Monday, September 5, 2011

The Underdogs

(Published May 2005)

LINCOLN - Cowhide collides with leather on a humid summer night.

The man with the slumping left shoulder slips his right hand into a baseball glove he's worn since 1972, some 20 years ago. He squeezes his fingers at the precise moment - pop. He slides the leather off. He grabs the ball and throws it with the same right hand - pop. That's the way he learned.

The boy, barely a grade schooler, lifts his left leg. His right arm reaches back. He summons his strength. He uncoils. He gives back. That's the way he'll learn.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

The two will practice after school like this for hours. They'll play in their Lincoln front yard on days when most kids don't. No mother or wife will call them for dinner. No family vacations or shopping sprees will interrupt.

The man with the damaged limbs and severed lineage will save every hat, every jersey, every glove the boy will ever wear en route to becoming Nebraska's ace. He'll tell the boy about children's hospitals and foster homes, about prison cells and broken friendships, about fighting and faith.

He'll promise to pick the boy up when he falls. And the boy will fall.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

The man had been long ago abandoned, beaten, destined to end up next to his childhood friends in a world of barbed wire and steel bars. Forty years later, he'll sit atop a flood of red, pumping his fist as the fruit of his perseverance rings up another strikeout.

The boy will be long forgotten, defeated, destined to end up in some junior college bullpen in a world of hanging curves and empty bleachers. Two years later, he'll jog to a dirt hill on national TV and make the nation's No. 1 team look like Little Leaguers.

Just a ball and two gloves. Just a father and a son. Just Harlan and Joba Chamberlain.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

"Hey Mr. Chamberlain," shouts an event staffer in a yellow coat. "Is he ready?"

"Yeah, he's ready."

"Arm feels good?"

"That's what he told me."

A gusting south wind blows against 53-year-old Harlan Chamberlain's tan skin. It's a Friday night in May, and that means one thing: His boy is pitching.

The 19-year-old with the mitt-stinging fastball and knee-buckling curveball has emerged from obscurity in 2005 as Nebraska's lead arm. He was once a pudgy ballboy, and a year ago, he was getting shelled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Now he's putting up numbers that compare with college baseball's finest. This kid may earn millions someday.

But behind each win, each award, each standing ovation, there's a crippled, orphaned American Indian single dad who showed Joba Chamberlain the way.
Summer, 1952.

Paranoia invades the Winnebago Indian Reservation, located 90 miles north of Omaha, as a viral epidemic sweeps across the nation. More than 57,000 cases are reported in one summer.

That June, a 9-month-old named Harlan met a friend of the family who had unknowingly contracted the disease, the same one for which Jonas Salk would reveal a vaccine in 1955. Harlan soon got sick. The doctor's diagnosis: polio.

But the reservation didn't have medical services to treat polio. The Chamberlains barely had money for electricity, let alone hospital care. In 1957, Harlan permanently moved away from his three sisters and three brothers.

He'd spend six years, five months and 11 days in a Lincoln children's hospital. He'd bounce around five foster homes.

Polio wrecked the left side of Harlan's body. He would never walk without limp. Never hear out of his left ear. His condition would degenerate.

Once, knowing his left leg was shorter than the right, doctors broke the longer one to slow its growth.

"They wanted to make you look as normal as possible," Harlan says. "Well, what's normal? Normal is different in every person's eyes."

Harlan Chamberlain weaves through a crowd on his motorized scooter. He wears black-rimmed glasses, a gray T-shirt embroidered with a white "44" and a red collared shirt, buttoned only once at the bottom. A red hat stitched with a white "N" covers black hair turning gray.

"Humphrey," the scooter, transports him to the pass gate, where he hugs once-estranged brothers and sisters who have come to watch Joba.

A white-haired woman approaches: "That little boy used to be the ballboy at Northeast - my gosh!"

That little boy, at 4 years old, used to watch entire baseball games on TV, tossing a ball into his glove over and over. Joba wanted to be a big leaguer.

"I've heard a lot of kids say what they were going to do, but I've never seen anybody so sure," said neighbor Jennie Oliver.

Harlan would sit in a folding chair outside their 32nd Street house, playing catch with his son.

Sometimes, they invited the neighborhood kids and moved the game across the street to Sacred Heart School. Harlan drove from house to house, recruiting.

"Baseball, tonight," he'd shout. "Baseball, tonight."

Neighbors remember 15 or 20 showing up. Harlan provided the bats and bases and gloves. He umpired. He coached. Hours later, by the time the moon had taken the sun's place, kids were asking for one more inning.

"Baseball and softball was our life," says sister Tasha, four years Joba's elder. "That's all we did. That's how we got by."

During the winter, Joba chased basketballs for Lincoln Northeast's four state championship teams. He couldn't travel on the bus to road games, so Harlan drove him. They missed three games in six years.

Baseball, though, remained their passion. Some nights, Joba and Tasha played in the street while Dad sat, instructing them. He'd get upset when they struggled; he couldn't walk out to show them.

He pushed for one more try when the boy muffed a ground ball and threw his glove, when Joba just wanted to watch TV.

