Jan. 28, 2010
By Greg Johnson
What are you willing to do to see your favorite college team play? Would you demand that a plane be called back to the jetway just so you could make the flight? Would you drive from Milwaukee to West Lafayette, Indiana, just to see one play of a football game, then hustle to Indianapolis in time to catch a flight for a mandatory business meeting in Texas? Maybe you would if it meant keeping your 35-year streak intact.
These are the die-hard fans who take planes, trains and automobiles at any time to watch their favorite teams.
What drives people to this level of support?
The following tales will tell you.
Wendell Wolka, known as “The King” for the black and gold Pharaoh-style hat he wears, remembers the last time he missed a Purdue game.
It was September 28, 1974, when Wolka, then living in Chicago, decided not to attend the Purdue game at Notre Dame. He didn’t believe the Boilermakers had much of a chance to win, so he didn’t go.
“It was tantamount to cheering for the Christians in Rome,” said Wolka, a 1971 Purdue graduate in mechanical engineering. “I decided to not go and put myself through that. But being a glutton for punishment, I just had to turn the radio on to see how badly we were getting thumped. Of course, I just tuned in in time to hear the announcer screaming that Purdue still leads a stunned Notre Dame.”
His first thoughts were whether he had time to drive the 100 miles to South Bend, Indiana. He didn’t, and he missed Purdue’s 31-20 victory. That’s when he decided not to miss another game.
He has kept that promise to himself by entering the 2009 season having attended 403 straight Boilermaker football games. The streak started October 5, 1974, with a road game at Duke – even though he took an unintended detour.
“I had directions that said go through 15 stoplights, take three lefts, two rights, then turn at the house with the refrigerator on the porch,” Wolka said. “I got to the stadium, and everyone was dressed in powder blue and white, or red and gray.”
He had stopped at North Carolina’s stadium in Chapel Hill instead of Duke’s in nearby Durham. Once he found the right place, he saw Purdue lose, 16-14.
The streak has been threatened a couple of times.
Once in the mid-1980s he was on business in the Netherlands. He was running late and the jetway had been pulled from the plane as he arrived at his gate on a Friday afternoon. It was the last flight he could take and still make it to Purdue’s football game the next day.
Wolka told the airline workers he had to get on that flight to Chicago. He kept protesting and protesting, but to no avail. Finally, the airline workers relented.
Another potential streak-buster came in the early 1990s when his boss at the time ordered the entire sales group to a meeting in Texas. It was mandatory that everyone arrive on a Saturday.
Wolka, who was living in Milwaukee at the time, made the 188-mile drive to the Purdue home game against Michigan. He stayed for one play, then jumped in his car and drove to Indianapolis, where he caught a flight to Houston. He kept the streak alive – and remained employed.
“That’s why I am always careful saying that I have attended 415 consecutive games,” Wolka said. “I figure when the string comes to an end it is going to be a Lollapalooza of a reason like, ‘Man Hit by Asteroid.’
“The streak is more fun than it used to be when the only fans who went to the away games were the players’ parents,” Wolka said. “Back then, you had to be careful what you said. You had to put a spin on your comments and say things like, ‘My, that was unfortunate,’ or you might have someone’s mom bearing down on you.”
Georgia Bulldogs on his mind
After spending a career in law enforcement, 20 years of retirement have given Dwayne Gilbert time to maintain his streak of attending 423 consecutive Georgia football games through the 2009 season.
The streak goes deeper than just attending every game, however.
“For most of the last 20 years, I hardly ever missed a single play,” said the 82-year-old Gilbert. “I was never one to get up to get drinks or run to the bathroom. I took care of business before the game, and I took my seat.”
The last time Gilbert missed a Georgia football game was the 1974 Tangerine Bowl when his late wife, June, couldn’t make the trip because of a broken hip.
Gilbert spent 12 years as a Georgia state trooper, 20 years as the sheriff of Spalding County and six as a U.S. marshal in Georgia. The former Marine, who enlisted in the armed services in 1945 (though World War II ended before he was deployed), used to work security on the field where he had to attend games before his streak began.
“It’s a good thing the war ended when it did or I probably wouldn’t have seen all these Georgia games,” said Gilbert, who attended his first contest in 1948.
By 1969, he started attending the games regularly. Then he added the road games to the agenda.
“I purchased my first motor home in 1974,” Gilbert said. “That is when I started going to out-of-town games. I did so until last year.”
Now he travels mostly by car, although he had to fly to Phoenix when the Bulldogs played at Arizona State last season. Driving long distances was an easy adjustment for him to make.
“All the years I was in law enforcement, all I did all day was drive,” he said. “It’s not a problem for me. During my retirement and working years, I’ve managed to visit all 50 states at least twice. So when I head out to see a game, I don’t do much sightseeing.”
