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September 19, 2007

An uncommon bond

Just before halftime last Saturday, Tommy Saunders gathered in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Chase Daniel to give the Tigers a 28-3 lead over Western Michigan. Saunders raised an arm skyward and put up a single finger. To 53,479 people in the Memorial Stadium stands, it was just another player celebrating a touchdown. To one, it was so much more.

"He held up a finger," Rich Weber said. "That's for Papa."

Papa is what Saunders calls Weber, his maternal grandfather. Before the game, Weber had asked his grandson to flash him a number one if he made a big play. Saunders obliged. But he wasn't alone. Tony Temple gave the number one after both of his touchdowns. Fellow Kearney product Brock Christopher did the same after his interception.

"That was for him," Temple said of Weber. "He wanted everybody to put a number one up for him. Every time we scored a touchdown, we did that for him."

The tributes from the Tigers were great. They contributed to what Weber repeatedly called "the best day of my life." But when it came down to it, only one number one mattered.

"When his mother first had him, she was a hairdresser and he stayed with us," Weber recalled. "She worked late in the evening and he was with us a lot. There just seemed to be a bond to start with."

"I don't know, it was just a great feeling. The bond was formed probably when he was two or three years old. I don't know how it all started, but he's just such a damn good kid."

Grandpa likes to talk a bit. Grandpas can be that way. The grandson? He's a little more reserved with his words. But ask him about Papa and he doesn't even have to think.

"He has been the most influential person in my life," Saunders said.

Saunders calls his grandfather every single day. Weber says he hasn't missed a day in what is now his fourth year in Columbia.

"I don't know many grandsons that call their grandpa that much," Weber said. "He told me something the other day, and I guess I can share it. He said, 'Papa I'm what I am today because of you. ' That was something for a kid that's done what he's done."

Dating back to those days in his grandparents' house, Saunders has always had Weber on his side. It lasted through elementary school, when Tommy made his granddad a promise. Weber told him if he would never take a sip of alcohol before he was at least 16, there would be a car waiting for him. Saunders held up his end of the bargain.

"He did everything I ever asked him to do," Weber said. "He never gave us a minute's trouble."

The relationship got stronger through Saunders' days as a multi-sport star at Kearney High School when seemingly the entire team would gather at his house.

"Ever since high school, for home games we'd always go over to his house and have spaghetti on Friday, and then we'd go eat breakfast on Saturday morning," Christopher remembers. "They came to every sporting event, always doing whatever to support us the whole time."

After leading his teams to state title appearances in both football and basketball, Saunders' high school coach, Mark Thomas, convinced the receiver that football held his future. Grandson and grandfather took an unofficial visit to Missouri.

"I came up and coach (Andy) Hill showed me around. He brought me into the receivers room and coach Hill was talking to me about walking on," Saunders remembered. "My grandpa was like, 'Why didn't you give him a scholarship, why didn't you give him a scholarship? He played all these guys.' He started to name off people I played in high school, started giving all my stats. That pretty much is what my visit up here was, my grandpa yelling at coach Hill telling him to give me a scholarship."

Hill remembers.

"His granddad calls and gives me words of encouragement on the phone...lately," said Hill, who not only recruited Saunders, but now coaches him as the Tigers' wide receivers coach. "When we first met, I wouldn't exactly call it encouragement. He had some real questions why we wouldn't offer Tommy out of high school and I don't think he really cared too much for me."

Hill had a simple answer for Weber's questions: "He was obviously a very good football player, but like anybody, he needed to come prove himself and he's certainly done that."

The scholarship arrived before Saunders ever even played a game as a Tiger. Better late than never, according to grandpa.

"He wasn't my favorite coach at the time," Weber admits. "Andy is what he is and he's a good person and I think he's a good coach. I've apologized to him. I told him, 'I had no business being that way with you' and we both just laugh about it now."

Laughs have been a little less frequent for Weber and Saunders in the last year. Weber has battled a number of health problems and was diagnosed with cancer recently. While in the hospital, he took too much of his pain medication one day. He stood up for radiation treatment and curled the toes under one of his feet. He broke five bones in the foot and is currently mostly confined to a wheelchair.

Saunders has spent countless hours driving back and forth from Columbia to Kearney. He will drive home after practice to spend time with his grandpa, then drive back in the middle of the night to make it to class in Columbia, always with little sleep, sometimes with none.

"He's always wired. It's pretty amazing," said Temple, one of Saunders' roommates at Missouri. "I worry about him. Sometimes I even talk to him on the way back from Kansas City just to keep him up. That's the kind of guy he is."

Saunders admits there are times it all gets to him.

"It's been tough. You've got to pick and choose when you can think about it," he said. "You've just got to go out there and play football sometimes. Other times, it's real tough."

If he's struggling, few know it. That would be typical for a player Gary Pinkel calls the most selfless he has ever been around.

"Coach Pinkel's right, he's very kind to all of his teammates," Hill said. "He makes a difference spreading the love throughout the team."

Saunders spends so much time worrying about everyone else, perhaps in part because he knows there is always one man there to worry about him.

"I worry about Tommy. I've told several players and I told Andy, I want to know if he gets down in the dumps," Weber said. "I'm not worried about his football, I just want to know if he gets down. I'll get in the car and drive down there and I'll talk to him. And I think it will help him."

That's how it has always been with Weber and Saunders. One helps the other. It is a relationship certainly uncommon among grandparents and grandchildren. And it's gotten even stronger in the weeks since Weber was diagnosed with cancer.

"We've talked a lot about different things, about what's going to happen, what might happen," Weber said. "I said we've had 21 years together and I think we're going to have quite some more. Let's just be thankful every day. He's more attentive and I'm more attentive to him."

"It's just tough at times," Saunders said. "You've just got to keep a positive attitude and just put everything in God's hands."

Weber won't cede control quite so easily. He says the doctors are encouraged. He has 13 radiation treatments remaining and he plans to take every one head on.

"With cancer, you never know. I may have a day, I may have five years," he said. "I'm gonna play it for all I can get out of it. They've got me out of most of my pain. If I hadn't broken my foot, I'd be in pretty good shape."

Good enough to make the trip to Columbia again on Saturday morning to see his grandson take the field against Illinois State. Can it top last week? Weber admits, it will be tough for this week to be any better than last, which was the first Tiger game he was able to attend this season.

"Big Tommy (Saunders' father) came and got me down to the field. I've never done that before. I got up just before the team was coming off the field," Weber recounted. "Pinkel comes running at me, and I thought 'What's he gonna do? Is he going to tell me to get out of here?' He gave me a big old hug, then he hugged me again and some of the players did too. He pointed to me to come on in (the locker room). He showed me where he wanted me, sat me down by Mike Alden and the chancellor. They had their prayer, Pinkel talked to the guys about what he thought. Then he says, 'And we have a special guest, it's Tommy Saunders' grandpa.' The guys all cheered and I could have died and gone to heaven. I've never had a better day."

"That's what my grandpa kept saying. 'Best day of my life, best day of my life,'" Saunders said. "He had a great time. I was so glad he could be there."

Back outside the locker room, a man who Weber did not know approached him.

"He said, 'I never saw so many people come up to someone, hug and say hello,'" Weber said. "I said that's because of that number 84 out there."

Well, it might have had something to do with his grandfather too.

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