His vision isn’t what it could be, far from it, which is why Patrick Yarber was in the stands at Gillette Stadium, continuing his journey, fulfilling his quest.
Yarber, 53, lives in Nashville, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, who smacked a 24-7 loss on the University of Massachusetts last Saturday in Foxborough. Yarber is a huge Vandy fan. In fact, he’s just plain huge, 6 feet 6 inches and 290 pounds, a package we like to refer to as “Gronk-like’’ around our neck of the pigskin patch.
It’s Yarber’s sight, not size, that has most influenced his passion for college football and most all sports, with baseball and hockey also high on his “favorite’’ list. Recently forced into retirement because of his failing sight, Yarber takes in all the sports he can, while he can, his vision diminished by some 80 percent because of a thieving combination of retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.
He is challenged, but undaunted.
“I’ve rarely ever seen a baseball,’’ said Yarber, whose vision began to slip away some 45 years ago, when he had trouble seeing the blackboard in grammar school. “And that’s no matter if I’m in a prime seat, like the one I had five rows behind home plate at Fenway last Thursday. It’s the same for hockey. I’ve rarely ever seen a hockey puck, but hey, you get a Zdeno Chara slap shot . . . how many people can see that?’’
Yarber’s quest, which sends him to games packing trusty toolkit of radio, headphones, and binoculars, has been to visit all 125 Division 1 college football (FBS) stadiums these last 30-plus years. He is nearing the end of the journey. Vanderbilt-UMass was stop No. 122. His tour wrapup includes visits to San Diego State, Georgia State, and . . .
“Then the historical magic tour,’’ mused Yarber, “winds up November the 9th in the bustling town of Moscow, Idaho, at the University of Idaho. I will have hit all 125.
“This really didn’t start up as a mission when I first started following college football, but these last few years, when I realized how many places I’d been to, I thought, ‘Well, I ought to put that on my bucket list.’ ’’
Dreams have a way of cropping up like that, out of nowhere, over time, full of whim and wonderment. A passing fancy becomes an avid interest, then a passion, and before you know it, you’re standing at the far edge of the University of Hawaii football field, wondering who’s the bonehead who came up with this ridiculous idea in the first place?
His visits to Hawaii and Fresno State, said Yarber, were the worst. Not because of travel or weather conditions or quality of play, but simply because of the underwhelming hospitality he encountered. He never asks for a free ticket, he said, but come June 1 each year he writes each school he intends to visit, politely requesting an appropriate seat location and whatever common courtesy they could extend a blind man who typically travels alone, and far, to work through his dream. The vast majority of schools, he said, have been extremely accommodating, but not Hawaii and Fresno.
“I was pretty nervous at Hawaii, actually,’’ he recalled. “They only let the cab in as far as the gate, about a half-mile’s walk up to the stadium. They finally called for a golf cart. That was a very nerve-racking day.’’
One of Yarber’s most awkward episodes came on his home turf, while attending a Vanderbilt basketball game at the school’s Memorial Gym.
“A true gym,” said Yarber. “Very unique. The floor drops down 2-3 feet because it used to be an orchestra pit. It [originally] was built as a hall or a theater.’’
A frequent visitor to the gym, Yarber knows the layout by heart. By his memory: a long hallway, windows to the left, bathroom to the right, a concession stand, “which always reeked of very burnt popcorn’’ . . . and a bathroom that was always, always dark.
“But on this particular night it was darker than usual,’’ he recalled. “I see something white hanging on the wall, so I stroll up, pee, zip up my pants, and get ready to wash my hands. Then I look up and I’m looking in a mirror. So I say to my brother-in-law, who’s beside me, ‘Uh, Jerry, when did they put mirrors above the urinal?’ Heck, I’d peed in the sink!’’
If Yarber gets around to writing a book about his travels, another of his goals, there will be a peeing-in-the-sink chapter.
“When you are in the situation I’m in,’’ he said, “it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself.’’
He intends for his tome also to include the millions of sounds and smells around the games. Yarber goes to all these games, he said, because they make him feel alive. He feeds off the energy and vibrancy of the games themselves, the clash of the players, the referee’s whistle, the roar of the crowd, the blare of the bands, the smell of hot dogs, and even the reek of burnt popcorn.
His vision is what it is, which he matter-of-factly says is quite poor. It has faded over the decades, from bad to worse, sometimes leaving him with no choice but to train his binoculars on the Jumbotron because that affords him the best look. When watching TV at home, he must be within 12 inches of the screen. Yet he stops a number of yards short of saying how far his vision might fall.
“I don’t live like someone going blind, even though I’m probably 80 percent of the way there,’’ said Yarber, who worked decades as a debt collector, first for a bank, then a Nashville-based law firm. “The type of personality I am, I don’t dwell on something. As bad as it is now, if it didn’t get worse, then I’d be the happiest man in the world. I don’t sit in my apartment with the blinds drawn, the door locked, and worry. I can’t, so I don’t.”
Meanwhile, there remains roughly a month on his mission list. Nov. 9, Old Dominion at Idaho. Yarber will be there. He’ll have his ticket, binoculars, radio, headphones, and his collapsible cane, the one he rarely employs, a concession, he admits, to the ego of a big man who cares not for others to see the trouble he has seeing.
“It’s going to be kind of mixed emotions,’’ he said, pondering his journey’s end. “I’m going to be proud of it, and on the other hand it’s going to be kind of sad. But the majority of emotions will be that I’ve just accomplished something that’s pretty cool.’’