'Our No. 1 Fan’February 23, 2013
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Rachel Mummey
If his body would play along, Dave Eckert would slide gracefully from one sport to the next.
He’d be the kind of lanky wide receiver who stretches to pluck touchdown passes from the air just before his feet hug the sideline. A few years ago, he could regularly knock down 3-pointers. He’d love to snatch a rebound, lope down the floor and launch shots from beyond the arc. But baseball is his favorite. He imagines what it’d be like to spread his feet, dip into a crouch, lower his glove to the dirt and wait for a line drive to one-hop toward his chest. He’d snag it from the air, pump once then coolly whip the ball across the diamond. One down.
If Dave could play, he’d really play.
It seems unfair, then, that a man with such passion for athletics be confined by cerebral palsy. Dave’s body won’t play along. He’s been leaning on a walker for years, awkwardly yet efficiently getting where he needs to go. Usually, the destination is a front-row seat somewhere in southwestern Indiana. If you’ve been to a Jasper High School athletic event anytime in the last two decades, you’ve probably seen Dave.
The Wildcats have many fans. Dave is unique not only for his steadfast support — he attends nearly 100 events each school year — but because he cheers for points and people. The 37-year-old man who yearns to play found an outlet long ago by developing connections with those who can.
“I watch these guys grow up from freshmen all the way up,” Dave says. “(Young people) don’t realize things that happen, like my circumstances. They don’t realize how lucky they have it. I used to get sad. But God made me the way he made me, and I’ll deal with it and go from there. I watch these guys grow up, and if they can play, it helps me. It makes me feel a part of it.”
The Eckert surname is born and bred in Jasper, but Dave operates on a first-name basis. Wherever he goes, he’s usually the most well-known guy in the room. A friend calls him “Mayor Dave,” but he’s more like an ambassador. Dave is comfortable with attention, but he’d rather subtly make his rounds.
Before a football game last fall, he arrived 90 minutes early and idled near one end zone as fans buzzed past. By the time he reached his seat, more than 30 people had paused to say hello. After a basketball game last month, he shuffled across the floor, zigzagging among players and their families. It’s nothing for Dave to stick around at the gym until 10:30. He’s usually among the last to leave.
Part of the reason for the early comings and late goings is mobility. Cerebral palsy impedes movement, and Dave has transported himself with a cane or walker since childhood. Beating — or outlasting — the crowd makes life a little less complicated.
Dave’s life has never been easy. He walked not long after he turned 1, but Charlie and Gail Eckert noticed the middle of their three children often fell. He wore spring-loaded shoes, required leg brackets that cost $800 apiece and spent nights wrapped in a body brace. After a third surgery to lengthen Dave’s Achilles tendons, Charlie stood in the kitchen, pondered the future hurdles for a son who was just 10 at the time, and bawled.
“But Dave just kept rolling,” Charlie says. “He just has a good attitude.”
It’s precisely that trait that endears him to athlete and coaches.
John Goebel didn’t know Dave when he took over the Jasper boys basketball program in 2007, but he noticed the guy sitting in the same spot under the basket at every game. Win or lose, the man shook Goebel’s hand.
When Jasper’s gym collapsed in May 2011 and the Cats began playing home games at Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium, where Dave had no good spot to sit, Goebel proposed Dave join the bench. For the last two seasons, the last chair on the Wildcat bench has been Dave’s.
“It’s nice to have someone whose demeanor and opinion and attitude doesn’t change,” Goebel said. “He recognizes the effort players are giving. In a lot of ways, we consider him part of our team, part of the program.”
During halftime of JV games, varsity players fire jump shots to pass the time, rev the engine. One hand on his walker, one hand on the ball, Dave joins them. When Jasper hosted Forest Park in January, halftime had nearly ended and Dave hadn’t hit a shot. Jasper senior Devon Traylor hustled to snag a ball and handed it to Dave.
“Can’t leave until you make one,” Traylor said.
When the second half began, Traylor plopped next to Dave on the bench. When Traylor got up, senior Cole Sermersheim slid into the empty seat.
