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Fan days are unforgettable for young, old

By By Stan Torgerson / sports columnist
Aug. 19, 2003
If you have a young boy or girl at your house here's some advice. When your favorite school, be it Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Jackson State or whichever, promotes a "Meet the Players Day" take that youngster or youngsters and give him or her or them a Saturday of your time.
I spent last Saturday watching literally thousands of starry-eyed kids and their proud and loving parents at the Ole Miss version of "Meet the Players Day," and I was both touched and impressed.
Understand, I no longer had any who fell in that category. What I did have was a granddaughter starting her freshman year, moving into her dorm room aided by a father, mother and grandmother who lugged everything from a small refrigerator to bed sheets and pillows to a laptop computer up seven floors on an elevator to make certain her future residence would be of such comfort and so home-like it would be conducive to studying for however many years it will take to learn whatever it is she elects to learn at Oxford.
Being little or no help at all for that type of work (by choice) I wandered over to the Grove as an interested observer. I've been to a few of these in my time but nothing like this one. School authorities estimated at least 5,000 men, women and children were there at the 1 p.m. start time and I wouldn't question that a bit. As the day wore on many more swelled the crowd by at least two or three thousand.
Throughout the Grove tables had been set up under small canopies. Signs directed the fans to the areas of greatest interest to them. One table was labeled "Running Backs." Another, "Offensive Linemen." A third "Defensive Backs."
Stars, that is players whose autographs were most in demand, had tables all to themselves. Wide receiver Chris Collins was one of those. There were others. But the longest line was for Eli Manning. He was situated up on the bandstand built in the Grove a few years ago, sitting side by side with Jesse Mitchell, the fine senior defensive lineman from Moss Point, all 6-1 and 277 pounds of him. Manning is listed as 6-5 and 218.
About 15 feet away on another part of the bandstand stage sat Coach David Cutcliffe. There was a barrier rope between the coach's table and that of his players so the fans couldn't go from, one to the other. If you asked the coach for an autograph you had to go down the stairs and join the Manning-Mitchell line to get theirs. Two separate trips. There was security on the stage and as a result crowd control was perfect. Tiring, but perfect.
Now I've seen some hero worship in my time but nothing like Saturday's. The line for the Manning/Mitchell autographs was at least a city block long and I am not exaggerating a bit. Rebel sports information director, Langston Rogers told me some fans would have to wait an hour and a half to move from the end of the line to the table where the two players sat. There wasn't a line that didn't have 50 to 100 fans waiting patiently but the Eli Manning/Jesse Mitchell line was by far the longest. Whatever time period it took, the fans were willing and patient.
People weren't just asking them to put their signature on a piece of paper, although there was plenty of that. The players were signing footballs, tee shirts, schedule posters, media guides, hats, everything but bare skin.
If Manning can't throw a pass in practice until the middle of this week it will have to be the aftermath of a severe case of writer's cramp.
The school had the players dressed out in their red game jerseys and they looked sharp. They may or may not be the best playing team in the SEC but they'll win the handsomest award hands down. I might add they were as understanding as the fans.
What was scheduled to be a two-hour afternoon ran two and a half and it could have gone longer except the players were exhausted. But the kids and their parents were certainly not. They went from table to table to table to collect as many signatures as was possible and those jerseys, footballs, posters, etc. are now on display in thousands of children's bedrooms tonight.
Talking with Rogers he said that enthusiasm for this year's team is at perhaps one of the highest levels in history.
I happen to be a big believer in the long term value of family relationships and memories. And as I stood up there on that stage and watched the smiling faces of the kids and the proud grins of the parents, both fathers and mothers, saw the pictures being snapped and the autographs being treasured, it gave me a real glow inside. Driving through the parking areas and later downtown on the circle where so many restaurants are located, a check of the license plates indicated people had come from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee border for this one day of being actually in touch with Ole Miss football and the young men who will play it.
This is not a Rebel phenomenon at all. I'm sure it is the same with all the schools, subject only to the individual variations they themselves devise. So if you missed it this year, make yourself a promise. Next year you'll pack up the family, visit your favorite school, and spend one of the nicest and warmest Saturdays together you've ever had.
Your kids will always remember. I promise you, you won't forget it either.