By Pat Harty
CORALVILLE, Iowa – Barely a year ago, the situation looked bleak for former Iowa basketball player Kenny Arnold.
Confined to his bed, unable to speak and riddled with pain, Arnold was losing his fight against the debilitating effects from having brain surgery in 1985.
Arnold’s body had been ravaged by a series of strokes that robbed him of his speech and of so much more.
But his mind still was as sharp as ever, and his friends, particularly his former college teammate, Mike Henry, were determined to make a difference.
Henry has been like guardian angel to Arnold, providing love, support and inspiration.
They were at each other’s side again on Friday, which was a triumph by itself.
The fact that Arnold is healthy enough to have traveled from his hometown of Chicago to attend Fry Fest is a major development and reason to celebrate.
“This just means everything,” Henry said. “To see Kenny, the fans, all the teammates, this is a dream come true. I’m glad he was able to come back.
“You think about where he was a year ago to today. It doesn’t get any better.”
Arnold endeared himself to Hawkeye fans by playing a key role for Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team. He helped fill the void after star point guard Ronnie Lester suffered a knee injury early in the season.
The players on that team have remained close over the years, partly due to Arnold’s health issues. They have rallied behind their former teammate and made it their mission to help bring comfort and stability to Arnold’s life.
And judging from Arnold’s demeanor on Friday, their mission has paid huge dividends.
Arnold laughed and smiled as fans came up to greet him at Fry Fest. He posed for pictures and listened as fans reminisced about Iowa’s unexpected march to the 1980 Final Four.
It was chilly inside the Marriott Convention Center, but Arnold was wrapped in two blankets and probably too busy soaking it all in to even care.
Iowa’s 1980 Final Four squad has its own booth at Fry Fest. Arnold was seated front and center on Friday, along with former teammates Vince Brookins and Steve Waite.
A meet-and-greet featuring Arnold and his former college teammates also was scheduled for Friday night at the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Coralville.
The event will last from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., and there is a $25 cover charge with the proceeds benefiting the Kenny Arnold Foundation.
This is the latest fundraising effort by the foundation, which helps to pay for Arnold’s medical expenses, while also contributing to cancer research and education.
Iowa held a “white out” for the men’s basketball game against Illinois on Feb. 18 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Fans bought and wore T-shirts that were designed by the son of life-long Iowa fan Marty Gallagher. The shirts were white and had Arnold's name and his No. 30 printed on them.
The event was so successful that it led to a golf fundraiser in May in Gallagher’s hometown of Storm Lake.
Gallagher also has played a key role in Arnold’s resurgence.
In addition to helping to organize the fundraisers, Gallagher owns a company called Talk to Me Technologies that specializes in building equipment that helps to improve communication.
Gallagher gave Arnold a speaking device about a year ago and the impact was immediate. Arnold now communicates with Hawkeye fans on a regular basis on social media.
His connection to the fans is being credited with helping Arnold to improve physically. He is more upbeat and determined to succeed knowing that Hawkeye Nation is behind him.
He is also doing physical therapy and working to gain back his strength.
“It’s just phenomenal to have him here,” Gallagher said Friday. “Kenny means so much to so many people. And just to see the look on his face when he sees all these number thirty shirts going around, I mean, we’re selling them like hot cakes. I think he’s partly overwhelmed in a great way and also kind of like, really for me?’
“But I think it’s really important for him to know that people don’t forget these guys, don’t forget him and want to help and want to support him and show him what he means and what that team means to people in this state.”
Arnold also plans to attend the Iowa football team’s season opener against Wyoming on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
He already met with the players and coaches on the Iowa men’s basketball team on Thursday after arriving in Iowa City.
“They remind us of our team,” Henry said of the current Iowa players. “They’re real close-knit. They hang together off the floor. They get along well and work hard; things that made us successful.”
Henry praised Iowa coach Fran McCaffery for helping to bring attention to Arnold's situation. McCaffery also respects the 1980 team for how it took care of business on and off the court.
“In talking to Fran, that’s one of the reasons he likes to have us around, they can emulate what we’re doing and see from us,” Henry said. “And I think that does carry over to the court.”
Arnold met with McCaffery and the Iowa players at the new practice facility. They posed for pictures and talked about the past and about the future of the Iowa program.
“He had the biggest smile on his face,” Henry said of Arnold. All the guys came over and spoke to him. That’s neat to have the old and the new, and to know they truly support us.”