2014 Father of the Year: Optimist, caregiver Dolch

Craig Dolch, Golfweek's 2014 Father of the Year, with son Eric.

Life throws daily curves, sometimes nasty ones. The color of your sky can change instantly. Craig Dolch knows this, clearly, painfully. Nine years ago, he was reporting at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst when 14-year-old son Eric called and wished him Happy Father’s Day. They talked for about five minutes.

“Looking back, I wish I had talked with him for hours,” says the 55-year-old Dolch, a respected sports journalist who worked 26 years for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post. “I never thought when I hung up that phone what could happen.”

What happened is they have not conversed since. Eric has not talked or walked since. The next morning, Dolch’s teenage daughter, Alex, called and said, “Dad, doctors think Eric has encephalitis.” A couple of days of headaches for a healthy boy had led to fever, to incoherence, to a Monday trip to an emergency room, to diagnosis of the rare neurological disorder that inflames the brain.

Soon after came a medically induced coma, one lasting 115 days, to control seizures that would flare up to 40 times monthly. There were 14 months in hospitals in Boston and Miami. And two 10-hour-plus brain surgeries. And several near-death experiences. And medical bills exceeding $5 million, at least $1 million out of the pocket of Dolch and wife Ava Van de Water. And too many tears. And endless love and care.

Today, Eric is communicating nonverbally and progressing slowly at a group home in Loxahatchee, Fla. He has been there since October after seven years of home care. Dolch says his son has made more progress during the past six months than in the previous three years. But the same questions remain. No one knows what caused this or what Eric is thinking or what the prognosis is.

“The heart-wrenching part is, it’s been nine years and I can’t tell you how he feels,” Dolch says. “Is he in pain? What goes through his brain? What is his daily life in there like? I wish at some point he’d say, ‘Dad, what the hell happened?’ ”

The rock throughout the ordeal has been Dolch. He has made managing Eric’s care, A to Z, his full-time job. He has fought with insurance companies and has spread optimism. He has been the impetus behind the Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation, aimed at finding an encephalitis cure and assisting stricken kids. Van de Water says she feels “blessed” Dolch has been willing and able with a flexible schedule to handle so much.

“Early on one of the doctors told me that a lot of men would have just walked away,” she says. “They recognized Craig was special.”

Golfweek feels the same way. That’s why Dolch is a clear choice as our 2014 Father of the Year. He will be honored June 14 during Golfweek’s 32nd annual Father & Son Open, at Streamsong (Fla.) Resort.

Dolch says the award is “humbling” and “bittersweet,” the latter because not being chosen would translate to his son being healthy. He also knows he can help others with foundation work and with his messages. So while this is a tearjerker story, it’s also an inspiring one.

“You can’t choose what happens in life, only how you choose to deal with it,” he says. “I didn’t want to become bitter. I didn’t want to look at kids on the playground and ask why. Maybe the reason this happened is so we could start a foundation.”

Dolch says Eric came close to dying about six times during the first six weeks. He looks back and says, “God did his part to keep him alive, and now we’re doing our part to give him as good of a life as possible. His fight inspires me. When I see how he tries, with things like trying to sit up, how can I not do the same?

“At the end of the day, nobody cares about how much money you make. The most important thing is your relationship with your kids.”

Early on, Dolch became adept at crying a river and then “acting like nothing happened” when talking with someone soon after. He would play basketball to combat stress but also so no one could tell he was crying in the midst of the sweat. But he doesn’t cry in front of Eric because he doesn’t want his son to feel that emotion.

Eric gives nonverbal cues that identify mood. He breathes harder when upset. It’s clear he loves hamburgers and pizza because he devours them. He perks up upon hearing the Johnny Cash music he loved as a teenager. He becomes energized when dad takes him to a weekly swim class.

“It’s like he becomes another person in the pool,” Dolch says. “He makes noises like he’s trying to speak. He becomes content and relaxed. It’s like it gives him a little life.”

That Dolch celebrates every little bit of progress hardly surprises the Rev. David McEntire, a Methodist minister and Craig and Ava’s next-door neighbor in West Palm Beach for two years until 2007. McEntire talks of Dolch’s positive nature and tenacity.

“Many people would have been frustrated and discouraged to the point of losing hope,” says McEntire, now in Lakeland. “But Craig was determined his son would achieve the best outcome.”

McEntire marvels at a scene during a hurricane one year. He recalls high wind “ripping roofs off neighbors’ houses.” During that chaos, Dolch and Alex safely made their way to McEntire’s living room.

“I remember Craig sitting there telling his daughter, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ ” McEntire says. “Here’s a man who’s separated from his wife (product of the despair), whose son is in critical condition and whose roof is coming off. Yet he had the capacity to say, ‘It’s going to be OK; we’re going to get through this.’

“He has never lost sight he’s not in this alone. There is eternal optimism."

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