Harlan told the boy how much he'd give to run to the end of the block. To chase him down a pop fly. Don't you know what you've got, son?

"There were several points," Tasha says, "when it was like, my goodness, can you just leave me alone? Can you just let us play for fun?"

"He was really insistent that we were going to accomplish some things he couldn't."


June 30, 1965, 3:15 p.m.

Harlan Chamberlain moved to Whitehall, a home for wards of the state in northeast Lincoln, a "melting pot of misfits," said Mark Shelby, Chamberlain's best friend growing up, who also had polio.

The public looked at Whitehall as a place of salvation for orphaned kids, said Rod Orduna, Chamberlain's childhood friend. Orduna remembers "going through hell." Adult supervision was limited in the youth cottages, which housed 20 to 30.

"You never knew what the next day would bring," Harlan says. "It brought horror."

Harlan was teased or beaten up every day. Two boys, in particular, used to steal from him. They hit him, then ran. The boy with the limp couldn't chase them. They came into his room at night and punched him.

One night Harlan planned to run away. He packed what he had. An older friend who played football at Lincoln Northeast stopped him.

"You can't run forever, Harlan," he said. "At some point, you've got to fight back."

One day, Harlan followed one of the bullies to the bathroom, where there was nowhere to run. He cornered him in the stall. He fought. Then he beat up the other one. They never bothered him again. Nor did anyone else.

Chamberlain attended Northeast. In 1970, he left Whitehall. He farmed for a while, then rented a trailer with Mark Shelby on North 20th Street.

The two passed the time in bars playing foosball. But Shelby always wanted to party when Harlan wanted to go home. Soon Shelby was trying drugs.

"I didn't want anything to do with it," Harlan says.

The buddies parted ways in 1972. Three years later, Chamberlain took a job at the Nebraska State Penitentiary as a counselor. He quickly empathized with the men on the other side of the bars.

"I was no better than them," says Harlan, whose first roommate at Whitehall wound up in the penitentiary for murder. "The only difference was I could walk out of there at 4:30. Given certain situations, I would be there just like they were."

A few years later, limping through the maximum security halls, Harlan spotted a familiar face: Mark Shelby. Shelby has been incarcerated off and on for the past 25 years. He'll be in prison at least another 10.

"I regret the choices I made," Shelby says softly from the state pen. "I just wish, maybe, I should've been more like (Harlan) in some situations."


Harlan motors to his perch overlooking the field. He sips watered-down iced tea. He chews Wintergreen Extra. He extends his right leg, the one doctors broke - there's still a steel rod inside. He's had 15 surgeries but needs a new left hip. He needs a new right knee.

A sports agent introduces himself, says he's been watching Joba.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore pitcher takes the mound minutes later. He unleashes a 90-plus mph fastball for strike one. Minutes later, he fans a Missouri Tiger on full count.

"That was a nasty curveball," Harlan says.

That wasn't the stuff Bill Fagler saw at Lincoln Northeast baseball tryouts.

Fagler, the former Northeast coach, remembers a kid maybe 5-foot-8 who had to weigh 250 pounds as a freshman. Joba couldn't excel at that size. He'd always been better than his peers, but he was sitting the bench. He wondered if this game was really for him.

When Joba's hitting slumped, Harlan flipped him ball after ball, watching for hours as the boy smacked them into a net.

"He was always like, you're going to be one of the best," Joba said. "I'm like, Dad, get out of here with that, you know? Dad, reality - it's not going to happen."

The boy didn't crack Northeast's pitching rotation until his senior year - he played mostly first base and catcher growing up. He didn't attract college coaches.

"I was very frustrated when he graduated," Fagler said. "I could hardly get anybody to even take a look at him."

That summer, Fagler would see Joba running the streets of northeast Lincoln during the heat of the day. That August, Joba attended a Nebraska baseball camp. Pitching coach Rob Childress recommended the junior college path. That night, University of Nebraska at Kearney coach Damon Day called and offered Joba a scholarship.

The pitcher couldn't get into school until January. He maintained baseball fields in Lincoln that fall. He hung out with Dad. Second semester came and Joba left. It was a Friday night.

"For three weeks, I was kind of lost," Harlan says. "I'd never been without him."


Justin Chamberlain, nicknamed "Joba" as a baby, was a year old when his father and mother split up. He was 3 when Harlan obtained full custody.

Their cramped house had two bedrooms. Tasha got one. Joba slept with Dad in the other. On Sundays, the two wrestled as they watched Hulk Hogan on TV. They watched movies at night; Joba curled up next to Harlan in his recliner, which no one sat in without Dad's permission.

Harlan bought the scooter in 1991 after he tripped over a sidewalk crack and fell. His mobility inside the house was limited - Humphrey couldn't get up the porch steps. Harlan didn't go downstairs for 10 years.

Joba took take care of laundry. He mowed the yard and took out the trash. He unloaded the scooter from the family van.

"He don't do dishes, though," Harlan says.

Dad cooked from the living room, setting the frying pan or electric skillet on the coffee table. Joba ran and grabbed a stick of butter when needed. One time a friend brought over two five-pound bags of porkchops. Harlan prepared a whole bag from his recliner.

