• VirginiaSportsTV.com Video Profile of Dr. Risher
by Cayce Troxel
When he was just 10 years old John Risher climbed the steps of the University faculty apartments, peeked through a second-story window, and from there, looked down on Lambeth Field and his first-ever Virginia football game. The year was 1920.
Fast forward to 2010, and while Dr. Risher’s bird’s eye view of the Cavaliers remains the same-except now from the luxury of the Scott Stadium press box where he helps to keep statistics during home games. He has seen a lot of football-and a lot of life-since that first glimpse of orange-and-blue over 90 years ago.
Celebrating his 100th birthday today (May 11), Risher is the oldest living Virginia football player, having played for the Cavaliers during Scott Stadium’s inaugural season in 1931. Between then and now, Risher has not only attended nearly every Virginia home football game since 1950, but amid those fall Saturdays, he has also managed to squeeze in over 40 years of practicing medicine in Lynchburg. He officially began manning the Cavaliers’ stat book in the early 1960s, and while eight different coaches and a myriad of players have passed through the University since then, Risher-still a picture of health at the century mark-has remained a constant presence.
One of three children, Risher was born just outside of Charlottesville in Shadwell. When his father passed away at an early age, his mother was forced to relocate the family to town since the rutted roads made it too difficult to get the kids to school while still keeping up with the farm. Risher caught that first game from the apartment window shortly after the move, and from there on, he was hooked on Virginia football.
“I’d always been interested in the sport, but after I saw Virginia play, I loved it,” Risher said.
The 25-cent cost for a ticket, however, still stood in the way of Risher and a close-up view of his beloved Cavaliers; but luckily, the savvy, young fan soon discovered a way to bypass the ticket booth.
“We found out that if we could get a job going around the crowd, selling chewing gum, peanuts, candy, or Coca-Cola, we could get in free, and we’d even get small commissions,” Risher said. “I was fortunate enough to get one of those positions, and I did that until my second year of high school. That was the year they decided to let the football team at Charlottesville High School in for free, so that’s when I quit.”
After playing defensive end on the local varsity squad for three years, Risher then moved on to play at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. Unfortunately, he dislocated his shoulder in the middle of his senior season at VES, and although Risher was still able to follow his older brother-who had been a captain of the Cavalier track team in the mid-‘20s-to UVa, he feared his playing days were over.
Never willing to give up entirely on his love for football, however, Risher stayed involved by becoming a manager for the Cavaliers. He also joined the staff of College Topics, the daily student newspaper, where he was “just a scribbler, writing about all sorts of sports,” including basketball, baseball, and Virginia’s powerhouse tennis team. While Risher would ultimately be promoted to the newspaper’s managing board during his time at Virginia, he eventually caught a break on the football field, as well.
“Coach [Earl] Abell, somehow or another, got the idea I could catch a football,” recalled Risher. “I don’t know where he got the information, but anyway, he sent for me and asked if I would come out for football the next year because he wanted to pass the ball. Nobody passed the ball much in those days, and he thought I might be able to help. The problem was he wasn’t here the next year.”
Although new head coach Fred Dawson never opted to throw the ball as much as Abell had originally promised during that fall of 1931, Risher still saw playing time his senior year. Despite the fact the Cavaliers managed only one victory that season, it would be a triumphant one nevertheless for the program with the opening of Scott Stadium.
“We were all very proud of the stadium,” Risher said. “It held more than 20,000 at the time, and we were lost in that stadium. Not too many out-of-towners came. In Lambeth, I imagine you could have only gotten 5,000.”
Despite being sidelined for awhile with an ankle sprain from being clipped on the heel during practice, Risher still got enough of a firsthand look at the formative years of Virginia football to understand that playing for the Cavaliers back then was much different than playing for them today.
“Looking back, the practices weren’t organized the way Al Groh had them,” Risher said. “There was a lot of standing around. We pushed the sled, we tackled the dummy, we blocked the dummy-I thought they were great practices, but looking back, they weren’t anything.”
Perhaps a large reason for this lack of structure early on wasn’t because of a lackadaisical coaching staff, but rather a result of the University’s approach to athletics on the whole at the time.
“They didn’t pay any attention to the athletes,” Risher commented. “If you had an afternoon lab, you missed your practice. We tried to have morning labs, but they’d get filled up. If they’re filled, they’re filled-you don’t get in. There was no favoritism toward athletes.”
While the labs requirements may have caused the team’s preparation to suffer, they didn’t bother Risher enough to prevent him from majoring in chemistry during his four years as an undergraduate. He decided to attend UVa’s School of Medicine, and when asked what he considers to have been his best year as a Cavalier, Risher is quick to respond: “1936-when I walked up the steps of the McIntire Amphitheater and got my medical degree.”
Risher was forced to take a break from both Virginia and his medical career, however, due to the outbreak of World War II. Called into service in September of 1940, Risher started out with the medical corps near Virginia Beach. Following Pearl Harbor, he was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, and after building hospitals in Greenland and Central America for several years, he finished his military duty fighting in the India-Burma theater until his discharge in 1946.
