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PRO FOOTBALL'S MOST PASSIONATE FANSProfiles of Fans Honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Visa Hall of Fans Award
By HARVEY "MR. STEELER" ARONSON
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Harvey "Mr. Steeler" Aronson
All right reserved.
Chapter One1998 HONOREES
San Francisco 49ers
Lido Starelli-San Francisco 49ers (Lido's original Visa essay)
Dreams Come True
When the war ended, all my dreams came true. The 49ers were born. My beloved Niners were included in a new league – the All-America Football Conference. Other teams were the Cleveland Browns, New York Yankees, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Rockets, Brooklyn Dodgers, Los Angeles Dons, and Miami Seahawks. If you thought the first Seahawks were in Seattle, you have forgotten Miami's 1946 team which was replaced by the Baltimore Colts the next year. Can you understand how much that little 25 cent program meant to me? Not only did I get to see all those stars in person, but I could take that little program home with me, look through it at any time and revel in my dreams and fantasies about the stars and teams I had seen. You Easterners had enjoyed pro football forever; for a San Franciscan like me, pro football was born September 7, 1946, when the Niners took on the Chicago Rockets. After four years, the AAFC folded, but three of its teams were incorporated into the league: Cleveland, Baltimore, and my 49ers. Every star of pro football was now playing in front of me. Can you blame me for going gaga?
A Son's Suggestion
Time marches on. By the early seventies, my son – born just eighteen days after the Niners' first game in 1946 was now a young man with a son of his own. I offered him boxes full of 49er programs – every game I had seen (and I'd only missed one home game in 1959 when my father died). "Dad," he responded, "why don't you try getting all the away game programs? Then you would really have something to crow about. Do you know what you have in those boxes? You have something that practically no one else has."
I asked him how in hell you go about doing that. As he was into memorabilia collecting at that time, he directed me into the intricacies of collecting. First on the list was the direct ordering of present and future programs from opponents on their schedule. That way I was assured I wouldn't miss any contemporary or future editions. As for the back-dated programs starting in 1946, that was a different matter. We began advertising in newspapers all over the country where the Packers had played their games. We also advertised in various collectors' journals. The effect was mild; I picked up a few programs here and there.
Then we hit the jackpot! We received a call from a retired local publisher who formerly had been one of the country's largest football program publishers. He had this old warehouse and shop that had been closed for years, and he invited us to browse and help ourselves to anything we wanted. Can you imagine how those English archeologists felt when they discovered and opened King Tut's tomb? Well, just imagine when we walked into this storeroom of ageless football memorabilia. There were hundreds of college programs, posters, window display schedules, media guides, and original paintings for program covers. Among all these ageless treasures was the biggest nugget of them all. Six bound books containing every program, home and away, of every team in the defunct AAFC. Can you believe that? We were in shock. Then while rummaging through some other treasures, we came across some boxes of 49er programs. Although mostly home games that I already had, among them were a bunch of away game programs I needed. After a couple days of working my way through that warehouse, I needed only about 20 programs to complete my collection.
Count Down from Ten
Time, perseverance, heartaches, and some jubilation – ten years later, I needed only ten more programs. It was 1984 and the 49ers were at their zenith in popularity. They were headed for Super Bowl XIX against Miami. The bay area was a hotbed of Niner mania. Interest was at a fantastic peak. That's when a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner decided to do a story on some old fogie who claimed he had nearly every Niner program and other memorabilia, and who had missed only one game since the team's inception. When he came over for our interview, he seemed skeptical until he asked me to show and tell. Needless to say, he became mesmerized when he saw that my collection of programs were bound year by year with black and gold for home games and red and gold for away. All the original paintings were framed and hung. About a week later, the newspaper printed my story with a big picture of me on the front page with a caption describing me as old faithful. The following week, TV station KPIX did a five minute segment on their nightly six o'clock news. Not to be outdone, another station's "Evening Magazine" devoted fifteen minutes to my collection the next week. They brought me to the Niners practice field and filmed me meeting my heroes. At the end of the program, they broadcast the number of programs needed and the dates. You can imagine the furor. People from all over the bay area called. They were encouraging and some of them donated 49er artifacts and some of the programs needed. The retired team doctor called and invited me to pick through some things he had. It turned out he had about five of the needed programs plus many medical record books, rule books, and injury statistics. When all the hoopla was finally over, I needed only four more programs. Now the pressure began; so near, yet so far.
