Fry’s passion for players extended beyond the game
Ex-Dodger Reiners remembers the support from his Hawkeye family in the wake of family tragedy
Most Hawkeyes will recite a clever story or quirky anecdote in remembrance of the late, great Hayden Fry, who passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 90.
Randy Reiners thinks about the worst days of his life.
It’s been 21 years, but it may as well have been yesterday. Reiners, Fort Dodge’s all-state quarterback recruited by Fry to play for the University of Iowa, was entering his junior year as the team’s starting signal-caller.
Everything changed that August, when Reiners suddenly lost his sister. Natalie Reiners, at just 25 years old, developed a blood clot in her leg while playing softball. It ultimately lodged in her heart, and proved to be fatal.
Her unexpected death was the kind of tragic news that turns a family’s world upside down. Natalie wasn’t just a sister to Randy – she was his best friend.
Suddenly, football and everything else took a back seat. Randy was alone in front.
Fry, in what would be his final season as the Iowa head coach, did what he could to change all of that – even if the pain and suffering wasn’t going away.
“He was very open-armed. Always willing to talk, or listen, or whatever during that rough stretch,” Reiners said, almost clenching his words at times for the wounds that never heal. “I probably spent more (one-on-one) time with him than most at that stage (in Fry’s career). I can tell you that maybe only 10 guys on our team had been in his actual office. His ‘office’ was everywhere. But he wanted to let me know he was there if I needed to open up.”
Natalie’s funeral in Fort Dodge was unbearably sad, but also, genuinely inspiring. Randy’s teammates at Iowa were not required to attend, yet they all made the trip.
“I remember that it wasn’t mandatory,” Reiners said. “But they all came. One hundred percent turnout. That kind of emotional support was incredible, especially thinking about it now. That was a special moment for me and for our family.”
Was Fry behind the team’s decision to arrive en masse?
“I’m sure,” Reiners said. “You know, when you’re a part of a football program, you have guys from all over the country and all walks of life together under the same roof. It gives you a whole new perspective on things from what you’re (exposed to) growing up in your hometown, wherever that is.
“I know it’s similar for other programs and sports, but (the support at that moment) made it real to me. You see that regardless of your (personal) differences, you’re on a team together, and you’re sharing a bond and a brotherhood. And that was Hawkeye football with Coach Fry.”
Reiners, of course, had plenty of lighter stories to share about Fry as well.
“One of my favorites was when he had been convinced (the) Michigan (Wolverines) had guys in our parking ramp, watching our practices (from a distance),” Reiners laughed. “He would send managers up there, and they’d come back with nothing. He’d say, ‘no, I swear someone’s up there. Look again.’ It was crazy.
“It reminded me of the story I read the other day about Coach Fry telling (Iowa’s) punter to shank his practice kicks in warm-ups to confuse (Bo) Schembechler. That was before my time there, but sounded exactly like something he’d do. Just random stuff that was about the psychology of the game.”
Reiners described Fry as “more of a boss” than a head coach for his final three seasons, which were the quarterback’s first three on the field with the Hawkeyes.
“He put the right people in the right places, from (assistant) coaches all the way through the managers. We had like 15 managers with the team at the time, and at least five or six were from Fort Dodge. They worked really hard. But that’s because Coach valued what they did and their roles (in the program).
“He didn’t have to do it all. He knew how to delegate responsibilities.”
Fry’s legendary coaching tree received plenty of new publicity in the wake of his passing. But Reiners said, “I think it was as much about them finding him as him finding them.”
“He was great at seeing someone, reading them on the spot and saying, ‘I want that guy.’ And after a while, I think he (gained a reputation) for that. It was something others wanted to be a part of.”
Ironically, when the time came to find Fry’s replacement, the search committee used a similar tactic.
“I was fortunate enough to be on that (as an upcoming senior player) with Chuck Long, Marv Cook and some administrators,” Reiners said. “Coach (Kirk) Ferentz was the last interview. And within 10, 12 minutes, we knew he was it. He was the guy.”
The rest, as they say, was history. Ferentz was hired.
Hayden had taught them well.
Through triumph and tragedy. In light-hearted moments, and the darkest of days.
“He was a straight shooter,” Reiners said. “A good man.”
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports