It gets your attention at lunch when a man, between bites of a tuna salad sandwich, says he has met God and that God wears a pith helmet to football games and was carried off the field on the shoulders of players who won a big bowl game Christmas week.
The first thing I did when Lee Corso said he had a friend who was God in disguise was laugh out loud. I couldn't help it. God in a pith helmet at a football game isn't what Michelangelo painted on ceilings.
"Don't laugh," Corso said, his eyes atwinkle. "I'm convinced that Al Carpenter is God in disguise. You're still laughing. Hey, listen to these things that happened since you wrote that story about Al and me."
Dear readers of long memory know that last fall I did a column on the friendship of Corso, the Indiana University football coach, and Al Carpenter, who was born 29 years ago with cerebral palsy.
When met when they both were certain the world was too much for them.
For 90 years, no football coach had won big at Indiana. A coach's graveyard, And there was Corso, as talented, bright and ambitious as any of his breed. But he couldn't win. He wondered if he had lost the skills that made him so successful at the University of Louisville. He wondered what he was doing at graveyard Indiana when, with a break, he would have been famous at, say, Notre Dame.
"Self-doubt and self-pity, that was me," Corso said.
Al Carpenter, because of the cerebral palsy, couldn't read or write. He couldn't get a job and couldn't walk. He was tired of trying so hard.
"Everything was drained out of me," he said. "I told my mom, 'What's the use?'"
Lee Corso though about getting fired.
Al Carpenter thought about suicide.
They saved each other.
All that Carpenter ever cared about was Indiana University sports. From his home in Spencer, a village 20 miles away, Carpenter hitchhiked to Bloomington. He uses crutches. He drags his legs along. On his crutches, Carpenter came to a football practice one day and found a coach feeling as bad as he was.
"When I saw Al Carpenter the first time, I knew God had sent him," Corso said. "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 has 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 kicking a field goal?
"Hey, I said, let's get this life into perspective. Everybody needs an Al Carpenter."
The story ran in this newspaper in mid-September and later in the Los Angeles Times.
Since then, 11 film companies have asked for rights to make a movie about Corso and Carpenter. Burt Reynolds' production company "will make the movie," according to Dave Gershenson, Reynolds' public relations man and coproducer.
"We see it as 'Brian's Song' with a happy ending," Gershenson said.
The happy ending is Indiana winning a bowl game and the players carrying Corso and Carpenter off the field on their shoulders.
The idea of Indiana in a bowl game was ridiculous in mid-September, and so far-fetched as to be laughable in early November. That's when Corso's team fell to a 5-3 won-lost record. It had lost to mighty Michigan on a controversial, last-second touchdown pass.
That Monday, Corso began wondering if Al Carpenter was -- how to put it without being sacriligious? -- more than a nice, harmless guy who always wears a pith helmet with an "I" on it.
On that Monday after the dispiriting loss to Michigan, Corso says Carpenter came to him and said not to worry, Coach, we're still going to a bowl game in California.
Corso is telling this story at lunch three days ago. Whatever you think of football coaches, forget it when Carso is around. The man is alive. He talks 66 miles per hour. He laughs out loud. He gets up from the table and stands in the middle of a restaurant doing a warm and comic impression of Al Carpenter hitchhiking.
"Al says to me, 'Coach, you ever try to hitchhike in a pith helmet?'" Corso is saying, and customers in the restaurant turn to see what this grownup man is doing.
"'Coach, them trucks go by and the air blows your pith helmet off,' Al says, 'and when you go to chase it, a pith helmet is round and keeps rolling.'"
God chasing his pith helmet on crutches.
Anyway, after the Michigan game, when Corso is feeling lousy, Carpenter comes to him and says don't worry, we're going to a bowl game in California and Corso says sure, okay, but he knows the Rose Bowl is out of reach now and what other bowl game is there in California?
Tuesday of that week, the telephone rings.
"It's the Holiday Bowl people," Corso says. "They're interested in us, in Indiana, for their bowl game. So I ask very respectfully where their bowl game is played.
"San Diego, California."
There follow two victories over Minnesota and Illinois, and the Holiday Bowl tells Corso it wants his team even after it loses its final regular-season game to Purdue.
So comes Christmas week and Indiana is in the Holiday Bowl against undefeated Brigham Young. Al Carpenter, who has never flown, who has never been out of Indiana, who has never stayed in a hotel, who has never eaten in a fancy restaurant -- Al Carpenter flies with Corso's team to San Diego.
"I'm helping Al take a shower one night," Corso is saying at lunch. "And he says he has to sit in a flat-bottomed, straight-backed chair to take a shower. He wants me to get him one. Now, here I am, a football coach at a bowl game and I have this $500 suite upstairs but I'm here in the shower and I'm supposed to find a flat-bottomed, straightbacked chair.
"I go out in the hotel corridor and bring in a chair. 'No,' Al says, 'that's not the right kind.'
"So I get on the elevator and go down 12 floors and walk out into the lobby. Across the lobby, I see a door cracked about half-open. I go over there and push the door open.
"It's a whole room full of flat-bottomed, straight-backed chairs. There's 250 of them. So I take one upstairs and tell Al I found a whole room of them.
"And Al says, 'I know.'"
With seven seconds to play in the bowl game, Indiana is beating Brigham Young by one point, 38-37, but Brigham Young is about to win on a 27-yard field goal. The kicker already has kicked three field goals longer than that. He has kicked four extra points perfectly. No way can he miss from 27 yards.
Al Carpenter has another idea. There on the sidelines, in his "I" pith helmet and Indiana T-shirt, there on his crutches, Al Carpenter moves closer to Corso and tells him, "Don't worry, Coach, don't worry, he's going to miss it, he'll miss it."
The kicker misses it. He misses it terribly. He misses it so bad, kicking it practically straight left, that Lee Corso turns immediately to Al Carpenter, who just shrugs and says, "See?"