The Traveling Trunk
Five years later in 1989 the Niners were again headed for a Super Bowl. Number XXIII. That's when it happened all over again. One morning I read an article in the newspaper by one of our leading columnists. At the very bottom of his article, he had inserted a short paragraph stating that Lido Starelli, the 49er memorabilia collector, needed only four programs. He listed their months and years and added my phone number. I no sooner shouted the good news to my wife who was cooking breakfast, when the telephone rang. It was a woman who asked if I was the man mentioned in the article. I assured her I was. She told me she had the program from the Pittsburgh-49er exhibition game played in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1951. I almost fainted. I began offering her money, but she said, no, it was mine to add to my collection. Then she scared me out of my wits. She said, "If I've still got it, it's yours." Still got it? She told me to hang up and that she would call me right back. Fifteen anguished minutes later, she called again. "I've got it! I've got it!" she shouted. "It's yours." After things came back to normal, I asked her how she came to acquire this book. "In 1950," she said, "I married an air force officer. We were stationed in Phoenix. With nothing else to do in town, we decided to go to a football game that was being played in some small stadium. The game was an exhibition between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and we couldn't have cared less about either team. We just had nothing else to do that evening." Upon returning home that night, she threw the little two-bit program into their trunk. That trunk went to Korea, Viet Nam, England, Germany, back to Texas, and finally to Dixon, California, where one morning 38 years later a short paragraph at the end of an article awakened her happy memories of a long ago past.
The article brought more responses from other collectors. I was able to trade for two more of the programs I needed. Finally, in 1991, I was able to acquire the last one. So many people contributed – so many unselfish people and a few who tried to hold me up. I have boxes and boxes of correspondence which I treasure. They represent 47 years of pleasure and love. I've made outstanding friends. And my quest produced my association with PFRA. I want to thank everyone who helped, including the teams who put up with my requests ten times a year. Of course, I can't leave the 49er organization out. They have never failed to help me when I asked. My collection consists of every program of every regular season or exhibition game, home or away, the Niners every played, every media guide ever printed in their behalf, and original paintings of the program covers for San Francisco's first two years in the league (1950-51). Believe it or not, I even have every Christmas card they have sent since 1946. Additionally, I have programs for every AAFC game. I've recently built a beautiful room to house and show my fantastic collection. When I enter this inner sanctum, I feel that I am surrounded by a multitude of golden memories – memories that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Someday, it will belong to my wonderful son who many years ago gave me the inspiration to begin.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Russ "The Sign Man" Barner (as told by wife, Kathy Barner)
Russ said many times: "I loved the Buccaneers from the instant Tampa Bay was awarded the franchise. I was one of the first fans standing at the fence throwing my money over for season tickets. 0-26 became a distant memory when we came within one game of going to the Super Bowl just a few years later, going from worst-to-first in our division (I still believe that call was bogus when we scored the touchdown and they called it back). That year it was amazing when the hostages were asked what they wanted to know about America they asked. "How are the Bucs doing?" Football brings people together as we forget about our problems and become the 12th man. Being a fan is a privilege not a right. Everyone should have a team but as for me and my house we will forever be Buccaneers!"
In 1988 when Russ and I met up again (we had grown up together and had known each other since we were eight years old each marrying and going a different direction), he asked me to marry him but with one condition ... that I become a Bucs fan. I laughed and said my condition is that you become an Alabama fan and for 21 years we had a blast enjoying our teams. Back in the late 1980's and early 90's we could go and cheer for our team as they got on the bus for away games. We could actually talk to them encouraging them. Russ chose to encourage them with hand written signs that he would think about and plan for the entire week. They had to be just right. One of my favorites was "Yea though I walk through the tunnel of Lambeau field I will Fear NO PACKER." I have a stack of those signs that are three feet high. Sam Wyche called us crazy because we were there to welcome them home, win or lose, and many times it was in the wee hours of the morning and Russ might just go straight to work and sleep on his chiropractic table until his first patient arrived.
The Bucs gave Russ his nickname. We only found out about it when I saw Lovie Smith, who was then our linebacker coach, at the airport. He said, "How's Signman" I looked shocked and he said you know that's what the team calls him. He said, "I believe it was Hardy Nickerson that started it and he will NOT let the defensive bus leave the parking lot until they had read his sign. WOW you could have knocked Russ over with a feather when I told him. One time the bus was pulling out when we arrived because the office had given us an incorrect time. Russ was SO upset he wrote a letter to the team saying, "No excuses (that was Dungy's motto) I was late and I will never let it happen again." He received a call from the organization asking us to come to one of their practices. We were shown his letter attached to the bulletin board. Another honor. We also found out that coming back from the airport the topic of conversation, especially when it was really late, was is Signman going to be there. Yes, when the Raiders beat us 42-0, we were the only two standing there to greet them at 4:30 am.
