Leistikow: As his health fades, Kenny Arnold still inspires
At 1 p.m. Saturday on the south side of Chicago, a new big-screen TV at the Symphony of Morgan Park nursing home will show the Iowa-Illinois basketball game.
One of its most famous residents, Kenny Arnold, will be there, watching. And when Big Ten Network cameras inevitably scan the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd, Arnold — despite the pain searing through his embattled body — will undoubtedly be wearing his signature smile.
Arnold, 57, is at the center of an effort by players on the Hawkeyes’ 1980 Final Four basketball team to create a “White Out” crowd for Saturday’s game. A group is selling special T-shirts, available now in stores and at the arena on game day, to help Arnold and others in his situation combat daily struggles.
This story, though, is about much more than a single Saturday in February. It’s one about faith, perseverance and love.
His outlook 'kept us strong'
Arnold’s health is failing again.
That’s been a recurring theme for more than three decades of his life now.
In 1985, as he was preparing for a tryout with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. One of the most memorable stars of Lute Olson’s early-1980s Hawkeyes was given a 10 percent chance at survival.
Not only were his basketball dreams dashed, his life was in danger.
But in typical Kenny fashion, he fought it off — with a smile.
His upbeat attitude and relentless focus on the happiness of others — despite his own repeated health setbacks — have puzzled yet inspired those around him for 32 years running.
“We’ve watched him over the years, just battle,” said Mike “Tree” Henry, Arnold’s closest friend since college and fellow former Hawkeye. “We go to visit him and go to cheer him up, and he was more concerned about all of us and what he could do to help us have a better day. It’s kept us strong.”
Though radiation and chemotherapy wiped out the brain tumor, side effects followed. His former teammates grew concerned at his withered state at the Final Four team’s 25-year reunion in 2005.
Former Iowa coach Lute Olson paid for Arnold to undergo tests, which would reveal that outdated anti-seizure medication had been decimating his body for years.
Arnold has been in assisted living ever since. And a series of mini-strokes, as doctors have called them, have robbed him of the ability to speak.
"He understands everything and knows what’s going on,” Henry said, “but it’s hard for him to get the words out sometimes."
That plight led to a chain reaction of events, inspired by Arnold’s relentlessly upbeat spirit, to put Saturday’s Carver “White Out” together.
Inspired to help
It started with Storm Lake's Marty Gallagher, a longtime Hawkeye fan and father of five, reading an article about Arnold’s situation. When Gallagher was growing up in Strawberry Point, the 1980 Hawkeyes were his heroes.
Now, Gallagher is the owner/CEO of Cedar Falls-based Talk To Me Technologies, which manufactures and distributes devices that help people who struggle to speak. Gallagher went to visit Arnold in Chicago and equipped him with and donated a tablet suited to his needs.
Arnold can now tell nurses and doctors things like “I’m hungry” or “I’m in pain.”
Imagine being helpless and not being able to tell somebody those things. He is also able to create any message he wants.
The tablet even has a “Kenny Page” set up where Arnold can look at old photos from his playing days.
His favorite part is the team photo from 1980.
“He goes to that thing constantly and just smiles,” Henry said.
It’s been life-changing.
“How often do you get a chance to reach out and help someone who you pretended to be on your driveway as a kid?” Gallagher said.
When Henry saw the impact the tablet had on Arnold’s life, he wondered what else they could do to help.
The idea of selling Arnold-themed T-shirts to create the “White Out” for Saturday’s game was eventually born.
'God has put me in this position'
Gallagher’s 13-year-old son, Ben, designed the T-shirts, which sell for $25 (short-sleeve) and $30 (long-sleeve) with the 1980-era cursive “Iowa” script on the front and Arnold’s name on the back, with his No. 30 on both sides. Details on where to find them are attached to this article.
The effort is as grass-roots as it gets. For now, they’re calling it the “Kenny Arnold Fund.” The immediate goal is to help Arnold afford to see a pain specialist and physical therapist. Chronic hip pain keeps him bedridden most days.
The long-term hope is to form a non-profit foundation in Arnold’s name with proceeds to benefit cancer research and education.
