ATLANTA — Blessed with agility, speed and a smooth jump shot, B.J. Upton spent a significant portion of his childhood aspiring to be the next Charlie Ward. As he was getting his first taste of tackle football in 1993, Upton was a wide-eyed 9-year-old kid who attentively watched as Ward won the Heisman Trophy and then spent the latter half of the winter honing the skills that allowed him to spend 11 seasons in the National Basketball Association.
Upton’s dream of following in Ward’s footsteps as a two-sport star at Florida State University was trumped by the $4.6 million signing bonus he received when the Rays selected him with the second pick in Major League Baseball’s 2002 First-Year Player Draft. But his passion for the Seminoles has never died.
In fact, it has been further fueled by the strong bond that has developed since FSU head football coach Jimbo Fisher came to St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field to throw the ceremonial first pitch before a Rays game on May 30, 2011. Instead of sticking with this plan, Fisher allowed his two young boys — Trey and Ethan — to experience the honor of doing so.
As Ethan played catch with Upton before the game and then threw him the first pitch, there was no indication that just a few months earlier this 6-year-old child had been diagnosed with Fanconi Anemia, a rare blood disorder that often leads to cancer and bone marrow failure.
“He’s the greatest kid,” Upton said. “You’d never know [he has the disorder]. He’s just a kid being a kid. He has fun and he’s not scared about anything. He’s not worried about anything. He has no fear, and that goes a long way, especially with what he is dealing with.”
Upton was reunited with Ethan later that same year, when he accepted the Fishers’ invitation to attend the FSU-University of Miami football game in Tallahassee, Fla. The football coach’s wife, Candi Fisher, still marvels at the awe the outfielder displayed as he visited the locker room and walked on the field, while getting an up-close look at the program that had stirred his emotions for so long.
“He was like a kid,” Candi Fisher said. “It was just so cool to see somebody who gets to do as much as he does not take things for granted.”
Over the past few years, the Fishers have given Upton the opportunity to enjoy other games in Tallahassee and a variety of other items, including a helmet and personalized jersey. But the greatest gift came last week, when they stuck to their promise of having him as one of their guests once the Seminoles secured a chance to compete for the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Courtesy of this offer, Upton took his father, his younger brother Justin and one of his agents, Mike Dillon, to Pasadena, Calif., to watch FSU battle Auburn. As the Seminoles manufactured a thrilling 34-31 victory and claimed the national championship, the Uptons were seated alongside Candi and her two boys.
“I’m still trying to get my voice back,” B.J. Upton said. “I’ve never been so excited about a game, and then to have them win. Knowing that is where I wanted to go and that is the team I grew up loving, I just don’t know. I can’t even explain it.”
When Auburn jumped out to a 21-3 first-half lead, Upton saw Ethan crying much the same way he had in 1995, when he was 11 years old and had his first chance to see FSU in person with his childhood friend and current Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer.
What was supposed to be a memorable experience for the two future Major Leaguers evolved into a tearful 3 1/2-hour trip home when the University of Virginia stopped Warrick Dunn inside the one-yard line on the game’s final play.
While the early portion of this year’s title game might have signaled another forgettable night, Upton did his best to comfort Ethan, who was worried he had doomed his father’s team because, just before coming to California, he had lost the lucky hat he had worn throughout the season.
“He was in tears, and he really thought it was because of his lucky hat,” Upton said. “I told him, ‘Ethan, we’re fine bro, there’s a lot of game left to play.'”
During a pregame conversation, Candi Fisher had told the Uptons that, like many baseball players, she too is superstitious. This would become a memorable exchange as the night unfolded.
As Auburn prepared to kick a field goal that increased the lead to 24-20 with less than five minutes remaining in the game, the Upton brothers went to a suite to visit their financial advisor, whose father is on the Rose Bowl board of directors. Minutes after entering the suite, the Uptons went crazy as they celebrated Levonte Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return that gave FSU its first lead.
Recognizing they should not be celebrating among Rose Bowl officials, the Uptons quickly returned to their seats to find the Fishers had gone down to the field.
Shortly after arriving on the sidelines themselves, the Uptons watched Auburn reclaim the lead with 1:19 left to play.
“I looked and said, ‘Dude, we’re going back to the seats,'” Upton said.
“I turned around and said, ‘Where are you guys going?'” Candi Fisher said. “They said, ‘We’re going back to our seats. We’re too superstitious.'”
The Uptons were back at their 40-yard-line seats in plenty of time to see Jameis Winston orchestrate the game-winning drive that culminated in a touchdown in the opposite end zone with just 13 seconds remaining. When B.J. stood up and started to go back down to the field to enjoy the celebration, a female FSU booster said, “No, don’t move.”
The Uptons did not find the Fishers during the on-field celebration that ensued. But the two families are looking forward to the opportunity to renew acquaintances again during the baseball season, when Candi will have a chance to travel to Atlanta to see the Upton brothers play for the beloved Braves, the team she grew up watching while being raised about an hour from Atlanta.
Competing passions nearly led the Fishers to break off their engagement. While serving as Samford University’s offensive coordinator, Jimbo was crushed the night his Pirates were beaten by the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. As his wife-to-be celebrated Sid Bream’s game-ending dash and slide across the plate, he expressed his frustration.
“Jimbo is a Pirates fanatic,” Candi said. “When Sid Bream slid home, we almost broke up and didn’t get married. It was the biggest fight ever.”
While the young Fisher boys still keep close tabs on the home-state Rays, it was not difficult for Trey and Ethan to pledge allegiance to the Braves when B.J. signed with Atlanta after the 2012 season.
“They love B.J. Upton,” the proud mother said. “So as soon as he went to the Braves, we had to buy Braves stuff. Ethan just thinks he is so cool. B.J. is cool. He’s got a lot of swag and he’s just very cool. He’s very good to the boys. He’s so thoughtful and soft-spoken. Ethan just loves him.”
The Uptons are determined to do whatever they can to help the Fishers fight their battle against this disorder that Ethan has been afflicted with. They are in the midst of planning a golf tournament that will raise money for the Fishers’ Kidz1stFund, which was created to raise awareness and funds in support of research to fight Fanconi Anemia.
“It’s really cool that they have taken an interest, and I know it’s because they have gotten to know Ethan,” Candi said. “B.J. is a dad. He can appreciate from the perspective of being a father and having a child who has this [disorder]. It’s just not a good thing to have.”
Had he not signed with the Rays out of high school, Upton would have gone to play baseball for legendary FSU coach Mike Martin. There have been days when he has thought about what it would have been like to have experienced some of those dreams that developed as he watched Ward play for the Seminoles.
But thanks to the Fishers, he no longer has to wonder what it truly feels like to be part of the FSU family.
“They have been nothing but the best to me,” Upton said. “They have definitely taken me in like I went to school there. That’s the way they treat me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
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