His visit to Buffalo on Saturday, strangely enough, began with a vision.
Patrick Yarber had been a sports junkie since his childhood without ever playing in an official game. His career was limited to pickup football and road hockey with his friends, athletic accomplishments that literally and figuratively came to a close in the 1970s on his dead-end street in Dearborn Heights, Mich.
Sports for him drowned in the family gene pool, a great injustice for a football lover who grew to 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds. His mother passed along retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that ultimately stole his peripheral vision. His father handed down macular degeneration, which over the years took away much of his central vision.
Yarber these days is left with little in between other than diminished sight and a heightened passion for sports. He’s 53 years old, a single man with a single mission since his disability forced him into premature retirement from a collection agency. His fiercest opponent is time, a race between his eyes and the clock. “It gets worse every day,” he said.
Yarber has 20 percent vision, but to view him as a legally blind man is failing to see the big picture. He’s determined to maximize every game while he can, which is what led him to Section 104, Row P, Seat 24 in UB Stadium, an hour before kickoff.
Buffalo beat Stony Brook, 26-23, in five overtimes in an unsightly demonstration of football to be sure. The numbers on the scoreboard and quality of play mattered little to Yarber, who was more concerned with No. 121, or the total number of venues he has visited in the Football Bowl Subdivision out of 125 schools.
He arrived after packing his walking cane and binoculars for a solo trip to remember. He booked a room for two nights at the Red Roof Inn, keeping with low-budget crash pads that allow him to continue crisscrossing the country in a quest to hit every Division I-A stadium. He’s going to the Bills-Panthers game today.
“Every morning I wake up and look to my right in my bedroom, and I can see the sun coming through the blinds, I close my fist and raise it in the air,” he said. “I’m so thankful for the vision that I have. I know there are people who have it worse than me. I’m very blessed to have had vision for 53 years.”
Yarber has kept stubs from every game, hundreds over the past 35 years. He records a synopsis of each contest and a travel log that includes 1,137 flights.
It’s not just college football that draws his attention. He has attended games in 60 NHL venues – more than 800 games in all as a longtime Predators’ season-ticket holder – despite rarely seeing the puck. In fact, one of his prized possessions is a typed letter on Sabres letterhead from late, great play-by-play man Ted Darling, who invited Yarber into the press box during a game in 1988.
He has visited 53 Major League ballparks even though he has watched a ball in full flight fewer than 10 times. He has trouble seeing objects at 20 feet that people with normal vision can see from 300 feet. He watches television highlights at home while sitting about a foot away from his 19-inch screen. He can’t see anything in the dark.
And yet he has seen the light. “None of us are guaranteed anything tomorrow,” he said. “Every day that I can see, even a little bit, that’s great. I take nothing for granted. Everybody has stuff they have to contend with. This is my stuff. I could wake up blind tomorrow, but it’s not something I think about it. I don’t let it stop me.”
You can’t help but admire a man who sees so little but appreciates watching so much. This gentle giant could pass for a parent of a player when walking through the gates to a game. He didn’t play organized sports during his childhood because he was susceptible to suffering a detached retina with any blow to the head.
Yarber worked for First American Bank in Nashville for 23 years and lost his job when the bank was sold. He took a job in collections for another 15 years, but looking at a computer screen strained his eyes and exacerbated his problems. He banked enough money to continue traveling before he was forced to retire at age 50.
He did not retire as a sports fan, of course. If anything, the extra time allowed him to visit more stadiums. He can discuss in great detail each stadium and experiences he has had with good people along the way. A few weeks ago, he had a four-hour tour that was set up by someone in the Athletic Department at East Carolina. He has never accepted a free ticket, by the way.
Yarber’s goal of visiting every FBS home started innocently enough. A high school classmate, Mike Woodard, earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt in the late 1970s. Yarber started going to games to see him play. He eventually began following Vandy on the road. If the game was too far, he picked another stadium.
Once he started, he didn’t know how to stop. A few years ago, with his sight growing progressively worse, he realized he had attended games in about two-thirds of the stadiums that housed FBS teams. So why not hit them all? He visited 11 new stadiums last year. He had seven on his schedule this year, including No. 125. “I’m the kind of guy who is the first one there and the last one to leave,” he said. “Rain, snow, sunshine, heat, whatever it is, I’m there till the bitter end. And I love it. There’s nothing more exciting than college football.”
He has not been without a few stumbles, as you can imagine. He has bounced off more curbs than a New York City cabbie. He once fell down a small flight of stairs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, suffering minor injuries. He unknowingly urinated in the sink of a bathroom at Vanderbilt, thinking it was a toilet. He has redefined bumping into strangers.
And he has cherished every minute. How many people can say they’ve been from Michigan to New Mexico State, from Florida to Fresno State and every place in between? His beloved Vanderbilt sits atop his list of top 10 stadiums followed by Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Tennessee, USC, UCLA, Penn State, Alabama and Florida.
Sometimes, he travels with friends, sometimes with family. He made the trip alone this weekend, a small victory in a bigger game that to some doesn’t make sense. Really, it’s simple to understand. He appreciates whatever he sees while listening for pads popping, bands playing and fans cheering. He goes because it makes him feel whole.
And the more blindness threatens to take away his experiences, the more intense his desire to experience more. He has four more stadiums to visit before hitting No. 125, which will happen Nov. 9 on a trip to Idaho. Finally, some 35 years after it started, some three years after the clock began ticking, his vision will be complete. “There are times I say, ‘Why are you doing this? Why do you come?’ ” he said. “It’s my therapy. It helps me deal with the vision thing because of the atmosphere. I feel like it keeps me going. As long as I still challenge myself, I haven’t thrown in the towel. I have no plans to throw in the towel. It’s frustrating at times, but it’s still worth it.”