Contributions to successful football programs come in different forms. Some do it with coaching leadership, others with heroic athletic deeds on the field.
But there’s more. There are those behind the scenes that rarely or never make the sports pages, who offer support in myriad of ways.
For that reason, the Virginia Football Alumni Club, created the “Order of the Crossed Sabres Award” 19 years ago in conjunction with Hall of Fame coach George Welsh. The honor annually recognizes such individuals. Welsh himself has been awarded the distinction as well as players such as legendary Cavalier running back Frank Quayle, who was last year’s recipient.
However, of the 13 winners of the Crossed Sabres Award, eight have not been players or coaches. Such was the case this past weekend when the club presented the award to Dr. John Risher and Paul Wisman, both alumni, both long-time supporters, and both close friends in Lynchburg.
Many have linked Dr. Risher with football because of his status as the oldest living Cavalier gridder. He played on the 1931 team as a senior, the same year Scott Stadium opened, and will be 103 years old on May 11.
However, Risher wouldn’t likely have been recognized with the Crossed Sabres had it not been for his longtime relationship with Wisman, who was also noted for his support of the program for a seven-figure donation to the refurbished Scott Stadium at the end of the Welsh era.
Wisman has been involved with keeping Wahoo football game statistics for 58 years, joined by Risher in the same task for more than 50 years.
“It’s hard to make statistics sexy but I’m going to make a case for it,” Quayle said Friday night during his presentation of the award to Wisman and Risher.
Quayle talked about during his playing career at UVa, how he would rush to the Sunday morning papers and look up statistics of rival teams and individuals in order to see how the Cavaliers compared. He noted about how important statistics are in football, documenting changes in trends in the game, comparing current teams to teams of the past, noting achievements by players, coaches and teams.
Where would we be without statistics, particularly accurate statistics?
“For more than 50 years, these two gentlemen have spent their Saturdays in the fall, dedicated to this task,” Quayle pointed out.
Former UVa athletic director and ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan told Wisman that he believes Wisman has been keeping college football game statistics longer than anyone in the country. Wisman began keeping statistics for Virginia in 1946 and has missed only one home game (2011’s William & Mary game due to illness) since. In fact, he didn’t miss any away games from 1954 until 2006, which could also be a national record.
Risher, who saw his first UVa football game from a second-floor apartment overlooking Lambeth Field, joined Wisman in the press box in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s, and the two have been stat keepers ever since.
“What I’m the most proud of is that [UVa’s statistics] are 100 percent accurate, guaranteed,” Wisman said. “You can’t say that about all the schools in the conference.”
Anyone who has ever watched Wisman work, quickly realizes that his checks and balances make sure that every stat is accurate.
“It used to be just me, Paul and Dick Turner (UVa’s sports information director at the time),” Risher said. “The old press box in Scott Stadium was just a shack on the west side that only held about 10 people.”
In those days, there was little press coverage of games and Turner needed help. Wisman, who had come to UVa after teaching economics at VMI, had helped keep stats and other football work in Lexington, and so Turner was eager to have him aboard.
The longtime friendship between Wisman and Risher began soon afterward. Wisman came to Dr. Risher with a sinus problem and it didn’t take long for the two to begin talking Cavalier football. Once Risher learned that Wisman was the stats guy, he was relentless in his pursuit of joining Wisman in the press box.
Together, they have helped produce UVa stats for more than five decades.
As Risher noted, the world of statistics have expanded as has the game itself. Once upon a time, there were just certain statistics kept, but now there’s categories such as passes broken up; quarterback hurries; sacks; tackles-for-losses; yards after contact; on and on.
Wisman, who has been a successful businessman in Lynchburg for decades, said there were no words to express what the Crossed Sabres Award meant to him, particularly with he and Risher being recognized together.
“It’s a fantastic honor, totally unexpected and I am so humbled,” Wisman said.
Risher was equally proud.
“I’ve said in the past that getting my degree in medicine at the amphitheatre was the greatest thing that happened to me at the University of Virginia … this was a close second,” Risher said.
That’s how you make statistics sexy.