Thursday, February 17, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

As Bryce Fisher stands before a group of high school students speaking about what it takes to set and reach goals and flashing that megawatt smile, he appears to be completely at ease. This is only surprising because his other job requires the intensity of a madman.

Fisher has spent the better part of the past three offseasons doing what he is doing on this day in front of about 30 students and faculty at Francis Howell Central. Fisher is one of the only players in the NFL to hold two jobs, one as a football player and the other as a captain in the Missouri Air National Guard.

Making the adjustment from football, where he is one of the more quiet players on the Rams to speaking in front of large groups is sometimes stressful for Fisher, but it is always worth it for both he and the students.

“I have a great time,” Fisher said. “The first couple of schools that I speak to I am really nervous because I haven’t done my speech enough times so I kind of sputter through it. Towards the end of the week as I am doing it more and more, it starts to get a lot more fun because I know what I want to say and I can make a connection with the students.”

Each offseason, Fisher, who graduated from the Air Force Academy, spends two weeks on duty with the Missouri Air National Guard. He spends one of those weeks at the Lambert Field base and the other going around and speaking to students about his life in football and in the military.

Joining Fisher on these trips is Tech Sgt. Stacy Durbin, who has been helping Fisher locate and commit to speaking engagements for two of the three years Fisher has done it.

Durbin works as a recruiter for the Air Force and helps find speaking engagements for Fisher in addition to her normal duties. She said having Fisher around is a major advantage in general, but especially in the recruiting aspect.

“I think it helps us out a lot,” Durbin said. “With Air Guard, there is not a lot of us but when we do get out there and we’ve got him, kids kind of take a bit more notice. After I come out and talk to the students and I go back into the schools after he is gone, they can kind of put my face with his. I think it does help us get a little bit more as far as the recruiting environment. Having him in our unit helps us out a bunch.”

Those speeches help Durbin’s recruiting, but make no mistake, they are also beneficial to the kids on the other end of the speech.

As Fisher’s career has blossomed, so too, has his speaking ability. The words change every season, but the message is always the same.

“I get tired of saying kind of the same things, but really it’s always the same general message,” Fisher said. “I usually sit down and I write out what I want to say. I really try to focus on two or three things that the kids can kind of grasp on to without trying to sound too much like their parents.”

Fisher begins his speech outlining what it is he wants to convey to the starry-eyed students. At the top of the list are three basic ideals that Fisher uses in his pursuit of success: building a strong self-image, discipline and setting goals.

Of course, it is easy for Fisher to talk about setting and reaching goals because he has taken a difficult road to get to where he is now.

Even in high school, Fisher was never the most athletic or physically gifted player. He worked hard in school and matched that effort only on the football field.

It was enough to earn him all kinds of awards, but not the one he wanted most: a football scholarship. After an excellent high school career at Seattle Prep High, Fisher went through a small bout of depression. He was upset that he could get in to any school he applied to, but had no opportunity to continue playing football.

He had set football in his mind as a means to earn a college education. Without it, he probably wasn’t going to be able to afford to go to school. Then, the Air Force Academy entered the picture.

But it wasn’t all fun and games there, either. He was placed on athletic and academic probation, because he was unable to do the conditioning tests given to the students and initially struggled with grades. In addition, his coach threatened to cut him.

Eventually, Fisher found his way back to the football field. When a pair of players ahead of him quit and another was asked to leave, Fisher found himself at the top of the depth chart. It all clicked soon after and he was the Western Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year his senior season.

When he graduated, he had done everything he wanted to: received a college education, played football and earned the ranking of second lieutenant.

But that wasn’t the end of Fisher’s football or military days. Buffalo drafted Fisher in the seventh round of the 1999 draft, but he didn’t continue in football right away.

For two years, Fisher was on active duty for the Air Force and he worked as a recruiter and coached the defensive line for the junior varsity team in 1999. In 2000, Fisher was a Vehicle Operations Officer at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C.

His two-year commitment to the Air Force fulfilled, Fisher is now on reserve duty. On Tuesdays, he reports to Lambert, where he works in public relations and affairs.

Fisher returned to the league with the Bills in 2001. He lasted just one season in Buffalo before he was released. The Bills went 3-13 in his one year.

In just a single season, Fisher had gone back to square one. St. Louis claimed him off waivers in Sept. 2, 2002. Somewhere along the way, between the commitments to the Air Force and the responsibilities to his team, Fisher became a solid NFL defensive end.

Slowly but surely, Fisher got better. He played just four games in 2002, some on defense and some on special teams. In 2003, Fisher played in all 16 games, mostly on special teams.

Then, last year, Fisher got his chance through a simple twist of fate. Defensive end Grant Wistrom signed a free agent contract with Seattle, leaving Fisher remaining at the top of the depth chart.

In the final year of his contract with the Rams, Fisher made the most of his opportunity. He proved to be a solid bookend opposite Leonard Little and was every bit as productive as Wistrom.

Fisher credits the Air Force with being flexible enough to allow him to pursue his football career.

“The Air Force has been outstanding to me,” Fisher said. “They have pretty much said to me, these are your requirements year after year. As long as you get them done, go enjoy yourself playing.”

As Fisher recounts his story to the students, he emphasizes the need to set a goal and remain disciplined in reaching that goal. There are few better to talk about those things than Fisher.

Before this season, a year in which he was set to become a free agent, Fisher had an opportunity to either make a lot of money for himself or to find himself starting over again.

Fisher went for the former. Before the year started, he wrote down some individual goals that he had for the season. He wanted to have 70 tackles and eight sacks. By the end of the year, he had 75 tackles and eight and a half sacks.

“I am obsessed with results,” Fisher told the students. “To get to those results, I focus on planning, preparation and performance.”

All of the young people in attendance receive the message loud and clear. When Fisher’s speech ends, he takes questions. The students pepper him with a variety of queries, ranging from who the most inspirational person in his life is (his mom) to what the biggest difference is in playing on turf and playing on grass (a different pair of shoes).

As Fisher begins to conclude his speech, he reminds the students of his message.

“To every person here, the end result is what matters,” Fisher said. “But how we get there is different for every person.”

With free agency upon him and his status uncertain, count Durbin among the people who would love to see Fisher stay in St. Louis.

“I already told him I don’t want to lose him,” Durbin said. “When he goes out he is very personable. He is not flashy. I would hate to lose him.”

Rest assured Durbin wouldn’t be the only one sad to see him go. There are at least 30 students at Francis Howell Central High who would feel the same.