Robert Brubaker loves being an equipment manager for Holmes High School's basketball team.
He hands towels to the players, picks up the crushed paper cups they toss under the bench and washes their sweaty uniforms.
For this, some players call him their friend, while others dismiss him as ''the water boy.''
Despite a devotion and spirit that is all Holmes' red and white, the 16-year-old Covington junior recently became the butt of a cruel joke. Along the way, he found out grown men can be bigger fools than high school kids.
Back in December, coach Jim Cooper told Robert the junior varsity team was short on players for an away game with Fleming County. Cooper said the 5-foot, 4-inch equipment manager with a 128-pound frame should ''dress for the Saturday game.''
Robert was ecstatic.
''I always dreamed I would get to play in a big game,'' he said. ''I'd do anything for my school.''
Robert told everyone he was going to play, including his mom and some friends on the girls' basketball team. He told Holmes' athletic director, Ron Madrick, who gave Robert the equipment manager's job two years ago.
Robert also told his boss at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. He works there four nights a week as a wheelchair attendant, transporting handicapped passengers. In order to help his school, he asked for a day off from work.
Ordinarily, Robert would not have been at the Saturday game. But his coach asked him to suit up.
''I love being a part of the team,'' Robert said. ''I love watching people I consider my friends play. I look up to the players.''
Before the Fleming County game, Robert warmed up with the junior varsity players. He wore uniform No. 32 under his warm-up suit. No. 32 never made it into the game. He never even got to the bench. Before tip-off time, Coach Cooper told Robert to take off the uniform. He wouldn't be part of the team.
Dejected and stunned, Robert went to the locker room and changed into his equipment manager's outfit. Later, he found out the whole thing ''was a joke. Some players had put the coach up to it.''
For Robert, it was a costly joke. Saturdays are busy days at the airport. Robert works a five-hour night shift for $5.15 an hour, plus tips. He figures he lost $45-$50.
Robert's family depends on his paycheck. An only child, he's the only one in his house who works. His single mother is on disability with a back injury. His grandparents, who own the house, are retired. Robert saves part of each check for a car and a trip to Puerto Rico with Holmes' Spanish club. Some money goes for food and medicine for his family. He pays his grandmother $10 a week for room and board.
Robert's mother - who went to the game expecting to see Robert play - said, ''I never saw him hurt so bad.''
When I talked with Robert, he didn't want compensation for the lost wages. He just wanted an apology, a minimum gesture of respect from the school he loves.
But so far, it looks as if that old team spirit at Holmes means never having to say you're sorry.
Ron Madrick investigated the incident. He talked with Robert, Coach Cooper and some of the players. This is what he told me: ''Everything was done in humor. Nobody was trying to hurt that kid.''
No apology necessary is the bottom line at Holmes High School. That's the real joke.
I went to the airport to watch Robert work. I watched him push two elderly wheelchair users at once from one end of the concourse to the other. He made pleasant small talk as he attended to all their needs. He was mature, kind and considerate.
As far as I'm concerned, this 16-year-old is more of a man than any of the jokers at Holmes will ever be.
Cliff Radel can
be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.