At Middlebury, No. 1 fan Varno is at center of tradition

Email|Print| Text size + By John Curran
Associated Press Writer / November 10, 2007

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. --An hour before kickoff, Butch Varno was ready.

He had his Middlebury College sweat pants on and his Middlebury basketball cap nearby. Sitting in his wheelchair, facing the kitchen door, he waited. Just before 12:30 p.m., the door swung open and two young giants ducked in.

Time to pick up Butch.

"Hello, guys!" he said, beaming at 6-foot-5-inch Middlebury basketball player Kevin Kelleher Jr. and 6-9 teammate Andrew Locke. "Hi guys!"

"How ya' doin'?" asked Kelleher, leaning down to hug him. "Are you doing good?"

"It's been a long week," Varno replied.

"Yeah, well, we're going to the football game. We're going to have some fun," Kelleher said.

Moments later, he pushed Varno's wheelchair out the door and down a porch ramp, headed for Alumni Stadium and another chapter in the story of the exclusive college and its No. 1 fan.

What started one snowy afternoon in 1960, when student Roger Ralph spotted Varno's grandmother struggling to wheel a 13-year-old with cerebral palsy back from a football game and gave both of them a ride home, remains one of college sports' most endearing, enduring rituals.

In football season, Middlebury basketball players deliver Varno to the stadium and sit with him through the game. In basketball season, football players do the honors, placing him courtside, at the end of the Panthers' bench. It doesn't end there: Students -- they call themselves "Butch's Team" -- tutor him, take him to the college library, run errands with him, pal around with him.

Last spring, when a flood inundated the small apartment Varno shared with his mother, Middlebury officials stepped in. They spent $200,000 renovating a college-owned house into a new residence that the Varnos moved into last month. The school has mounted a fundraising campaign aimed at underwriting the full cost of the renovations and endowing a "community response fund" aimed at financing the Varnos' future needs.

"By the grace of God, every single year for 40-plus years, one year at a time, they show up for Butch," said Terry Colvin, 65, a class of `64 graduate who was among the early picker-uppers.

"It's college-endorsed, but it's people living out their values and doing the right thing. So you're a yuppie from Scarsdale, up in Vermont at this pristine place, learning about high ideals and philosophies, and you're connected with a kid with cerebral palsy who's in a real town and is a real person."

Indeed, Varno was a kid when it all started. Now he's 60, his condition worsening with age -- his rigid hands are now locked into claw-like hooks. He confesses to battling depression, especially when college isn't in session. In summer, he spends his days watching C-SPAN or Boston Red Sox games on TV.

"Lots of people think it is fun to be lifted up and taken care of," Varno said. "It's not. I'd rather be on that football field playing, or on the basketball court."

But hope springs eternal when the students return, and with them, the sports routines and visits to the apartment at 110 South Main Street, just down the street from campus.

Varno is no fair-weather fan. He has attended thousands of games, many of them lopsided losses. After all, the college -- which doesn't give athletic scholarships and costs about $44,000 a year to attend -- has never been mistaken for an NCAA powerhouse in football or basketball.

He keeps a notebook packed with statistics, pores over preseason rosters to guess who'll start and makes it clear when he doesn't like a substitution -- or a call. He's been known to get so riled up he falls out of his wheelchair at games, and he blames himself if the basketball team plays badly.

"When we lose, that's OK. I'm depressed for five minutes. I go into the coaches' office and I scream and yell at myself because I didn't do the job," Varno said.

At football games, he sits in the stands, flanked by his escorts for the day.

Last week, during Middlebury's 28-0 victory over Hamilton, Kelleher and Locke stood by his wheelchair from kickoff to the final play, tending to his needs -- pulling his leather jacket on, standing him up for the national anthem and holding him by his elbows until it was over, stretching him, feeding him hot chocolate through a straw -- as well-wishers young and old stopped to say hello.

Around Middlebury, he's something of a celebrity.

"I think Butch, in a way, brings together the sports teams here, and the school itself," Locke said. "He's been around so long, everyone knows him."

Kelleher is a second-generation member of Varno's band of brothers. His father, Kevin Kelleher Sr., 49, class of `80, used to have pushing duty. That was when Varno lived farther from campus and the game-day routine involved lifting Varno and the chair separately, putting them into a vehicle and delivering both to the game.

It's easier now, but no less meaningful.

"The kids benefit because it's a form of community service they're all doing," former athletic director Russ Reilly said. "They're probably not even aware they're doing it. They're getting to work with someone who's less fortunate. Many of our students come from fairly affluent backgrounds. This type of opportunity is a valuable life lesson."

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