The photograph on the shelf in Gordy Emmons’ living room shows the cancer-stricken 79-year-old surrounded by Waukee’s (Des Moines, Iowa) softball players.
The team bus driver supported the girls — and more than a decade’s worth of teams that preceded them — with patience and kindness.
Now the girls, who are headed to the state tournament, are paying him back.
Emmons learned April 2 that he had Stage IV cancer. A slow-growing mass in his chest.
After trying chemotherapy and radiation that “knocked me on my butt,” he decided to forgo treatment. The family said they have been told Emmons could live another two years, but they are not as optimistic.
“I decided it wasn’t for me,” Gordy said. “We’re going to ride it out.”
For one of the team’s biggest fans, it’s now one day at a time. One game at a time.
He hopes to make it to the state championship, which would be Friday in Fort Dodge. For now, he waits and wonders if he’ll be able to take a seat in the stands. He uses an oxygen tube and uses a wheelchair to negotiate the bleachers.
Gordy’s girls have been there for him throughout the fight. Not just the softball team, but the girls basketball players, whom he’s also driven throughout central Iowa on road trips.
If you see Waukee’s softball players wearing white ribbons in their hair, they’re for him. White represents lung cancer awareness.
Mary Gray will gather her hair in a ponytail in the Waukee team dugout. Then she’ll take a ribbon and loop it into a bow, tying it below her softball cap.
“When we play,” she said, “we’re always thinking about him.”
On Tuesday, top-ranked Waukee (38-3) will play West Des Moines Dowling Catholic (31-10) at 1:30 p.m. in a Class 5A quarterfinal at Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge.
One more day. One more game.
The bus driver hopes to be watching from the stands.
A retirement job
When Gordy Emmons faced retirement, he had to find a part-time job to stay active and engaged.
“I couldn’t retire at 65 and do nothing,” said Gordy, who was a district manager at Waste Management.
For 14 years, he’s driven the Waukee girls’ basketball and softball teams to their destinations. Road trips on a deadline, both in cold Iowa winters and broiling summers.
It was an instant connection between employee and passengers.
“They liked my driving. I liked their team,” Emmons said.
Gordy learned as he drove. How the bus radio stays off to let the players stay focused. How to keep his mouth shut after a loss. And most importantly, that safety comes first.
“You know the girls, you open the storage container and they put their stuff in it, and down the road we go,” Gordy said.
It was a job with pay and benefits for a sports fan.
“What else can you do where you go to a good ballgame, sit there for three hours and get paid for it? How much better can it be?” Gordy said.
Gordy and his wife, Pat, who frequently accompanied him to games, became attached to the girls as if they were family.
“When someone asks which one of the girls is our granddaughter, we just say, ‘All of them,'” Pat said.
The couple expected the start of every basketball season would lead to a regular concession food diet for six months.
Chris Guess, Waukee girls’ basketball coach, said Gordy treated the players and cheerleaders to an annual pizza party. He was eager to raise the players’ spirits.
“He just kind of adopted the girls as his own,” Guess said.
Gray, who, along with Kelli Fogt, played both basketball and softball, said Gordy is the most encouraging bus driver she’s had.
“He’s always such a pleasure to be around,” Gray said. “Everyone sees him as another grandpa.”
Team drivers are underappreciated. There’s no seat on the bench, no cheers when they do their job.
If it snows and the team has a game, you still have to drive. If it’s a 3 1/2 hour trip to Sioux City, you’re belted in for a long haul. If there’s road construction and you need to find a detour, you’re still expected to get the team to its destination on time.
“There’s really no excuses,” said Sheri Guess, an assistant basketball coach.
During one basketball game this past season, Gordy tumbled and fell on his way to the bus.
When Sheri saw him, he had a knot on his head.
“In true Gordy fashion, he didn’t complain a bit,” she said.
When she drove him to the hospital, Gordy was told that only family members could be in the treatment rooms with patients. He waved his arm to gesture for Sheri to follow him in.
“Well, she’s family!” he shouted.
When he was treated for a broken wrist, he chose a Waukee purple-colored cast.
When the basketball team bus was headed to the state tournament at Wells Fargo Arena, he made sure it was loaded with balloons and streamers — like a prom night on wheels — along with treats for the girls.
In Waukee’s July 4 parade last year, he drove a convertible while pulling a trailer behind it so the basketball players could be recognized.
He gave money to Gray and Fogt, advising them to “trick out the float” with decorations.
“He wants all of us to have fun,” Gray said.
Emmons was there for the teams, whether the girls played well or poorly. If they sang or snored, he listened to the noise and chatter.
He undertook his job — “an honor,” he calls it — without complaint.
During cold winter night games, he headed out to the bus early to warm it up.
“He never wanted the girls to sit on cold seats,” Chris Guess said.
Emmons, who turns 80 in August, said it’s a simple job.
“All I’ve got to do is drive,” Gordy said.
Health problems rarely prevented Gordy Emmons from fulfilling his duties as a high school athletic team bus driver.
He had a quadruple heart bypass that kept him sidelined. There was broken wrist when he fell.
When he complained of chest pains, he found out the horrible news. On April 2, he was told he had Stage IV lung cancer.
The entire basketball team squeezed into his hospital room to wish him well.
“The whole team came by to see me,” Gordy said.
Gordy recalled one of the doctors wept and said: “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
The investment he made in the kids was returning.
The shelf with his photograph with the softball team, taken about three weeks ago, is flanked by a stack of 42 get-well cards and letters, neatly pinned together.
Former Waukee football player Anthony Nelson, who now plays at Iowa, delivered a football autographed by Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, a thrill for a fan like Gordy.
Current and former players visited Gordy when he returned home. Some performed household chores to or lift his spirits.
“It’s exactly what Gordy did for them for forever,” Chris Guess said.
Emmons’ living room now has a hospital bed and oxygen supply to keep him comfortable.
The softball players decided they wanted to wear white ribbons to honor him.
“Everyone was totally on board with it,” Gray said. “We thought that was the perfect opportunity.”
He didn’t realize the meaning until three of them told him after a game: “What do you think of the ribbons?”
It’s a small gesture to pay tribute to him.
“Our struggles are so small compared to his,” Gray said.
Gordy’s not giving up, though. He’s planning for his 80th birthday party at the Waukee bus barn July 29. He wants to return for next basketball season and take his spot behind the wheel.
“I’m going to be as strong and courageous as I can,” Gordy said.
The prospect of watching the girls play in the state championship is ahead, too.
Even if he has to sit in a wheelchair, the oxygen tube placed in his nose, he knows he belongs there to watch one more time.
“We’d love to see him up in the stands,” Gray said. “He’s kind of been there all the way. It’d be nice to see him finish the journey with us.”