Two of his best memories of Georgia football are from the 1980 national championship season when Georgia defeated Florida on a 93-yard pass play from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott in the final minute for a stunning come-from-behind win and the 17-10Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
He’s thought of stopping the streak because he’s having trouble with his legs.
“I have to use a cane occasionally,” Gilbert said. “I told my wife I need to give it up. She said, ‘No, you are not going to give it up until you can’t go. I’ll push you in a wheelchair if you can’t make it on your own.’”
Calling all Vols
Earl and Judy Brown’s allegiance to the Tennessee Volunteers began on their honeymoon in 1972 when they saw their beloved Vols play two football games – at home against Kentucky and on the road at Vanderbilt (both victories). It was a sign of things to come.
“Do you think I should’ve asked for a prenuptial agreement?” Judy Brown joked when reminiscing about the first few days of their marriage.
Fast-forward 36 years to an interesting Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 when the Browns traveled to Orlando, Florida, to watch the men’s basketball team play in the Old Spice Classic. The opening game was on Thanksgiving Day, with the semifinals scheduled for Friday. The tournament schedule called for an off day, so the Browns boarded a plane to attend the last football game of the season, which kept alive their streak of seeing the past 153 consecutive football games the Vols have played.
“We got up at 5:40 a.m. and flew back to Orlando for the Sunday afternoon basketball game,” Earl Brown said. The Vols lost the championship game of the Old Spice Classic to Gonzaga, but it wasn’t for a lack of support from the Browns.
“I’ve been a Vols fan since elementary school when I was listening to games on the radio,” said Earl Brown, who is from
Chattanooga. “I started going to games in 1970, but we’ve had season tickets since 1972.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s that they started attending every football game, home and away. The last time they missed a game was November 1996.
The Browns also have season tickets to men’s basketball games, where they began a tradition of wearing their signature orange blazers to the games after coach Bruce Pearl asked for a display of support.
“He asked the crowd to come out in their orange,” Judy Brown said. “We put on our orange blazers, and they seemed to be good luck.”
They also attend about half the home games of Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols. They’ve been to four Women’s Final Fours over the years. The players know them on a first-name basis.
“Sometimes we run into them at the mall, and they don’t recognize us at first without the blazers,” Earl Brown said.
Judy and Earl, both 57, attended Chattanooga, where Judy played a year on the basketball team. They run their own consulting business called Industrial Psychologists, which helps companies set up policies, programs and systems. They also offer management ideas to motivate work forces.
That has taken Earl around the globe. He has traveled to Kuwait, Venezuela, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Africa.
In 2007, he spent 20 weeks in Kuwait – which almost ended his consecutive football game attendance streak.
His odyssey began after attending a home game against Air Force in September. He spent the next three and a half days in Kuwait. Then he traveled to Pakistan for a full business day. From there, he same back to Knoxville in time to see the Vols take on rival Alabama.
“I had to travel over 20,000 miles that week,” Earl Brown said. “I got into Knoxville on Saturday morning, which was in time for a mid-afternoon game. I was like a zombie, but there was no way I was going to miss that game.”
The Browns also followed the men’s basketball team on a summer exhibition tour through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.
“There were about 25 fans on that trip,” Judy Brown said. “A lot of people who follow the Vols have been following them for years. It is fun to go on these trips to meet other fans like ourselves.”
Well, almost like them.
The Belles of St. Mary’s
Perhaps the sign of a true die-hard fan is when the school you root for makes a bobblehead doll in your honor.
George Efta and his wife, Saint Mary’s (Indiana) President Carol Ann Mooney, saw their bobblehead likenesses unveiled before an alumnae basketball game in February.
Efta can be seen at many of the Belles’ games, whether it is soccer, basketball, volleyball or softball. It is not unusual to see him chase down a foul ball or a soccer ball that’s scooted past the end line.
“This is Division III,” Efta said. “You have to remember that when the ball is kicked over the end line, it rolls 50 yards away. Someone has to go shag it. If I’m close and it rolls away, I’ll go get it.”
Efta, who makes children’s toys and puzzles for a living, and Mooney also contribute regularly to the Belles’ athletics department. He does more than donate money, though. He dedicates his time to show support for as many of the teams on the all-women’s campus as he can.
“My wife can’t get to as many events as I can,” Efta said. “I’ve always been a sports fan. The students really appreciate the support. If someone other than their parents or roommates is there, it is a big deal for them.”
Efta and Mooney have four daughters, which developed his love for attending events.
“I’ve learned a lot about everything, from ballet to free kicks, in my lifetime,” Efta said.
St. Mary’s plays in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, so Efta takes his support on the road when time allows.
“All the schools are two or three hours away,” Efta said. “If it is a nice spring afternoon, I’ll hop in my car and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking off, and I’ll be back around 8 o’clock tonight, honey.’”
An Owl for all seasons
Bob Schlanger never met a road trip he didn’t like – as long as it was to see his Rice Owls in action.
