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August 13, 2008

Football fever - Die-hard Cards fans flock to first practice

If Grantland Rice — the doyen of football scribes — had been on the scene, he might have rendered poesy from the dripping, leaden skies. The air was thick and brown as hummus, and only the gray pall kept the heat index below triple digits.

Yet the day marked the Season of the Switch, from matters of lesser importance to football. It’s the brutal endeavor America has embraced as its paramount sporting pastime.

And so they came, as witness, as a pledge of allegiance, as confirmation they still believe, despite the travails that befell their beloved last season. Disregarding flies and Fahrenheit, the red-and-black faithful arrived in droves to the opening of Louisville Cardinal pigskin practice last Tuesday. 

There were fathers and sons. One pair traveled a long way: “We live by Lake Cumberland. Drove up just for practice,” the father said. “Guess you think I’m mental? I got my son’s coach to let him off for the afternoon. Guess he thought seeing a big-time program would be worthwhile.” 

There were daughters, too, though not as many. Toting chairs and umbrellas and coolers, most adorned in red on red, there were husbands and wives and girlfriends with baby strollers.

There were gimpy warriors from yesteryear, returned to feel the spirit once more, their station revealed by scarred kneecaps, gnarled hands and the fraternal bonhomie with which they greeted each other.

Pointing toward the field, father said to son: “I think that’s Gil Sturtzel. He played on U of L’s first bowl team. The Sun Bowl, in ’57 or ’58.”

A fellow to his pal, referring to a guy described in the vernacular as a bigun: “Oh, I remember him — what is his name? He played when I was in school. The year the administration was going to get rid of football and we had a rally to save it by the Thinker.”

There were professionals, well-adjusted citizens of the community, people who you’d think would be otherwise engaged. 

“I’m a fan. Doing some pre-season scouting,” explained an attorney, accompanied by his spouse.

His wife said simply: “I’m with him.”

Another fan, still in shirt and knotted tie: “Oh, I’m meeting my son out here … and I needed to get out of the office.”

Then there was the mayor of these minions, a fellow known for his obsession with all matters Cardinal. He asked not to be identified, so let’s call him Superfan.

Superfan was the de facto greeter and official provider of mimeographed rosters. He assumed the former duty because of his hail-fellow-well-met nature. The latter responsibility was a gift from U of L football SID Rocco Gasparro.

“I’ve been to every practice since Schnellenberger,” he informed.

Whether he meant it literally was of no matter. He’s among the inner circle — former players and coaches, family of players and favored fans — granted access even to closed practices. 

“Schnellenberger’s practices were always open. Cooper, well, he didn’t care, neither did a lot of fans. John L’s practices were open at first. Then it was the Internet that changed things. Injuries would be online before the kids got to the hospital,” explained Superfan.

“I’ve seen the Cards play in 38 states. Not just football, mind you, but basketball and baseball. Omaha, the College World Series, was incredible, better than the Final Fours.”

Like many in the crowd, that Big Blue rival down the road was never out of mind. Superfan inquired, “When are we going to find out the real story on (UK’s dismissed quarterback Curtis) Pulley?”

Of course some were present for the schmooze.

“That Chichester can run. He can even outrun you, George,” remarked one spectator.

George, he of Social Security age: “I’d out-quick him.”

A few were disenchanted: “We’re not covering anybody out of the chute. My grandmother could do a better job … and she’s dead.”

Most all were hopeful, though, looking for U of L to return to the upper echelon of college football. 

That optimism was clear in comments like, “We’ll definitely have more wins than losses,” and, “I’m encouraged. That coaching out there is so much better than last year.”

Hope reigns in the dog days. Last season’s disappointments are faded newsprint. Card fans stand ready for the chill and excitement of America’s grandest autumn ritual.