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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Hemingway remembered for living his life to fullest

OCEANSIDE – Life threw Arthur Hemingway a horribly wicked curve, but he didn't swing and miss. Through pure will, he kept the ball in play.

They buried Arthur Tusi Hemingway here yesterday, following a full-scale, upbeat Samoan celebration of his all-too-brief life. He had so much taken away from him early, but he did his best the rest of his way, with what he had left, to be the Arthur Hemingway so many people knew and loved.

There was just so much what-could-have-been to him. We could only guess. But it was a pretty easy guess. I saw him play football, and I can't say I ever saw anyone quite like him at his level.

Let's get this straight from the start. Arthur Hemingway was a stud, 6 feet 2, 230 pounds, handsome, smart, tough and an extremely gifted football player for Oceanside High. It's doubtful this county ever produced a better pure fullback.

Said David Tolumu, Hemingway's tailback at Oceanside who went on to play at Hawaii and was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons: “I was the beneficiary of Arthur's hard work.”

Hemingway was nationally recruited, a prep All-American, and in 1978, along with another San Diegan, Lincoln High's Marcus Allen, accepted a football scholarship to USC. Allen would win the Heisman Trophy four years later. Hemingway didn't get four days to try.

On Aug. 23, 1978, 18-year-old freshman Hemingway, just three days after arriving at USC's training camp, left his dorm room on a food run to a nearby hamburger stand. As he was walking back home, a stolen car involved in a high speed police chase driven by a 17-year-old – some reports claim at speeds exceeding 70 mph – careened onto the sidewalk and struck Hemingway, who only could remember hearing the sirens.

He was knocked 30 feet into the air, landing on his head. His football career immediately ended. He'd spend six weeks in a coma. There was a broken hip, spinal cord injuries that would limit the use of his legs and right hand, and head trauma that left his speech slurred.

What followed were 21 operations, including two brain surgeries and, as has been reported, bouts of depression. Confined to a wheelchair, he fought through it. He made a promise to his father, Arthur Sr., that he would finish school, and he did, returning to USC at age 30 on a scholarship from the university's “Swim With Mike” scholarship fund for physically challenged athletes. He graduated with a degree in English in 1996 and went on to receive his masters in education.

He didn't hide. He helped with the football programs at Oceanside and Rancho Buena Vista High. He was good at making young people feel good. He was a fixture at USC home games. He established a foundation to provide scholarships to disabled students.

And then, on Feb. 26, they found Arthur dead in his Oceanside home. He was 48. The cause of death has yet to be reported, but he did suffer from diabetes and seizures.

It matters more how he lived, how he lived through it all after so much promise had been taken away. And there was plenty of promise. Famed offensive line coach Hudson Houck, now with the Cowboys, was an assistant under John Robinson at USC when Hemingway was recruited. Houck says Hemingway was the best high school blocking back he's ever seen.

Robinson, who attended yesterday's service at New Venture Church, knew running backs, maybe knew them better than any coach. He turned Allen from a safety to Hall of Fame tailback. He coached Charles White to a Heisman. Later, under Robinson, the Rams' Eric Dickerson ran for more yards in one season than any back in NFL history.

Robinson did not hand out scholarships to running backs willy-nilly. And he made great use of his fullbacks.

“It was one of the real tragedies of my career,” Robinson was telling me last week. “Arthur was just savaged by that accident. We thought he would play some fullback right away as a freshman. He was a handsome kid, a great leader in school, a real physical guy.

“He and Marcus would have made quite a pair. Fullback was a surprisingly active position for us. Our fullbacks did much more than block. Arthur had that look about him, one that makes you feel you could be a good coach. He had a chance to be a real star, and he never got a chance to carry the ball.”

Willie Buchanon preceded Hemingway at Oceanside before becoming one of the all-time college cornerbacks at San Diego State, followed by an NFL career with the Packers and Chargers. He was on hand yesterday.

“Arthur was a trooper, so dedicated,” Buchanon said. “He was a fighter, a good person who was dealt a bad hand. He was a great player.”

Said John Carroll, currently the immensely successful Oceanside High football coach: “Arthur was so bright; he brought a terrific spirit with him wherever he went. He would do anything to help youth in sports.”

It is not a sad epitaph. Arthur Hemingway helped the kids.

Nick Canepa: (619) 293-1397; nick.canepa@uniontrib.com

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