No matter the sport, Schlanger, a Houston real estate attorney, has probably been somewhere to watch the Owls compete.
Here are some examples from last year alone.
He met the women’s soccer team for a trip that had the Owls playing at UAB and Memphis during a weekend.
In January, the basketball schedules matched perfectly for Schlanger to see the men on a Saturday at Tulane while the women played the Green Wave the next day.
He watched a three-game baseball series at Southern Mississippi in the spring.
He also traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to watch the Owls track teams compete at the Don Kirby Invitational.
“Some of it is planned, and some of the trips are spontaneous,” said Schlanger, who graduated from Rice in 1973 with a degree in economics. “Sometimes I’ll get irritated with something going on in the office, and I’ll look at the schedule and say, ‘Well, I can go see a basketball game in New Orleans.’ I’ll go do it.”
Schlanger said he has missed only two Rice football games (home and away) since the 1981 season.
Once he was with the men’s basketball team in Boston for a tournament, and the other time he went with the women’s basketball team to a tournament in Cancún, Mexico.
He started traveling to basketball games in 1981 when former Rice men’s coach Tommy Suitts suggested he go to Hawaii to watch the team play.
“They were in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii,” said Schlanger, who now operates the shot clock at the men’s and women’s basketball games. “I was either at the beach or watching college basketball. It was a great week.”
Schlanger is at so many games that students have thought he was drawing some sort of compensation.
“They think I work at Rice,” he said. “One of the really good things through the years is that I get to know them. I’ve become friends with the students, and I stay in touch with them.”
One of his favorite memories was watching the Owls capture the Men’s College World Series in 2003.
“I went there for the championship series against Stanford,” Schlanger said. “We won on a Monday night, and I drove to the Kansas City airport. I left Omaha about midnight and got there after 2 a.m. I had a 6:30 flight back to Houston. I was in the office at 9 o’clock that morning.”
Steve Black began going to the Men’s College World Series in the late 1950s while he was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska.
His wife, Joyce, began attending games at Rosenblatt Stadium after she and Steve were married in 1979. Today, the Blacks, along with their family and friends, are still regulars behind the screen near the third-base dugout at one of the NCAA’s marquee championships.
In 1959, Black’s mother had an idea that was apparently before its time. She wanted to know if the family could purchase tickets for the entire tournament. The request stunned the woman working the box-office window.
“The lady said, ‘Let me understand this. You want tickets to tomorrow’s games?’ ” Black recalled. “My mother said, ‘No, we want tickets to all the games.’ They said they didn’t know if they were set up to do that.”
Now, buying a tournament ticket package is almost the expectation at the CWS. After 50 years, the Blacks still have tickets in the family.
“What’s neat is watching the kids who come through here and become Major League players,” said Black, a plastic surgeon at the Nebraska Medical Center with two daughters and a son who also grew up going to the CWS.
His daughter, Katy, had a teenage crush on Georgia Tech catcher Jason Varitek, who is currently the captain of the Boston Red Sox. She was able to get him to sign a ball, and it remains a cherished keepsake.
“She told me unless it gets to be worth enough for a down payment on a house, she’s not selling that ball,” said Joyce Black, who met her husband while she was a nurse and he was in his residency period for plastic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Joyce Black said she had a brother who played collegiately at Minnesota, and she also followed the Twins before getting married. But the Men’s College World Series was an awakening for her.
“It didn’t take more than one game for me to be hooked,” she said. “What was so amazing was the energy those kids had. When you watch professional baseball, it is almost effortless. The college kids make mistakes, and you like to see if they can overcome those mistakes. Plus, their parents are in the stands screaming for them.”
The Blacks’ children all went to the games, and they also had to learn to share. Each day, they took turns inviting a friend to join the family.
Even today, the Blacks have a sign-up sheet that friends and neighbors use to pick the days they will attend.
“We have the famous College World Series grid on the microwave,” Joyce Black said. “It is all the games by session number and all the seats. There is a big grid of squares. As people want the seats, they come in and sign off. People start calling in April, and they say, ‘Here’s the dates; put me down.’ ”
She added that they have a call-me-if-you-have-any-openings list.
The Blacks rarely root for one team, but they have grown to like the fans from LSU, which won the 2009 NCAA title.
“There are a fair amount of fans from LSU that hold tickets to the College World Series, and they come whether their team is in it or not,” Black said. “But when their team is here, it’s kind of like a mini-Mardi Gras. They start giving beads away when they have big innings.”
It’s unclear where they will sit in the new downtown Omaha stadium, which should be ready to host the CWS by 2011.
“Change always comes,” Black said. “It’s been neat watching how Omaha has interacted with the NCAA through the years. Those two entities almost have come to be like brothers. There is a dedication there to make sure the kids have the best chance to excel.”