Through it all, though, Risher never lost sight of his passion for Virginia football. After completing his residency in Charlottesville and marrying-quite literally-the girl next-door from his childhood, Risher opened his own ear, nose, and throat practice in Lynchburg. It was then-in 1950-that he purchased his first set of UVa football season tickets, and he’s held them ever since.
“I think I’ve probably had season tickets longer than anybody else,” Risher estimated. “In fact, I’m probably the oldest living season ticket holder, too.”
Although he’s held a seat in the Virginia fan section at Scott Stadium for 60 straight years, Risher has spent most of that time in the press box. Showing his support for the Cavaliers by working instead of cheering, Risher first got into keeping stats during games thanks to his long-time friend, Paul Wisman.
“Well, Paul got sinus trouble,” Risher recalled with a chuckle. “He came into the office, and I guess he found out I had a Virginia interest. We started talking Virginia, and we’ve been close friends ever since.”
Wisman also happened to be a buddy of Dick Turner, Virginia’s sports information director at the time.
“Dick didn’t have any help, and Paul started kind of helping him out,” said Risher. “I would come to the games with him, and he and I just kind of worked into it. It was crude at first-we didn’t have all this who tackled who and who did this or that.”
While special computer technology has since been installed to make the long-time stat tandem’s job a little easier, Risher and Wisman nevertheless still have work to do come game day.
“I keep track of where the ball is,” Risher said. “The computer gets messed up occasionally, so I’m there to keep track of the distance of the drive, the time, and the plays. It’s not a very big job, but I’m still a small peg in the group.”
Whether from an apartment window overlooking Lambeth Field or from the Scott Stadium press box, Risher has likely witnessed over 350 Virginia home games over his lifetime-a number that doesn’t even include the road games he frequently travelled to up until just a few years ago.
“I’ve seen some good ones, and I’ve seen some bad ones,” Risher said, smiling. “I’ve probably seen more bad than good, or at least I remember my worst ones better than my best ones.”
Virginia’s home loss against Georgia Tech during the 1990 season-“for what was essentially the national championship”-was one such unpardonable heartbreaker Risher will never let go.
“There was one play in that game that I’ll never forget,” Risher said animatedly. “Shawn Moore threw a pass-touchdown! Put us ahead four points, and they couldn’t have beaten us with a field goal. But it was called back because we only had six men on the line of scrimmage, and we lost the game-lost the game by a field goal! We didn’t win the national championship, but we did play in the Sugar Bowl that year.”
Although Risher has been forced to suffer through many similar Cavalier collapses and subsequent letdowns over the years, he has seen his fair share of late-game heroics as well, including Virginia’s memorable goal-line stand against No. 2 Florida State in 1995.
“I’ve got movies of it!” Risher exclaimed. “I think the movies have faded, but I’ve watched that play many times. I would say that’s probably the greatest play I’ve seen in Virginia football.”
That team, which would go on to win a share of the ACC championship, featured Ronde and Tiki Barber, just two of the All-Americans Risher has seen come through the Virginia pipeline during his 90 years of taking in the Cavaliers. While he regards Bill Dudley as the greatest player to ever don orange-and-blue, Risher believes Tom Scott, who starred in both football and lacrosse at Virginia in the early 50s, was “just as much an athlete” as Bullet Bill. Ralph “Buddy” Shoaf, another two-sport headliner in football and boxing from the late ‘40s, also stands out in Risher’s memory of Cavalier greats, as does Hall of Famer John Papit.
“Johnny Papit was great,” Risher commented. “I remember a play-he was out in the open and two Washington and Lee men dived at him. He had no chance in the world of getting away, but somehow or another, he went for twenty or thirty more yards for a touchdown!”
Risher’s vivid recollection of Papit squirting out for those unbelievable six points is only one of many stories the Virginia legend still loves to retell.
“There’s just so many,” Risher said. “You get so many to top, and it’s hard to just pick one moment-or one player for that matter-above the rest.”
Perhaps Risher’s most unforgettable Virginia football experience was one of his earliest, however, when President Calvin Coolidge attended a game at Lambeth Field in the late ‘20s.
“We talked about that and publicized it,” Risher reminisced fondly. “They were humming up and down Main Street-‘President Coolidge is coming!’ The stadium was full that day, and they even had a little platform in the stands for him.”
While the President’s stay was short-“It was a cold day, and when it got to halftime, he and his little entourage all marched out”-it was nevertheless memorable for Risher, not that it has ever taken much to please the doctor-even to this day, after 90 years of watching Virginia football.
“North Carolina was our biggest rival back when I played, and they still are as far as I’m concerned” Risher said. “I guess VPI is getting that way now, but as long as we beat the Tar Heels, I’m happy.”
Still, it’s not the victories-or even the free hot dogs-that keep Risher coming back to the Scott Stadium press box game after game, season after season.
“”Why do I come back? Because I like it!” Risher exclaimed. “I want to! Why do you do anything year after year? Because you like it.”