The shirts are a start. Also emblazoned on the front are the initials “TFL” — Teammates For Life.
Many of the 1980 Hawkeyes will be back in Iowa City on Saturday to honor Arnold and sign autographs. Among them is Vince Brookins, who sees so many parallels between the adversity the 1980 team faced and what is happening today.
In 1980, it seemed like every player was hurt at one time or another. Ronnie Lester’s knee injury is the most famous of the group; Arnold (thumb), Bobby Hansen (hand) and Mark Gannon (knee) got hurt, too. Even assistant coach Tony McAndrews was injured in a plane crash.
And yet the team bounced back from adversity, time after time. And if not for Lester re-injuring his knee in the national semifinal against Louisville, Olson contends the Hawkeyes would’ve won it all that year.
“You think about all those challenges and with the perseverance and the teammates and teamwork,” said Brookins, who now lives in suburban Cleveland. “When you say that, I think about that team, and I think about right now.”
Brookins has faced his own share of struggles: family members lost to cancer; open-heart surgery and a pair of broken legs for himself.
But he still felt fortunate compared to the lot dealt to Arnold. So one day, he asked his friend and former teammate how he felt to never have gotten married, to never have had children, to have his sports career — his life — derailed forever.
“Kenny,” Brookins asked, “Do you ever say, ‘Why me?’”
Arnold’s positive message was grounded in his Christian faith.
“He said, ‘God put me in this position because I could handle it. You guys would not have been able to handle it,’” Brookins said. “He said, ‘We all have a purpose. God has put me in this position. Hopefully, it’ll motivate people. This is my life.’
“It choked me (up) that he had come to the conclusion that, ‘This is my journey.’”
Brookins said Arnold’s outlook has emboldened his own faith and brought strength to his son and daughter in Ohio.
It sparked others, like Gallagher, to step up.
And it’s allowed Henry, a fellow Chicagoan, to find a blessing in losing his 23-year job recently as a billing rep due to corporate downsizing. Since he’s been out of work, Henry has had more time to spend with his dear friend.
Sometimes when they're together, they'll just hold hands.
Their brotherhood runs deep.
“'Tree' has been the teammate, the friend, the brother, that person that every one of us needs to have in our life,” Brookins said. “It’s an unconditional love he has shared with Kenny. It’s amazing.”
Realistically, his former teammates know Arnold’s days are probably dwindling.
But, as Henry said, if he got the dreaded call "10 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised either — with his history.”
The unofficial goal is for 10,000 Arnold shirts to be worn in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday afternoon. It's looking good that Iowa will register its first home sellout since March 1.
If you are going to Saturday’s game — whether you are able to buy a T-shirt or not — please wear white for a former Hawkeye that has never quit and always inspired.
Kenny deserves to feel the love.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
‘Teammates for Life’ fundraiser:
What: Former Hawkeye teammates are organizing a “White Out” attempt at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Saturday’s 1 p.m. game vs. Illinois.
Purpose: To help fund healthcare that ex-Hawkeye star Kenny Arnold needs.
T-shirts: Cost is $25 (short-sleeve) and $30 (long-sleeve). Available at the Hawkeye Fan Shop (1525 2nd St., Coralville; 201 S. Clinton St., Iowa City); Black and Gold store (1000 25th Ave., Coralville; 102 E. Kimberly Road, Davenport); or on the Carver-Hawkeye main concourse on gameday.
Autographs: From 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on Carver’s concourse, a number of former Hawkeyes will sign, including Ronnie Lester, Mike “Tree” Henry, Waymond King, Craig Anderson, Greg Stokes, Mark Gannon, Todd Berkenpas, Bobby Hansen, Steve Waite, Jess Settles and Vince Brookins. The same players will be available at a meet-and-greet at the University Athletic Club from 4-8 p.m., with a suggested donation of $10 for individuals, $20 for families.
About Arnold: Scored 1,112 points in his four-year career (1979-82) and ranks ninth all-time in assists (352). Averaged 13.5 points a game for Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team. Also played for Iowa’s most recent Big Ten championship team (1979).