Pandemic ticket limits jeopardize Alabama super fan’s 605-game streak

Published 6:51 am Saturday, September 26, 2020

Superfan Tommy Ray has attended 605 consecutive University of Alabama football games, rolling up 48 complete seasons dating back to 1972, including away games, playoffs and bowls.

In this pandemic year, though, Ray’s streak has fallen into serious jeopardy. As of this week, with opening game Saturday, he’s found seats for just four games, out of the 10 planned for the regular season. But he’s still scrambling.

Before he kicked off that 48-year streak, the Huntsville civil engineer saw 26 Crimson Tide games prior, dating back to his first “dream” game at Homecoming 1963, for which he and his brother-in-law had to look up Tuscaloosa on a map. Walking toward what was then just Denny Stadium, Ray saw his first in-person Crimson jersey, warming up on a grass embankment near the once-open north end zone: No 12, Joe Willie Namath.

More remarkable is the fact he’s seen all 631 games despite never holding season tickets.

“Unfortunately, when I was younger, when Tide Pride came out, I didn’t have money, so I couldn’t afford it,” said Ray, who works for the city of Huntsville engineering department. The football ticket priority program launched in 1987, for the 1988 season.

Instead of securing a package of tickets before each season’s kickoff, Ray’s scrambled and hustled, made friends and connections, and as he was able, paid what was required, whether face value from a hawker waving a fistful on a street corner, or up to a four-figure market value through brokers.

Though he can’t total up all his football-related expenses over the decades, Ray does remember spending $1,700 apiece for seats to the 2011 BCS title game, when UA won its 14th National Championship over LSU, at New Orleans, and $1,500 per ticket for a game against Notre Dame.

But for 2020, Ray is struggling harder to get in the red zone. With stadium capacities reduced to a fraction of normal due to COVID-19 guidelines, seats are exceedingly scarce. With no tailgating allowed, and no paper ticketing, game day’s exterior atmosphere won’t be as noisy, either. UA street corners won’t be occupied by busy folks waving tickets overhead — “Got four!” — or walking around with fingers thrust in the air — “Need two!”

As of mid-week before this weekend’s season opener, Ray had thus far procured seats for four of this season’s 10 games: Missouri, Texas A&M, Georgia and Tennessee.

He’s still lacking, and actively seeking, seats for Ole Miss, LSU, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Auburn. His wife Sarah has a 185-game streak of her own to maintain, including every bout since coach Nick Saban came to UA.

“I’m trying to scratch out and get anything I can,” Ray said. “This year is being extremely tight.

“The last game I missed was Jan. 1, 1972, the Orange Bowl, against Nebraska. I wrote the university, trying to get a ticket. I’ve still got the letter where they turned me down.”

He’s made friends with coaches, players and numerous crimson-blooded types over the years, and even with all those connections, Ray still needs two, for each of those six games, and then, of course, for any post-season action.

If he has to, Ray said he’ll drive to each stadium and stand outside until he figures something, a task once far easier, back when tickets were still printed on paper.

“In the early years, the ’60s and ’70s, I bought them purely on the street,” Ray said. “I knew nothing about it. I just knew I wanted to go.”

But he’s learned about ticketing systems, and works through dealers, friends and whomever it takes. Money is a concern, but he’s willing to spend what it takes.

“I’ve told people before, simply, you’re either going or you ain’t going,” he said. “I save up for it, and I don’t waste a lot of money. It’s just what I want to do, and the Lord has blessed me tremendously, provided me with employment that understands.”

But his financial situation hasn’t always been as flexible.

“I was the youngest of seven in a very poor family,” Ray said. “I ended up being caretaker of my mom and dad, and had to go to school full time at (the University of Alabama in Huntsville), and worked full time during the day, to pay for mom and dad’s needs.”

He’d begun listening to Crimson Tide football on the radio in 1960, when he was 12 years old, coloring in mental pictures as broadcasters described the action.

“It was like a dream thing,” he said. “I got wrapped up in it that much.”

Then in November of 1963, his brother-in-law came home holding a pair of tickets, saying “We’re gonna go see Alabama tomorrow,” Ray recalled.

“The first thing I said is, ‘They won’t let us in. We don’t go to school there.’ I figured when we got there they’d say ‘OK, who do you know?’,” he said, laughing.

“When we got inside, every time I saw a policeman, or usher, I’d hide. I thought they were coming for me. And he kept saying, ‘No, we’ve got tickets.’

“You don’t put yourself in a dream.”

And yes, they literally had to consult a map to find their route from the Rocket City to the Druid City.

“If I could relive just one day, it would be that first game,” Ray said.

What’s now Bryant-Denny was then Denny Stadium, capacity 46,000, less than half its contemporary non-COVID 101,821. As they walked in along University Boulevard, Ray could hear crowd noise swelling, could feel the density of the atmospheric excitement. Ray coveted shakers he saw rattling the air.

“It’s crazy, but I remember thinking I’d give $100 for that, just to have an Alabama shaker,” he said, laughing.

Walking in toward what’s now the northwest corner, they saw the team loosening up on a grass embankment nearby.

“The very first person I saw was Joe Namath, running a play, warming up,” Ray said.

On entering Denny Stadium, Ray said “That’s the most people I’d ever seen in my life. It was about three levels, and it was all open. It wasn’t near as wide as it is now.

“The whole atmosphere was something I didn’t even think existed, those years I listened on the radio. Then I walked into the stadium and thought ‘Man, I’m part of a dream.’ ”

The battle that day against Mississippi State ended up 20-19, with the lead switching several times throughout. Broadway Joe not only scored the go-ahead touchdown with four minutes left to play, but also went in at linebacker, late in the game. Ray checked his memory on that years later, with other fans from that era.

“When the game was on the line, coach Bryant wanted all his best guys out there on the field,” he said, “and back then, more players worked both sides.”

Ray had no inkling then he’d be living and reliving that dream for decades to come. He’s met coaches, from the legendary Bear forward, and talked with them, gotten photos and other souvenirs. While he’s made loads of memories, and seen more than 500 Crimson Tide victories, Ray remembers every single loss vividly, another rueful trait he shares with the Bear.

“If you’d told me that first game that at some point I was going to see 605 consecutive games, I’d tell you you were nuts. You were crazy,” Ray said.

He used to shun attention drawn by his streak, but realized later it was important to share with friends.

“It’s part of the ride,” he said. “A lot of people ask how’d I do it: I just take it one game at a time.”

Ray said he’ll consider 2020 a rousing success when he walks out of the national championship game in Miami, saying “I made ’em all.”

“The biggest surprise, for most people that know me, who are well aware of this situation, they don’t understand why (UA) hasn’t been more understanding,” Ray said.

“I’m not berating the university, but it’s just amazing there’s not one ticket for a guy who’s been to every game for 48 years.

“But it’s been a great ride. I’ll keep scratching, but I put it in the hands of the Lord.”