer crash, that e-mail is long lost, but the encouragement, “You did a great job,” has stayed with me.
Since that day, I had many more of those meetings just sitting around Bob's kitchen table. Sometimes, his wife, Pam, was there. Others, Bob and I just talked.
Short meetings turned into afternoons, often talking about issues in the sports world, sometimes about other things. I felt I could run a story idea by Bob and he would give me a straight answer, whether I liked the answer or not.
When I approached him with the idea of fans naming the 11 best football players in Anderson County history, Bob kind of chuckled and said, “Are you sure? Is that possible?”
Eventually, we increased the number to 15 – it eventually became 19 because of ties – and I can honestly say we could not have been successful in selecting the “Best of the Bearcats” without Bob Ware's help.
Fittingly, he was the leading vote-getter. We headlined a feature on him simply as “The Best of the Best.”
Bob was very humble in our talks but he was obviously proud.
Most of all, I knew that Bob cared about Anderson County.
Bob stayed close to the Bearcat sporting scene, a fixture at football games, home and away, and often there to be a fan of other sports.
“He was a great supporter of our program and a dear friend,” current Anderson football coach Mark Peach said Monday.
In fact, one of the last times I had one of those great kitchen table conversations with Bob was just before the football Bearcats would be playing in the 2011 state championship game. Bob wanted to go so badly, but could not.
Diabetes, which had plagued him all his life, had finally caught up with this giant of a man. He was recovering from having a leg amputated and waiting for it to heal and be fitted with a prosthesis. But he made sure he would be watching the live streaming on the Internet.
“Bob Ware epitomized what we want our Bearcat football players to be,” Peach said. “He was an outstanding football player but he was also an outstanding person. He strived to do his best as a student-athlete, in the workforce and for his family.”
Last year, I approached Bob about doing a story on his recovery from the amputation. He'd begun to get back on the golf course and my desire was to have a story about someone overcoming such adversity to get back to what he loves.
We never did the story. Other things got in the way, which is why another kitchen table meeting was at the top of my to-do list.
At first Bob was a bit reluctant when I approached him, but when I explained the angle I wanted to take, Bob agreed. He said something along the line of, “If it can help someone else, I would be glad to do it.”
That, more than No. 61, is the Bob Ware I came to know.
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