Age just another number for Virginia’s 106-year-old stat man

John Risher played tennis until he was 85 and he still drives his own car

 

Charlottesville, Virginia. John Risher drove north on Route 29, a briefcase resting in the car’s back seat.

Through sunglasses, Risher, who is 106 years old, surveyed the highway. A pickup truck was lumbering up ahead, and Risher was gaining on it.

He surged past the truck.

“The only time I pass someone is when they are really poking along,” said Risher.

A sharp left curve loomed.

“Here’s where it gets tricky,” Risher said.

Without braking, he navigated the turn. The passenger breathed deeply.

“I can’t take any naps on this road – not many straightaways,” he adds.

About 50 miles later, Risher was lounging in a Virginia Cavaliers lawn chair in the parking lot of Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, eating fried chicken

Rock music played, and fans clad in orange and navy drank beer on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Risher, wearing a a dark blue Virginia cap and windbreaker, khakis, and white sneakers, tailgated with friends for a while.

Then he took his briefcase and walked up a ramp leading into the arena, to a carpeted lounge, where, one by one, people greeted him.

Clunky calculator

He entered an open-air press box and set the contents of his briefcase on a table: some papers and a big, clunky calculator.

Risher is a member of Virginia’s football statistics crew, an unpaid position he has held for more than half a century. In a digital age, he still records statistics the old-fashioned way – with pen and paper – as a back-up in case technology fails.

But his connection to Virginia football goes beyond numbers and long precedes his involvement with the statistics crew.

He is Virginia’s oldest living former player, having participated in one game in 1931. And he’s been watching Virginia football since 1919.

Risher, who has lively, light blue eyes and a full head of silver hair, recalls dates, names, addresses and scores dating back nearly 100 years.

He speaks with a Virginia accent, and his voice is inflected with humor, as if a punch line is always imminent. He maintains eye contact. He plays jokes on friends, often grumpily acting confused – before flashing a knowing and mischievous smile.

He is also a physical marvel. He played tennis until he was 85, and he mowed his lawn until he was 105. At his 106th birthday party, he balanced a spoon on his nose.

Second Captains

He easily passed his most recent eye exam at the department of motor vehicles, he said, back when he was 100. His driver’s license will expire when he is 108.

Health problems

“I’m deaf as a post,” Risher recently said, “but I can see 20/20 with these glasses, and I still look at the girls.”

Virginia and North Carolina prepared for a game known as the South’s Oldest Rivalry. In his chair at midfield, Risher leaned forward over a chart, readying two pens: one black, for Virginia; one red, for the visitors.

Risher alternated his focus between the field and his spreadsheet, writing numerals in boxes based on the spot of each play. Nearby stood two statisticians wearing headsets – 20 and 32 years old – who verbally relayed information to a statistician on a laptop.

Virginia punted. Risher looked for where the returner caught the ball, then punched numbers into his calculator, tabulating the punt’s distance. He held up the calculator for a colleague, who offered a thumbs-up, indicating that Risher was accurate. Risher, satisfied, returned to his chart.

North Carolina scored first, a four-yard touchdown. Consulting his drive chart, Risher pulled out a different form, on which he wrote the drive’s distance, the time elapsed and the number of plays. It was placed atop a pile, destined for the archives.

Risher was born in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, on May 11, 1910. His family moved to a farm outside Charlottesville. As a boy, he contracted polio and was bedridden for months, but he recovered.

High school

He remembers the day later in the 1920s when president Calvin Coolidge attended a game at Lambeth Field. He drove his family’s Ford Model T to road games.

Risher played offensive end in high school. At Virginia, he studied chemistry and became a football equipment manager. Word reached Virginia’s coach that Risher was an adept pass catcher.

In the 1931 season opener at Lambeth Field, Risher was thrust into the game. (Virginia beat Roanoke, 18-0, its only win that season.) Risher injured his ankle in practice the next week and returned to the managers’ squad.

He graduated in 1932 and received his medical degree from Virginia in 1936. During World War II, he joined the army corps of engineers, serving in Greenland and Central America, and later the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, serving in China, Burma and India.

In 1950, he settled with his wife and young daughter in Lynchburg, a city on the James River. One day, a new patient, Paul Wisman, entered Risher’s office and they started discussing Virginia sports. In 1956, Wisman began keeping football statistics in Virginia’s press box. Risher asked if he could volunteer – and in 1963, he joined the crew.

Alzheimer’s disease

When not attending road games, Risher listened on the radio and kept statistics at home. In 1985, he retired from medicine.

He and Wisman traveled to road games, sometimes with their wives. Risher’s wife, Anne, had grown up in his neighborhood in Charlottesville.

They shared a love of travel and explored the world, from Europe to Africa.

Around 2000, Anne developed Alzheimer’s disease. Risher took her on car rides and, occasionally on picnics in the country. In 2011, Anne died at home.

Risher and Wisman drove to games together and sat in the press box, side by side. But their jobs had become less significant. Data was entered into a laptop equipped with advanced statistical software that formulated a live box score.

In 2015, Wisman died at age 89. This past summer, Risher moved out of his house, where he had lived since 1954, and into an assisted living home.

A newspaper notice advertised an estate sale listing items that once filled Risher’s life: “Large lot of vintage records, UVA memorabilia, antique trains, 20th century stainless steel medical tools, and other treasures.”

Still contributing

Tom Fenstermaker

“What I do now is so unimportant compared to what it used to be,” Risher told him. “I feel as if I’m in the way. I think I ought to quit.”

“You know,” Fenstermaker said, “when we get a little confused, I look over your shoulder and see what you’ve written.”

Risher felt better. Even if his role was minimal, maybe he still served a purpose.

Tom Perls, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, upon learning about Risher, said that he is “very much is fitting the mould” of an eventual super-centenarian – those who live to be 110 or older.

Perl called Risher “the oldest driver I’ve ever heard of” and as “easily one in a million”.

With Virginia trailing, 14-7, at halftime, Risher walked into the media lounge for a bowl of ice cream.

He returned to the press box for the second half. North Carolina took control. A 10-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter made the score 21-7.

To Risher’s left, was Virginia’s other manual backup statistician, Daniel Buckley, a 20-year-old undergraduate student.

After Virginia lost a fumble on its next possession, Risher slammed down his pen. He and Buckley shared a disgusted look. Risher leaned back into his chair and folded his arms.

In the fourth quarter, North Carolina connected on a 46-yard touchdown pass. The stands started emptying out. Buckley yawned. Risher, meanwhile, remained focused on his chart until the final snap. Virginia lost, 35-14.

Risher placed his materials into his briefcase.

“Will I see you next week?” he asked Buckley. “Yep,” Buckley said.

Soon, Risher was driving back on the highway. He looked content.

“You’re sure you’re okay driving at night?” his passenger asked.

“Oh, I don’t have any trouble,” Risher said. “And this car’s got good brakes. You can stop on a nickel. Don’t worry. We’ll make it.”

Risher was silent for a while, then he said: “Just sitting here, I don’t feel like I’m 106.”

And he drove all the way home, stars flickering against a clear black sky. New York Times Service

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