One game at a time.
Tommy Ray says it’s his motto, but at this point it’s obviously more than that. This week he’s looking forward to seeing the Alabama football team host Arkansas, just like last week his goal was simply to be at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Third Saturday in October rivalry.
It won’t be just any game for him, though.
When Ray goes through the turnstiles it’ll be for the 600 consecutive time, home or away – a streak that makes Alabama’s string of 88 straight wins against unranked opponents seem like child’s play.
To put that intro some perspective, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant only had 323 career victories, 232 at Alabama.
Ray saw a lot of them, 158 to be exact.
He’s been to every Crimson Tide game since the 1972 season opener. The list includes 24 states (including Hawaii), 54 stadiums and against 86 opponents. At some point he added those all up, along with the 481 wins, 141 losses and four ties (for a wining percent of 77), even though the tally will never be why he goes.
“I’m really not a numbers freak,” the 71-year-old said. “I just want to go to one more game.
“I’m totally serious about that.”
Ray isn’t your typical super-fan, if you will. He doesn’t paint his face, or even decorate his car with streamers. He was raised in Huntsville, went to UAH and now works in the City of Huntsville Engineering Department.
For the most part, his fandom comes with quiet dignity.
“He's as far away from Harvey Updike as I am from Brad Pitt,” said former Huntsville Times columnist Mark McCarter, who has gotten to know Ray over the years.
It began at an early age. With Alabama only on television maybe a couple times a year, Ray would listen to Maury Farrell’s broadcasts on the radio and imagine the scene and action.
He was 15 when the first opportunity to see it in person occurred, courtesy of his brother-in-law, Kenneth “Chigger” McCrary. Ray initially thought a joke was being played on him. Even when sitting in the wooden bleachers in the north end zone of then-Denny Stadium he kept thinking an usher or security guard would come along and throw them out.
Ray still describes the experience as a dream come true.
“Every time I go into that stadium and I feel that atmosphere, it’s just like that first game in 1963,” he said. “I walked in and Joe Namath was standing right in front of me. It was quite an awakening.”
Sort of like a quarterback or coach — and he’s met quite a few over the years — Ray can describe numerous plays from that initial 20-19 homecoming victory over Mississippi State.
He saw Alabama play 25 more times before the streak finally started on Sept. 9, 1972, with a victory over Duke at Legion Field in Birmingham. He simply just kept going.
“It’s not my life,” he said. The Lord has blessed me tremendously with health, wherewithal and all that. It’s just something that we enjoy.”
It hasn’t been cheap, though, and maybe the most remarkable thing about Ray’s streak is that he’s never been a season-ticket holder.
When Alabama started Tide Pride, he couldn’t afford it. The seats initially available to him weren’t ideal, nor the opponents. For the first 30 years or so he simply purchased tickets on the street. By doing so he started to get to know the various scalpers and brokers, and friends have helped along the way. Consequently, he regularly lands premium seats for he and his wife Sarah at a decent price.
But not always. By the time Nick Saban came around in 2007 he was thankfully in a better situation financially, with the national championships hitting his bank account the hardest.
The 2009 title game against Texas in the Rose Bowl cost him $1,200 per seat. The 2011 game in LSU’s back yard of New Orleans was the most expensive at $1,700. A year later, Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl was comparable at $1,600.
Regardless of the cost, to him the decision about whether to go was as automatic as “Should I have breakfast?” is to most people. If Alabama’s playing, he’s there.
“It’s really not a financial question,” he said.
Ray’s had some close calls, though.
On one, he was doing some contract work as a surveyor in North Carolina when the crew didn’t finish on time. He hadn’t brought any extra money with him so needed both a wire transfer and for his wife to drive his car to Atlanta. He flew in first thing in the morning, drove straight home, took a shower and then headed to Tuscaloosa.
It was the 1975 game against Washington, when Alabama honored the surviving members of the 1925 team that won the program’s first national championship at the Rose Bowl (some former Huskies made the trip as well). The Crimson Tide won, 52-0.
Ray almost missed the 1983 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, when he didn’t realize the time-zone changes meant an earlier kickoff against SMU – when thanks to an assertive shuttle driver he walked in as the kickoff sailed into the air.
“That was a close one,” Ray said.
The 2000 Orange Bowl brought a different problem. Before heading to Miami, Ray inhaled some paint fumes when working on his van. The closer he got to seeing Alabama vs. Michigan, the sicker he became.
“When we finally made it home two days after the game I drove myself to the doctor and he immediately put me in the hospital on IVs and respiratory therapy for four days,” Ray said. “I apparently got chemical pneumonia.
“Afterwards I don’t know if I was sick from the inhaling or missing an extra point in double overtime. One in the same, I guess.”
The game that really got him, though, was the 1973 national championship loss to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23.
“I’ll never have a game affect me the way that one did,” he said. “It was very tough.”
Alabama exorcising that demon to win the 2012 title, along with the Texas win at the Rose Bowl stand out among wins he’ll never forget. Ironically, he’ll get to relive that one a little on Saturday as Alabama will honor the 2009 team as part of this year’s homecoming celebration.
But when asked if he has a favorite game, Ray has a simple, and somewhat very predictable answer:
“The next one,” he said.