"My kids love porkchops. We were in hog heaven the rest of the night."

Mom was never around - still isn't. Money was never to spare - still isn't. Joba remembers picking out new clothes at thrift stores. The only vacations were baseball tournaments. When Christmas came, when the kids needed clothes for the new school year, Harlan pawned off his possessions.

"Remember when bomber jackets were cool?" Joba says. "Oh, me and Tasha had to have one. We begged Dad and we finally got one."

Harlan and Joba moved a few blocks north in 2001. Tasha, who moved out a year before, remembers cleaning out the old house. Where's all your stuff, she asked Dad. He didn't have much left.

"I think he felt like a failure," Tasha said. "Even the poor kids in the neighborhood had some of the coolest stuff and we didn't."

Job stress, financial worries and raising a teenage daughter without a motherly influence took its toll on Harlan's aching body. His doctor told him his post-polio syndrome, which deteriorates his bones slowly, would only escalate. He retired from the state pen in 2001.

Harlan took a job staffing Husker events. He substitute teaches for Lincoln Public Schools. He lives by himself. He rides the scooter and pushes his snowblower in the winter until his driveway is clear. He grabs items off the kitchen's top shelf. He buttons shirts with one hand.

"When you learned to swim, you learned with two arms and two legs, right? I learned with one arm and one leg. But I can still swim.

"I don't know what it's like not to be handicapped. By virtue, I don't know what it's like to be handicapped."

He called Roper Elementary Wednesday and said he wouldn't be in class the next day; Joba's pitching. He loaded Humphrey and took off for the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

"He had a God-given talent for playing baseball," Harlan says. "If there was anything I could do to enhance that, to better that, I was going to. Nothing was going to restrict me from being there, for him and with him."


The kids at the grocery store used to stare. Joba used to stare back: "Take a picture; it lasts longer," he'd say. Joba grew up around wheelchairs; several family friends were disabled.

"They do everything you do. That's the way it's always been. That's the way I'll teach my kids. Your grandpa's in a scooter. He's still your grandpa.

"If I could be half the man he is, I would take that and run with it."

This past winter at a Nebraska basketball game, the baseball team walked onto the court during a timeout rolling a bin of plastic balls. Most Nebraska teams get the opportunity to distribute the souvenirs at one game or another, but these were baseball players - fans were going to find out how far these little balls could fly.

So Mike Anderson's troops take the floor. They start launching balls into the nosebleeds.

Joba grabs ammunition. He retreats to the corner of the floor. He looks up to the handicapped section. He flips a few balls to people in wheelchairs. He smiles and walks away.

Joba's freshman season at UNK ended with a 3-7 record. Still, the kid thought he was good enough for Nebraska. He joined the Huskers last fall. He turned weight into muscle. He discovered useful off-speed pitches. He earned a starting role.

In February, he won national player of the week after striking out 15 batters in one game. On April 8 against Texas, he allowed one earned run in nine innings on ESPN. He hit 98 mph on the radar twice in the ninth. He couldn't touch 88 two years ago.

"I've tried to show him that if you're passionate about something, nothing is insurmountable," Harlan says.

It's Sunday afternoon, Mother's Day. Harlan acts as gatekeeper to the upper deck, checking tickets, stamping hands. He can't see the field but hears the crowd's roars.

The mother of a Lincoln Northeast girl sees Harlan next to the stairwell. How 'bout that boy of yours, she says.

Harlan reaches into a plastic grocery sack. He pulls out a baseball. He shows her the scribble between the seams. Her eyebrows jump. Is that Joba's signature?

Harlan doesn't smile, simply placing the ball in her hand. She leans over Humphrey's handle bars and kisses Harlan on the cheek. She vows to put the ball on her desk. She walks away.

A few seconds pass, a few moments of silence. A tear forms in his right eye. It races down his cheek. He wipes it away.

"That people will feel that way about him, that's something you never get over."

The crowd roars. He folds his hands and stares ahead at nothing.

OK, we need to take a picture, guys - it lasts longer.

We need you, Joba, to get down on a knee next to your dad. Smile or don't smile, your choice.

Father and son converge beyond the reach of a shade tree in their backyard. Their whiskers almost touch.
Harlan has an idea. He puckers his lips. He turns and tries to kiss Joba on the cheek. The boy jumps away.

"Dad, cut it out. What are you doing?"

A moment later, the boy licks his finger and sticks it in Dad's ear.


Joba leans in, tilts his head: "Your head's already big enough for the both of us," he says. "I don't want to be cheek to cheek with you."

They'll go on like this the whole photo shoot. They could go on like this all night.

The day always finishes the same, though. On the phone or across the hallway, no matter. The routine started a few years ago when there was too much to say. They condensed their thoughts.

"If I don't say it, he reminds me," Harlan says. "He'll say: I didn't hear it; you forgot."

Every night, before the last lightswitch flips, before the future is pondered, before the past is laid to rest, before blessings are counted:

I love you.


Sweet Dreams.

Don't forget your prayers.

No comments:

Post a Comment