TALLAHASSEE — Jimbo Fisher was at the top of his profession for one year when a family crisis had him thinking he may have to walk away from his dream job.
Fisher’s youngest son, Ethan, then six weeks shy of his 6th birthday, was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening disease in March 2011, just three months after Fisher completed his first season as head football coach at Florida State.
Suddenly, a man whose job forces him to be prepared for every opponent, had no game plan for the biggest challenge of his life.
Fisher felt vulnerable and wondered if the best thing for him and his family would be for him to step down as head coach.
“Yeah, it did cross my mind, without a doubt,” Fisher revealed last month for the first time in an exclusive interview with the Palm Beach Post. “I didn’t know what (Ethan’s condition) required, what it meant. ‘Should I coach? ‘Should I not coach?’
“I don’t know if we ever got to that point where we thought about it seriously but it crossed my mind to think about that because I didn’t know until we found out everything.”
Devastated by the news, Jimbo and his wife, Candi (they divorced in December after 22 years of marriage), had one thing on their minds: Finding the best care for their son.
“We started researching. It was tragic,” Fisher said. “The material was a little bit out of date but everything was doom and gloom. There was no hope, no chance, no nothing. It really knocked us for a loop.”
Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disorder, causes bone marrow failure, a very high risk for leukemia and other cancers. Life expectancy remains around 35 years old but that number is rising.
Fisher took a short break from spring football that year while he and Candi researched the best way to ensure Ethan received the best care. After visiting several clinics and hospitals, including the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital where Ethan now goes for his yearly checkups, Jimbo and Candi made the decision that the best thing was to use his coaching platform to raise awareness for the mysterious disease, which right now has no cure.
“That spring I was distracted,” Fisher said. “I was in practice and I would catch myself every now and then thinking about something. I have never done that before but I did occasionally that spring.
“I thought, ‘how am I going to do it? Am I doing it justice not being with him as much and feeling guilty every time? We got to learn to manage and every second I got a chance to be with my family, that’s what I’m going to do.”’
James Coley, Fisher’s offensive coordinator at the time, recalls sitting in a staff meeting in which Fisher was not present and discussing with fellow coaches what their boss was facing.
Tears, he said, filled the eyes of every coach.
“His whole world was rocked,” said Coley, who recently joined the Georgia staff as receivers coach after three years as the offensive coordinator at the University of Miami.
“You’re talking about a guy who loves his children like no other. They’re his life. When he got the information he was destroyed.”
Coley, who remains close to Fisher, was not sure what the future would hold and knew his head coach was thinking about stepping down.
“There is no gray area with Jimbo,” Coley said. “His family is first. He’s not a guy where his profession is his top priority. His boys are his priorities.
“He’s one of the toughest men I’ve been around. Even though he was shook he came to work, he kept himself going. People who knew him really well, you know he was hurting inside.”
Candi suggested starting a foundation and using Jimbo’s platform to help raise money. Now, about 4 ½ years later, Kidz1stFund has raised $3.5 million and, according to Dr. Margaret MacMillan, a bone marrow physician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, has been a game-changer for Fanconi anemia research.
Needless to say, Fisher is convinced he made the right decision.
“I don’t think anybody could have coached that year the way he coached that year,” Coley said.
With Candi devoting her time to Ethan’s care and the foundation, Jimbo learned to compartmentalize. He knew he had an obligation to his family first and team second.
And it worked. Two seasons later Fisher was at the pinnacle of his profession as Florida State completed an historic undefeated season that culminated in a national championship.
And along for the ride was Ethan. … for the games and the confetti filled celebrations.
“Just had to do what you had to do,” Fisher said. “That’s the way I was raised. You can’t feel sorry for yourself because it’s unfair to the kids I’m coaching.”
Last June, Jimbo and Candi released a statement announcing their separation after 22 years of marriage. Their divorce was finalized in December. And while the couple was going their separate ways, they remain united on their commitment to their children, Ethan and Trey, 14.
“That was never going to be an issue because we both love our kids,” Jimbo said. “That was never going to be a sacrifice. (We said) ‘We got to work it out and how are we going to work it out and do what we got to do.’
“Everything was about the kids.”
The 2015 season presented more challenges for Fisher off the field.
The couple was awarded joint custody with Jimbo getting the boys Thursday after school through Sunday. Jimbo missed his kids, although he was comforted knowing they were close by (Candi still lives in Tallahassee) and Ethan was in good hands.
“It did pull at me,” he said. “But I knew he was taken care of. She’s a great mom, tremendous mom, loving. But any spare moment that was what I did, went to see my kids.
“Any time I’m away from my kids it hurts because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”