by Suzanne Fox Sevel
Football has ingrained itself into American culture from youth leagues to the pros, and here on the Space Coast, loyal fans wear their hearts on their sleeves (and in some cases have their teams tattooed as sleeves.) Over the next few months, quarterback quarrels will commence, offensive and defensive plays will be orchestrated, teams will win, teams will lose, some NFL and collegiate newcomers will surprise; others will disappoint. Each fall there is renewed hope among players, coaches and fans alike.
From college to pro, you can bet that on any given Saturday or Sunday college and NFL football is being watched, faces painted, cars decorated, colors worn and foam fingers wagging. Here we see how coaches, fans, clubs and groups see and celebrate the sport.
David Graham, dean of students at the Florida Air Academy, is a local superfan of the Cleveland Browns, and not just because he was born in Cleveland, but also because of his legacy. His father, Hall of Famer Otto Graham, was among the most famous Browns ever to play football for the franchise. Graham still holds the highest career winning percentage for an NFL quarterback. During his 10-year career, he brought the Browns to the league championships every year. His son David is a member of the Space Coast Brown Backers (SCBB), a club of Browns fans who congregate weekly at the Dog House in Palm Bay. Here they wear trademark orange and brown shirts, bark at the TV and watch the game action on the big screen. The SCBB gathers to celebrate the team’s victories and commiserate on its losses.
“There’s a sense of family when you’re watching the game with other Browns fans. Going through the emotions together, whether winning or not, is the next best thing to being there,” says David. After college, David had a short stint of pro-football himself for the Philadelphia Eagles before pursing his career in academia. David, who wears his dad’s NFL Hall of Fame ring, says Cleveland Brown fans are “down to earth, loyal, and have a good attitude.” He’s still touched that after his father died, the Browns had a tribute game at the stadium for the family. “Hundreds of football fans in the audience were wearing my dad’s football jersey. It was heartfelt and amazing. Cleveland Browns fans are just that way,” he says.
Jim Norton, a wing safety engineer for the U.S. Air Force, is the most devoted Dallas Cowboys fan you’d ever meet. His silver car is decked out with stars and Dallas Cowboy paraphernalia; he has Dallas Cowboy star tattoos on both his forearms and Cowboy helmet tattoos on his shins. He also named his son Dallas. Though he’s not from Texas, he’s been a Cowboys fan since he was 9. His fate as a Dallas Cowboy devotee was sealed when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. And while he’s been waiting for those exciting times to happen again, Jim has never wavered in his allegiance to his Cowboys. He’s optimistic every fall when football season begins as he assesses the new talent. “Lately, I expect the worst and hope for the best,” says Jim, who owns 250 Dallas Cowboys hats and collects helmets, jerseys, bobbleheads and other memorabilia. He has traveled to games when his Air Force job had him anywhere close to Arlington, where the Cowboys call home. He’s exhilarated whenever his team wins, and when they’re losing, he admits to not being in a good mood. “I’m looking forward to a good year,” he says. And even if they’re not in the Super Bowl, Jim Norton is one fan who is in it for the long haul.
Carrie Wadzinski, University of Central Florida
Carrie Wadzinski, personal trainer at Health First Pro Health and Fitness and a cheer coach for Westshore High and Gemini Elementary Schools, has been a University of Central Florida Knights fan for five years. Often wearing Knights jerseys, T-shirts and sporting colors of black and gold, Wadzinski became a UCF fan when her oldest son, Jayson, became a Knights cheerleader. Jayson, a strong and powerful athlete, did many award-winning stunts including holding cheerleaders’ feet while they flipped and bounced back into his hands. Her younger son, Joel, now a junior at UCF, is currently a Knights cheerleader as well. Last year, UCF ranked second nationally with their cheer team. “College cheer squads have rigorous standards just like football athletes. They’re lifting weights, conditioning and practicing 20 hours a week. It’s hard work,” she says.
Season ticket holders, the Wadzinskis make an entire weekend of Knights home games by taking their R.V. to the football field. “The games are exciting. We’re there to watch the football game. We’ve even cooked turkey in the parking lot over Thanksgiving,” she says. “Bortles was a gifted player but I’ve seen all the Knights grow as a team. They were the underdog (a few years back) and now they’re winning national (Fiesta Bowl) championships. This team is really going places,” she says.
After winning back-to-back ACC titles and the 2013 National Championship, the Florida State University Seminoles are touted by many as “the team” to watch. Melissa Gilmore, associate director of financial aid for Kieser University, has been a Seminoles fan since the age of 10 and is excited about seeing her team’s rise to the top. Gilmore received her master’s degree from FSU which further locked in her allegiance to the ‘Noles. “Their winning the Auburn-FSU game at the Rose Bowl, a nail biter of a game that practically gave me a heart attack with the final score of 34-31, was just amazing.”
Each year, Gilmore looks forward to the Florida-FSU rivalry game, as her husband Steven is a huge Gators fan. “It’s fun because we’re always cheering for the other side. We usually sit together, but there have been times we’ve sat on opposite sides of the stadium,” she says. Their opposing football allegiances even made an appearance on their wedding cake. The cake topper actually had a Gator figurine (in a tuxedo) marrying a Seminole (a nuptial-attired Native American girl.)