For one pre-season game, we were in London with my business and he got someone to hold up a sign that read, "Signman is away on family business." The next game many of the players ask if everything was all right. Derrick Brooks being one of them, explained it was a trip to London and said "I sent a replacement." Derrick looked him in the eye and said, "Replacements don't cut it." Russ loved that. Their all-time favorite sign was the year we had to win the last game of the season and another team had to loose to make the playoffs. His sign read, "The Fat Lady AIN'T Sung Yet, I've Got Her BAGGED & TAGGED In The Truck of My Car."
The Visa Hall of Fans Award was an honor he felt humbled and very proud of. He didn't even know there was a contest until someone called the house and asked him to fill out a form, which he felt if the Bucs wanted him to do that he would. He said many times it was an honor to go in with so many icons, like Arrowman, Packalope, Barrel Man, Bearman, Boss Hogette, to name a few. He used to say, When the Bucs win the Super Bowl, I can die a happy man! They did! I carried a sign to the stadium that read, "Signman left for Heaven-June 19, 2009." On the flip side it read: "Calling first downs from my seat upgrade."
Buffalo Bills Arthur "Archie" Diemer
If anyone knows the history of the Buffalo Bills, that would be Archie Diemer, Visa Hall of Fans Award recipient for the Bills in 1998. Having passed away on September 1, 2001, Diemer passed away at the age of 81 and took with him some amazing memories of his favorite team. Diemer was known to be Buffalo's first-ever season ticket holder and hails from Buffalo. For 42 years he worked as an accountant for Bennett Manufacturing.
The year was 1960 when Diemer purchased that first season ticket to see the Bills and the fact that he was at the head of the line that day drew local newspaper attention. He once said, "I think tickets were about $5 a game back then. A far cry from today, wouldn't you say?" Diemer was also a member of the "Bills Boosters" and the "Monday Quarterback Club." He can add honoree at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to his resume.
Jacksonville Jaguars Shirley "Granny Jaguar" Ross Harman
Shirley's husband George, and Granny Jaguar had been Jaguar season ticket holders beginning in 1995, the team's first season. Shirley's nomination to be the Jaguar's Visa's fan of the year in 1998 was a complete surprise. She entered the VISA fan contest at the suggestion of the team mascot, Jaxson de Ville, with whom she had become friends. On special occasions he would invite her to join him on the playing field in my power wheel chair to lead cheers from the north end zone just prior to kick-off.
Because of serious surgery in December 1998 Shirley was unable to attend the installation ceremony of the Visa class held in January 1999. By May, she was well enough to make the trip to Canton with George. The Pro Football Hall of Fame manager was kind enough to allow her free admittance, but George had to pay to enter the exhibits. Shirley was thrilled at seeing her Visa plaque among those other fans selected from their teams. Her only wish was that she could have been present with ALL the fans in January.
The Harman's continued as loyal Jaguar fans through the ensuing years. Unfortunately, Shirley's health had slowly deteriorated over that period. In addition to having "Post Polio Syndrome" which affected her limbs and breathing, she was also a survivor of "Small Cell Lung Cancer" which required both chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
In her final years of life, Shirley Harman because of declining health and weather conditions, forced her to stay at home to watch the Jaguars on television. In January 2011, Shirley Harman was hospitalized with pneumonia. That was followed by a rehabilitation stay at an assisted living facility where she remained until her passing. In June 2011, George and Shirley entered their 60th year of marriage. Sadly, she passed in July 2011.
Atlanta Falcons Barbara Sanders
Barbara Sanders became an Atlanta Falcons season ticket holder in 1975. That was just the beginning of her involvement with the team. She had been President of the Falcon Birdwatchers. She was named the winner of the Visa Hall of Fans Award for her Falcons on December 24, 2000, in front of her hometown fans at the Georgia Dome during pre-game ceremonies. Barbara also was at the 1998 NFC championship game which the Falcons won and then she traveled to Miami to watch Super Bowl XXXIII in person. At home Barbara had her entire basement dressed up in Atlanta Falcons' memorabilia. When the Falcons were going through losing seasons, Barbara was quoted as saying: "In the past, when we'd play New Orleans, it seems like there were as many Saints' fans there as Falcons' fans. Those New Orleans people know how to holler. Our people are still learning." Even retiring for the evening meant that Barbara Sanders would say goodnight sporting Falcon red pajamas.
Sadly, Barbara passed away on October 27, 2007, and her family held her funeral on Halloween a few days later.
Excerpted from PRO FOOTBALL'S MOST PASSIONATE FANS by HARVEY "MR. STEELER" ARONSON Copyright © 2012 by Harvey "Mr. Steeler" Aronson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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