Every time I saw Rob Porterfield, I couldn’t help but smile. Hearing of his passing broke my heart.
I’d known Rob a long time, back in a time when we both had a little more hair. He was the boys basketball coach at Bradwell Institute, having just come from Rock Hill, S.C.
After more than a few games, we’d go for a cold beverage to talk basketball, drawing up plays and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the teenagers on his team.
It was during his time there that Rob and his wonderful wife Debbie were part of one of the best practical jokes ever, perpetrated on one of Georgia Southern’s greatest football players.
Rob was an assistant football coach as well, and the staff was having a preseason get-together for the coaches and wives at another assistant’s house. Raymond Gross, who in full disclosure is a great friend and one of my favorite people in the world, was running late to the get-together. He had yet to meet Rob’s better half.
So the host of the party, who had known Raymond during Raymond’s playing days at Georgia Southern, hatched a little plot.
For Georgia Southern fans, the next few lines might be a little painful. And for someone who was covering the team that year while still at Georgia Southern, they dredged up dark memories. But this was funny.
As Raymond was introduced to Debbie, she said, “I know who you are.” Raymond’s face beamed. “You’re Raymond Gross.” A broad smile crossed his face and his eyes lit up. “Yeah, I’ve seen your picture in the Furman Hall of Fame!” Raymond’s jaw dropped, his eyes bugged out of his head and a room full of coaches burst into fall-down laughter.
Raymond was quarterback on two Georgia Southern national championship teams. However, he was quarterback of the Eagles team that lost to Furman 17-12 in the 1988 national championship. He had the football knocked from his grip inside Furman’s 10-yard line on a potential go-ahead drive, with no white jerseys and blue helmets around, only purple-clad Furman Paladins in the vicinity to recover the fumble and snuff out Georgia Southern’s last best chance.
Rob eventually left the coaching ranks and entered administration. His passion for athletics never waned. Neither did his desire help young people.
Three years ago, doctors told Rob he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It’s more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. No matter what name it’s called, it’s a painful and debilitating disease. There is no known cure. It doesn’t end in its patients getting better.
In essence, Rob was handed a death sentence. He accepted it. But he didn’t surrender to his fate.
He worked tirelessly to maintain some semblance of a quality of a life, even as ALS forced him to use a cane to get around before pushing him into a wheelchair. For as long as he could, he went through long, draining workouts and treatments in an effort to slow or curtail, if not reverse, the effects of a crippling and ultimately fatal affliction.
He even worked as long as he could, using a golf cart to tool around Effingham County Middle School.
ALS slowly took Rob’s physical strength. It could not take from him the strength of his heart, his spirit, his soul. So often, sometimes too often, we look for lessons out of loss and tragedy. With the passing of a great educator and coach, the lesson is simply to keep fighting, no matter the odds.