A run for a state championship is special for any sports team, but the girls of Waukee High School in Des Moines, Iowa had even more to play for in this year's Iowa State Softball Tournament for their No. 1 fan, long-time school bus driver Gordon Emmons.
The top-ranked Warriors carried the momentum of their 40-3 record into last Friday's state title game against the Pleasant Valley Spartans. But Emmons was in the stands just as he's been hundreds of times over the years as the 2015 5A champs played for something extra: A win for their beloved "Gordy."
Emmons has been battling stage 4 cancer after doctors found an inoperable mass in his chest on April 2. Following his diagnosis, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments but decided "it wasn't for me." These days, he requires an oxygen tank and a wheelchair.
Emmons has been driving the Waukee Community School District girls' basketball and softball teams for 14 years since retiring as a district manager for Waste Management when he was 65. He quickly became a fixture with the teams, driving them through all kinds of weather and road conditions to get his passengers safely to their destinations.
He was often joined by his wife, Pat, at many games and she also treated the athletes and cheerleaders like extended family. Players say they consider Emmons to be just like a grandfather to them.
Emmons told School Transportation News he opted to drive a school bus because he needed something to do after retirement.
"To me, it's great work – a couple hours in the morning, a couple hours in the afternoon, and it’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning," he said in a phone interview from his home in Urbandale.
He'd driven a school bus for a few years in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, suburb of Grandville upon graduating from college so he had experience and liked the job.
He knew going in that he wanted to forge a strong bond with the student-athletes and their coaches.
"It didn't happen overnight. It took a little time, but it all paid off," Emmons said, noting he's received invitations to graduation parties over the years, and students will even look him up on trips home from college.
An avid sports fan, he said, "Where else can you go watch a ball game, get paid for it and enjoy it at the same time?"
Emmons said his connection to the team is hard to explain, but it was extremely important for him to be at last Tuesday's quarterfinal and Friday's championship game.
"It means a lot to me and it means a lot to them," he said before the game.
The game, unfortunately, did not go well for the Warriors. Pleasant Valley scored six runs in the first inning and won 8-2.
The players wore white ribbons to tie their ponytails this season as a symbol of lung cancer awareness.
Even in a small town known for its spirit of looking out for neighbors, the outpouring of support in ways big and small has been more than Emmons imagined possible.
"It's been awesome. It's unbelievable. The parents have been awesome. The school people have been awesome. The kids have been awesome," he said.
With the championship game behind him, Emmons said he is looking forward to his 80th birthday party on Saturday at the Waukee district's bus facility. With all the media attention, he even received a call from a former out-of-town co-worker he hadn't heard from since the 1970s. "He's coming over for my birthday," Emmons said.
He also told the Des Moines Register that he wants to be back behind the wheel when basketball seasons starts this fall.
"I'm going to be as strong and courageous as I can," he said.
No one who knows Emmons doubts that for a moment.