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‘I’ve never been bitter at the game'

Kevin Mays • Apr 25, 2020 at 2:30 PM

NORTON — Life changed forever for Jimmy Fawbush in November 1968.

As a 15-year-old freshman on the J.I. Burton football team, Fawbush, now 66, suffered a crippling injury in a game against Appalachia.

Instead of letting the life-altering moment destroy him, Fawbush has conquered every obstacle he’s encountered along the way.

FATEFUL NIGHT

Fawbush, a starting cornerback, was injured on a kickoff against the Bulldogs.

“It was a straight-on, clean block,” he said. “I remember that I was trying to get back, but I couldn’t.”

He was paralyzed from the neck down.

“I was conscious the whole time,” Fawbush said. “My legs were bent underneath me and they worked on getting me on the stretcher.”

Fawbush was taken to a hospital in Norton where doctors found his spine had been damaged.

“The spine was bruised. It wasn’t cut,” Fawbush said. “The C5 vertebra was on the C6 vertebra. There was swelling that cut off the oxygen flow and that’s what caused the problem.”

Fawbush was first transferred to Holston Valley Hospital before going to what’s now known as the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Virginia, two months later. He was there for nearly a year and a half.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get to play football anymore, but my goal was to get back to J.I. Burton and graduate high school,” he said. “I was just planning on getting back to normal life after this was over.

“I worked hard. I wanted to reach my goal and get as strong as I could and finish high school.”

Fawbush was amazed to discover that people throughout region were focused on him getting better, but it inspired him.

“My parents brought me newspapers and I read a newspaper article about how all the kids in school said they didn’t want Christmas presents. Instead they wanted everyone to give to the Jimmy Fawbush Fund,” he said.

The fund was set up to help pay for Fawbush’s medical expenses.

“Donations came from all over, just not Norton or Southwest Virginia,” Fawbush said. “I got letters from friends in Vietnam and they would send $5 to donate. The fund raised over $10,000. In 1968, that was a lot of money.”

ROLL TIDE

Fawbush also received correspondence from some collegiate coaches of notoriety at the time.

Always a fan of Alabama and Virginia Tech football, Fawbush was amazed when he received a personalized letter from legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“There was a scout at the Appalachia game that I got hurt at to watch (Appalachia great) Edd Clark play,” Fawbush said. “He saw me get hurt and I think he let Coach Bryant know about it. Two weeks later, while I was at Holston Valley, I got letter from Bryant wishing me well. Then about a week later, I got a football signed by him and the whole Alabama team and that sealed the deal for me being an Alabama fan for life.”

He also received autographed footballs from Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and from the Green Bay Packers, a team that featured Virginia Tech and J.J. Kelly graduate Carroll Dale.

Fawbush also got a treat from Virginia Tech after Hokies coach Jerry Claiborne heard his story.

“He said, ‘We can’t let Bear Bryant outdo us.’ So he sent me two sideline passes for the Virginia Tech-Alabama game in 1970,” Fawbush said.

BACK TO SCHOOL

By August 1970, less than two years after his injury, Fawbush was back in Norton and 90% independent.

“I went to Burton and there was no elevator there then. So my buddies would carry my wheelchair up the steps. We would try to race up the steps and see how fast we could get up there. Seven seconds was our fastest time,” Fawbush said with a laugh.

He met his goal of graduating as part of Burton’s class of 1973, which meant he was there for the 1972 state championship football team coached by Jim Dotson.

“They made me an honorary member of the team,” Fawbush recalled. “I went to almost every practice.”

Fawbush was such an influence that when Burton beat Madison County 26-14 to win what’s to date the school’s only state football championship, Dotson awarded the game ball to Fawbush.

“I told the team every time I watch you play, you give me my legs back,” Fawbush said.

Fawbush still loves football and attends Burton’s home games at Lawson Fitchko Stadium.

“When I’m on the sidelines watching the game, I can actually feel my legs pumping,” he said. “I love the game. I’ve always loved the game.

“I’ve never been bitter at the game,” Fawbush said.

After graduation, Fawbush went to nearby Mountain Empire Community College before transferring to St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

“At the time there was not a college in Virginia that was handicap accessible,” he said.

In 1978, Fawbush started his career in education as a teacher at Norton Elementary School. He taught there for 20 years before retiring in 1998.

“I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed being around the kids,” Fawbush said.

ALWAYS A RAIDER

Fawbush, a member of the J.I. Burton Hall of Fame, has always given his time to his alma mater and the community he lives in.

“The community has just given so much support to me and my family. I’ve just always tried to give back to community,” he said.

Fawbush was vice president of the Norton Little League for four years and president of the league for another year.

He also spent six years as the public address announcer and “Voice of the Raiders” for Burton’s home football games.

LIFE ON THE WATER

After retiring, Fawbush became an avid trout fisherman.

Throughout the season, Fawbush can be found many days at his favorite spots at the Norton Reservoir or Bark Camp Lake.

That is, except on Friday nights in the fall when the orange and black-clad Raiders are battling on the gridiron. Odds are if the lights are on at Lawson Fitchko Stadium, Fawbush is there.


 

‘Pilgrimage’

by Jimmy Fawbush, 2014

“I roll out of my van and pass the locker rooms where I hear the echoes of the clickity clack of metal cleats made on the tiled floor. I smell the odor of that thick, yellow, greasy heat balm. And the sweet locker room sweat.

“Looking around Lawson Fitchko Stadium, I roll slowly to the middle of the field because cleats have made the turf bumpy. I stop at the 50-yard line and pause. I take a deep breath and turn around 360 degrees. Seeing the goal posts and the bleachers and the new light stanchions which replaced the ones my grandfather wired before I was born, I come to a stop.

“I feel the sun. Smell the dirt and grass. Then I hear pads popping. Groaning from straining to block. The thud of a player hitting the ground after a crunching tackle. I feel the muscles in my legs tighten and strain once again as they did 46 years ago.

“I am in my cathedral. My holy place. I bow my head and close my eyes remembering the fun I had playing a game here that has consumed and nourished my soul for as long as I can remember. A tear may roll down my cheek. A tear of love I have for this game.

“This place. These smells. I raise my bowed head and look to heaven and thank God that I was able to play this game called football for a short period of time.

“I am at peace.”

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