When I was a boy back in the late 1970s, my mother’s cousin, Allen, used to take me to LSU football games. His seats were only a few rows up from the north end zone in Tiger Stadium, almost close enough to reach out and touch what seemed to me giant young men (they’re even more giant now) as they warmed up for the game or scored a touchdown.
Just off the field was another sight I’d never forget. It was of the most dedicated LSU fan I’ve ever seen.
He didn’t watch from a season-ticketed seat on the metal bleachers, but from a hospital stretcher, rolled to the edge of the stands in the ground-level portal on the northeast corner of Tiger Stadium. He didn’t sit up to watch the action but lay prone on the stretcher and watched by using a hand-held mirror.
That image has stayed with me for 40 years now. That fan has no doubt long since died, but the dedication to and passion for LSU football is something that hasn’t changed.
I always thought Glenn Dorsey said it best. The former All-America defensive end, an anchor on LSU’s 2007 national championship team and the most decorated player in program history, talked of the diversity of LSU fans as he walked down Victory Hill with the team and ran through the goal posts and into Tiger Stadium.
“You see 1-year-old girls at the games in cheerleader outfits,” Dorsey once said. “She doesn’t know what’s going on, but she’s out there cheering us. That’s what I think of when I’m tired in a game. Here’s a 90-year-old guy out there at the game. He can’t do much, but he’s pulling for LSU. I love playing in that kind of environment.”
Young and old, infant and infirm, they jam the sidewalks on both sides of North Stadium Drive as the Tigers come down the hill with LSU band until both forces make their left-hand turn into the stadium.
Ruston’s JD Moore knows what it’s like to both watch and be the parade. In this, his senior season, he’s going to try his best to savor every moment, starting with Saturday’s home opener against Chattanooga.
“Growing up, I came to these games,” said Moore, who has gone from walk-on to one of two seniors voted to wear No. 18 this season, along with defensive end Christian LaCouture. “I’d come and elbow through to the guardrail so I could see the players walking down. I knew everyone from the media guide. I knew their names and their faces.
“Now that I have the privilege of being part of that tradition and walking down the hill, I never take it for granted, because I know how special it is. So I don’t try to zone out the crowd. How many other times in your life are you going to get to enjoy being part of something people are such great fans of and something I was such a fan of growing up?”
Growing up in Indiana, quarterback Danny Etling knew of LSU football, but not much of its traditions like the stadium walk. It didn’t take the former Purdue transfer being on campus very long before he grew to embrace them. With the end of his college career coming into view over the horizon, you could say he’s almost clinging to them.
“That’s one of the cool things about college football — the traditions that go with it,” Etling said. “I’m going to make the most out of it, because it’s my last season in college and I get to play for a university that has so much tradition and passion.”
It’s a fine line between trying to be personable for the fans on the march to the stadium and being locked in for the game once there. But when he was a boy, Etling once got Peyton Manning to sign a helmet for him when the Indianapolis Colts were training in his native Terre Haute. So he knows what one bit of eye contact or a high-five from LSU’s quarterback could mean to a young fan.
“Maybe one day they’ll think, ‘I got a nod from Danny Etling,’ and maybe that’ll spark their passion for football,” he said. “That would be awesome.”
When he became interim coach last year, Ed Orgeron decided he wanted to add another layer to LSU’s pregame spectacle. He began inviting former players to lead the team down the hill to the stadium, players like Kevin Faulk, Tommy Casanova, Ryan Clark, Tyrann Mathieu and Odell Beckham Jr.
“Just being around those guys, I think, gives us all motivation,” Coach O said. “It’s a sense of family. When I was at Miami, (former players) were always there. When I was at USC, Marcus Allen was at my side. Our guys love having them around.”
Having people around is a big part of LSU football, a symbiotic relationship between passionate players and passionate fans. Moore misses the crowd when LSU has preseason scrimmages in an empty Tiger Stadium. It’s a significant missing piece.
“When it’s finally the first game of the season and there’s actually fans there, that’s how it’s meant to be,” he said.