If Al Carpenter isn't the world's happiest man, he is in the top five.
Al has cerebral palsy.
He can't read or write. He is 29 years old and lives by himself in an apartment three blocks from the Indiana University football stadium. If he could, Al says, he would sleep in a tent on the stadium floor. He loves Indiana football and comes to every practice and every game.
He is the guy on crutches wearing a white pith helmet with a big red "I" painted on top.
He first came to an Indiana practice when the coach, Lee Corso, was wondering why in heaven's name anyone would want to be the Indiana football coach. Corso was down. This was five years ago, and Corso was wondering why he had taken a job at a school that had never won consistently in football.
"Self-doubt and self-pity, that was me," Corso said.
Al Carpenter, five years ago, thought of killing himself. He first came to an Indiana practice shortly after failing in vocational rehabilitation classes. The cerebral palsy that won't let him read or write seemed determined to make him worthless.
"Everything was drained out of me," Carpenter said. "I told my mom, 'What's the use?' I'd been close to suicide a number of times. It's a rough road when you think that. Matter of fact, I thought it more than I should have. That's when I met Coach Corso."
Corso is one of college football's bright men, a charming entertainer who coaches so well that if he were working for a football power -- a Notre Dame, say -- he could be famous from coast to coast, selling us big cars on television and writing books about how he was never lost a game on the blackboard because he always draws Xs three times bigger than the Os.
Ambition is part of Corso as it is part of every competitor in every competitive business.He wanted to coach a national champion before he was 40. At age 40, his Indiana team won two of 11 games. Now 44, Corso is in his seventh season at Indiana, a season that he started with three straight victories. And maybe someday, somewhere, he will have his national championship.
It isn't as important as it used to be.
Al Carpenter is why.
Because Al gets tired standing on his crutches, he sometimes flops stomach-down on the stadium grass, propping his chin on his palm.
So does Corso.
They talk about things. About how Al, as a kid in Spencer, Ind., always wanted to play football at Indiana, but he always had the cerebral palsy. About Al's troubles in vocational rehabilitation. About Corso's moments when he didn't know if he would ever get a perennial loser onto the winner's side.
Corso has made Carpenter part of his football family. Al eats some pregame meals with the players and is invited to some Friday night parties Corso puts on for the team. Every Monday or Tuesday, when Corso secludes himself in his office and puts on tapes of opera music by which to compose his game plan, only one person is allowed in that room with the coach.
"That opera music took some getting used to," Carpenter said, "but it's not too bad now. I'd still like to convert Coach to country music. Mostly, it's just the stillness of the Xs and Os going around that I like."
Two seasons ago, Corso came under attach from a South African anti-apartheid organization for appearing on a television show sponsored by one of that organization's opponents. The anti-apartheid group came to Bloomington and asked Corso's black players to boycott a game against Minnesota.
"Coach Corso was having a curious feeling all week, I don't know what it was," Carpenter said "But I told him, 'Don't worry, we got it locked up,' I kept telling him that, and he kept getting better and better."
Fresh from a 16-0 victory over mighty Michigan, Minnesota was a prohibitive favorite over Indiana, but the Hoosiers won the game, 34-22. On the Monday after, Al Carpenter was getting a drink of water in the stadium when a team manager asked him to come to the field, Coach Corso wanted to talk to him.
"Coach got all the players together in the middle of the field," Carpenter said. "And then he presented me with a game ball. I couldn't believe it. It's not often I'm flabbergasted, but I was flabbergasted at that."
Indiana football is Carpenter's life. Until this summer, he daily hitchhiked the 40 miles round trip from Spencer for practices and games.
"It makes me feel useful to be around the players and the coaches. I really get wildly enthusiastic, too, because it means so much to me.
"I hope whatever story you do doesn't glorify me. I'm just a small part of this team. The guys out there are the ones that should be glorified. Everyone of those guys out there is my legs. Even though I'm not playing, I AM playing."
Carpenter was engaged to be married last winter.
The woman called it off.
"It was the lowest I ever got in my life," Carpenter said. "I didn't feel like I had much left in me."
Someone knocked at Carpenter's door in Spencer that day.
"Lo and behold," Carpenter said, "it was Coach Corso coming to see how things were. I'll spend the rest of my life paying him back for everyrhing he's done for me. If he asked me, I'd run to the top of the press box and if he said, 'Jump,' I'd say, 'Yes, sir.'"
A big-time college football coach is in constant demand. He can be a social butterfly, a business shark. How many coaches would drive 20 miles to knock on the door of a guy with cerebral palsy whose marriage plans had fallen through?
"Life is bigger than winning and losing, life is bigger than writing sports stories," Corso said. "If it isn't, it isn't worth living. We're put on earth to help each other. When I saw Al Carpenter the first time, I knew God had sent him. In my weakest moment -- when I could see a light at the end of the tunnel but had no idea how far away it was -- God sent me help. Through Al Carpenter.
"Here's a guy who has fought all his life for the opportunity to walk, who had dreamed all his life about having a couple close friends, who has dreamed of having the things we take for granted -- and me? I'm worried about a kicking a field goal?
"Hey, I said, let's get this life in perspective. Everybody needs an Al Carpenter."
"Lee Corso is my brother," Carpenter said. "The world needs more Lee Corsos."