Discuss 126
October 16, 2013
The Real Uncle Fitch: Joel's story & Johnny's role
You’ve heard about Nate Fitch, also known as Uncle Nate, the controversial confidant of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Well, this story isn’t about him.

It’s about Uncle Nate’s 43-year-old Uncle Joel.

Like many his age, Joel is balding and could lose a few pounds. He goes to work every day. He loves football. He admires Manziel. He’s no different than hundreds of thousands of middle-aged men in Texas.

Except Uncle Joel has cerebral palsy.

He’s had it since he was born on July 12, 1970. The fourth son of Edmond and Katie Fitch weighed just four pounds and three ounces when he was born six weeks premature. Katie was in labor 40 hours. That difficult birth resulted in abnormal pressure on Joel’s brain, which the family says contributed to the cerebral palsy.

What says the most about him is that he’s severely handicapped, but instead of sitting back and looking for what others people can do for him he actively gives to his community. That’s crazy. He has every reason to ask for things and pity himself. - Nate Fitch on his uncle, Joel. {"Module":"quote","Alignment":"left","Quote":"What says the most about him is that he’s severely handicapped, but instead of sitting back and looking for what others people can do for him he actively gives to his community. That’s crazy. He has every reason to ask for things and pity himself. ","Author":"Nate Fitch on his uncle, Joel."}
Doctors told Edmond and Katie their son would never walk, talk or be self-sufficient.

They were only right about the walking. Uncle Joel has spent his life in a wheelchair, but he works at a Kerrville thrift store which raises proceeds to benefit battered women. He’s put in more than 3,000 hours of community service.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself being with Joel,” Nate Fitch said. “He’s been my best friend since I was a kid. What says the most about him is that he’s severely handicapped, but instead of sitting back and looking for what others people can do for him he actively gives to his community. That’s crazy.

“He has every reason to ask for things and pity himself. But he’s functioning at a pretty normal level.”

About 30 years ago he was functioning at a better-than-normal level with football predictions.

See, Joel’s older brothers, which includes Uncle Nate’s dad, were inclined to place wagers on football games — for entertainment purposes only, of course.

Just for fun they’d ask Joel, who was then about nine years old, which team he thought would win. He picked a few winners. He picked a few more the next week. The week after that, he picked a few more.

Heck, the kid could have been a bookie.

His head was filled with football information. He knew the quarterback and backup quarterback for every NFL team. He could recite the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers' entire rosters.

Want to know who led the NFL in rushing or what team had the best defense? You could check the newspaper or just check with Joel. Amused, and maybe even astonished, Edmond asked Joel his secret to picking winners. Turns out, it was highly scientific.

He picked the team whose helmets he liked best.

Brandon Jones, TexAgs Joel's fandom has shifted to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel, with whom he has cultivated a relationship. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"right","Size":"large","Caption":"Joel\u0027s fandom has shifted to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel, with whom he has cultivated a relationship.","MediaItemID":35190}
For years the helmet he liked best was the white one with the Longhorn logo. Joel’s Facebook page shows several photos in which he’s wearing University of Texas T-shirts.

But those are older photos.

In the more recent pictures Joel is wearing Texas A&M gear. He dons an A&M ballcap. He’s got the maroon T-shirt in which the words JOHNNY HEISMAN are printed underneath an image of the iconic trophy.

Johnny and Nate were friends at Kerrville High School. Of course, Johnny was a superstar there, too. And somehow Johnny and Joel developed a close relationship.

Manziel returned to Kerrville last April for a day to honor him as the Heisman Trophy winner. Manziel addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage at the Tivy High School football stadium. Joel was with him on that stage.

“He gave Joel a big hug,” Nate recalled. “It was the first time Joel had seen him since everything changed. Johnny told him, “If there is anything you ever need, buddy, I’ve got you.”

Turns out, Joel needs a respite from worry and grief.

His parents are now 84 and 72. As they aged they realized they needed help caring for Joel and hired neighbors Cathy Cahela and her son David to be provide 24-hour care. Joel developed a very close relationship with David. The younger Cahela, who is in his 20’s, wasn’t just a care-giver — he became a dear friend.

But earlier this year David was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. After a first round of chemotherapy treatments he was thought to be cancer free, but the disease returned. David makes frequent trips to San Antonio for bone marrow transplants.

As David’s health has declined, so quite naturally has Joel’s spirits. He’s been worried, scared and depressed. He couldn’t even find solace in his football room — a virtual museum of Texas A&M and Dallas Cowboys memorabilia.

So, Nate talked with Johnny about a plan to do something special for Joel.

Joel has never attended a Texas A&M football game, but he’ll be there on Saturday to watch the Aggies face Auburn.

Andrew Kilzer A&M's Heisman winner, true to character, has gotten personally involved in making the elder Fitch's day at Kyle Field a reality. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"left","Size":"large","Caption":"A&M\u0027s Heisman winner, true to character, has gotten personally involved in making the elder Fitch\u0027s day at Kyle Field a reality.","MediaItemID":25297}
He may be on the sideline or up in the bleachers, but he will be there. Nate Fitch secured tickets, then phoned his grandmother, Katie, on Wednesday night. She had the thrill of telling Joel he’d go to the game.

“He had a fit,” Nate said of Joel’s reaction. “You really can’t describe it. It was just glee. It’s been a depressing and sad time for Joel, but this was pure joy.”

So what’s Manziel’s role in this?

Well, overshadowed by all the stories of autographs, partying, girls and traffic citations is the fact that he’s got a charitable, caring side. You know he once rescued a cat trapped on a busy highway.

Perhaps you read about Manziel’s relationship with Charlie Dina, a six-year-old cancer patient.

Those who know Manziel well have said when he reaps the riches of the NFL, Manziel plans to start foundations benefiting children with cancer and a foundation to fight cerebral palsy.

So, if A&M defeats Auburn by a comfortable margin on Saturday, don’t be surprised if Manziel runs to the sideline or to the bleachers. And don’t wonder, 'Who is that middle-aged man in the wheelchair that Manziel is hugging and high-fiving?'

That’s just Uncle Nate’s Uncle Joel.
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