The conversations focus mostly on sports but wander to pop culture, jokes and movies. Players welcome the diversion. But many enter and exit JHS without really getting to know Dave, and there’s a shame in that. His backstory would, if nothing else, teach the values of perseverance.
In 2008, Dave’s body created antibodies that destroyed his red blood cells, and he was incapacitated in an Indianapolis hospital for a week. He needed new blood, though the transfusion could have been lethal. Scott Rolen, the former Major League Baseball all-star from Jasper, with whom Dave has maintained a friendship since high school, called, but Dave was too sick to talk. When Jasper’s baseball team played in the regional that June, a family member held a phone to the radio so Dave could listen to the broadcast.
As a side effect for the 2008 affliction, Dave needed hip surgery in 2010. Now, too much standing or sitting causes pain. Not that Dave would complain.
In a St. Louis hospital when Dave was a child, passersby thought Charlie and Gail were cruel when they watched Dave attempt to walk then stood idly as their son fell. But, Charlie recalls saying at the time, “when we get out of here, we’re going to let him live his life.”
Dave lives with his parents between Jasper and Ireland, in part because sections of the home have been tweaked to ease Dave’s movability, and often catches rides to Wildcat road games with players’ families. But he drives himself around town and sometimes attends postgame gatherings at coaches’ homes or mingles with fans at local bars and restaurants. Dave doesn’t drink and has, for years, ferried home those who have needed late-night rides.
Charlie notes that after Dave graduated from JHS in 1994, he could have filed for disability benefits. Instead, he got a job at Jasper Engines & Transmissions, where he’s worked for 18 years.
“For him, it was no thought,” said Charlie, a facilities manager for Jasper Engines. “He said, ”˜If I can, I’ll go to work.’”
He calls himself a “utility man” who performs numerous duties. Up at 4:50 each morning, he works 40 hours each week. For the blue-collar routine, Dave is thankful.
“I like it,” he says. “Gives me something to do.”
Dave is rarely bored. He’s a serial TV watcher — “Married with Children” at 5 every morning, for instance — who loves St. Louis Cardinals baseball and Purdue University athletics. He’s a Facebook junkie with more than 2,000 friends. A church league softball team in Ireland calls him its coach. He receives eight or so wedding invitations a year and visits just as many graduation parties; his personal record is 13 in one night (he showed up for the last one at 2 a.m.).
“You’d be dangerous if you had two good legs,” Charlie tells his son.
He’s memorized the flow of football, basketball and baseball schedules that rarely change, though his fandom isn’t confined to the primetime events. He attends girls games and has developed bonds with those players, too. When Wildcat basketball standout Shelby Merder signed last fall to continue her career at Ball State University, she invited Dave to the ceremony at her home.
After Dave’s 2008 illness, Jasper baseball coach Terry Gobert called Dave into the team’s fieldhouse. There, players presented Dave with a team jacket as a token of gratitude for his support. For 12 seasons, Dave has punched numbers into the Ruxer Field scoreboard. He’s snake-bite quick and, aware of the game’s nuances, often helps decipher hits from errors. Gobert, who’s seen plenty of lagging scoreboards on the road, credits Dave with improving fans’ viewing experience and helping teams stay organized.
Climbing toward the press box is cumbersome. But Dave makes it work.
“Sometimes, I think about not going (places),” Dave says. “But what the hell? I’m going to do it. I might need help, but I don’t care. I might have people look at me, but they don’t know any better. I like to try to do things on my own.
“Just never quit. Go day by day and keep trucking. Things might happen, I might have roadblocks, but I just go through them.”
Dave isn’t looking to inspire, but he does anyway. Before the Jasper-Forest Park basketball game, Goebel sat next to Dave and asked for advice.
“Play defense and put the ball in the hoop,” Dave recommended.
Goebel promised he’d tell his team. He did, and the Cats cranked out a 72-49 victory with Dave pumping his fist for every basket. Afterward, he stood at the end of the ramp to the locker room, high-fiving players as they left.
“Good game,” he told them, calling each by name. He waited until everyone exited.
“He is our No. 1 fan,” Traylor said. “Sometimes, people talk about good fans, but you don’t really know who your No. 1 fan is. But Dave is definitely our No. 1 fan.”
Contact Jason Recker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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