University of Toledo basketball ‘Head Ball Boy’ Bobby Graney during a practice.
Bobby Graney, who held a variety of roles with the University of Toledo men’s basketball program from 1979 to 2000 but is perhaps best known for the infectious enthusiasm he brought to its players, coaches, and staff, died Saturday in Dunedin, Fla., while under hospice care. He was 58.
Though identified in a UT news release as the team’s “Head Ball Boy,” that apparently only scratched the surface of Mr. Graney’s contribution. Former Blade sports columnist John Gugger wrote in a 2000 column he was the team’s mascot-scorekeeper-assistant trainer-ball boy and “Bobby of all trades,” the kind of guy who brought fun and excitement to Savage Hall, now known as Savage Arena.
Mr. Graney, who had Down syndrome, was a fan favorite because of his infectious enthusiasm. According to UT, he was always found in “his” seat at the end of the scorer’s table next to the Rocket bench at every home basketball game.
“He also worked with the football and women’s basketball teams,” the university’s athletic department said in a news release. “In the late ‘80s, Bobby increased his duties and began attending every UT men’s and women’s basketball practice, where he would run the scoreboard and the clock. He also helped out in the equipment room.”
He left in 2000 when his family moved to Florida, a relocation the university said occurred because the Sunshine State’s climate was “better suited to his condition.”
Bobby’s father, Mike Graney, said his son worked in the kitchen of a Dunedin-area tavern up until two or three years ago, when his health worsened. He was hospitalized on June 22, and put into intensive care. Doctors told the family that “everything was starting to shut down,” Mr. Graney said. The family put him into hospice care shortly after that.
“We want to thank our friends, the staff, the coaches, and the players during that time period that were good for him,” Mr. Graney said.
Bobby first got interested in helping out basketball teams when he was given an opportunity by former Sylvania Southview High School Coach Larry Jones.
“That grew into every night while he was at Southview,” Mr. Graney, a one-time athlete for the University of Notre Dame’s basketball and baseball programs, said.
Then, former UT head basketball coach Bob Nichols — another friend of Mr. Graney’s — arranged to have Bobby work with the Rockets on a trial basis. That eventually became an everyday thing, too, Mr. Graney said.
“He was happy working with the Rockets,” Mr. Graney said of his son. “It just made his whole life.”
The popular Bobby Graney was inducted into UT’s Varsity “T” Hall of Fame in 2000.
Mr. Gugger wrote in a column there “were more than a few wet eyes in the room” on the night of his induction ceremony.
“Somewhere we’ve lost a lot of places where people with defects can feel part of something larger,” he wrote. “Maybe it’s because we’re always going 100 miles an hour and someone with a disability is going 30. Bobby found his place with the Toledo men’s and women’s basketball programs a long time ago. It happened because Barbara Nichols, wife of former UT coach Bob Nichols, was a special education teacher and thought it would be helpful to place Bobby in the mainstream.”
“Trust me on this, OK?” Mr. Gugger continued in that column. “Bobby’s given back more than he’s been given. Bobby can turn a sour mood into a sunshiny outlook.”
Bobby Graney was often seen at games with his wrists taped. He told people his wrists would get sore from the number of high-fives he gave out if he didn’t tape them.
Prior to the start of a game years ago, he was honored by a standing ovation of the arena’s 5,923 people and was presented with a UT basketball jersey that had the numeral 1 and a Graney nameplate on the back.
As a token of his appreciation, Bobby Graney made rugs for people who were really good to him. Most people got only one, but former women’s basketball player Mimi Olson got two.
“He knew that he was different, but he never let it get in the way,” Mr. Graney said of his son.
Dave Nottke, who was the UT men’s basketball team manager during much of Bobby’s era and is now UT’s deputy athletic director, said Bobby “had this unbelievable passion about Rocket basketball.”
Many times Bobby’s help began by cheering people up with a simple smile or a peppy look on his face, he said.
“He was so enthusiastic. There was just an instant attraction,” Mr. Nottke said. “He had this way of connecting with people. He was special.”
Mr. Nottke kept in touch with Bobby after the Graney family moved to Florida, often calling him on his birthday, which is Feb. 26.
“Anybody that was associated with the Rocket program back then — their lives were enriched by knowing Bobby,” he said. “He just had that infectious personality. Simple things in life mattered. He was one of the guys.”
Bobby Graney is survived by parents, Bonnie and Mike; brothers, Tim and Chris, and sister, Michelle.
Services are private. The family requests that any memorials be made to the UT Foundation for basketball.
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