Photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

A chance run-in with an NFL hero is a story destined to be passed down for generations. From getting tips from a Hall of Fame QB on how to build a snow fort to chasing down a three-time Super Bowl winner with his hands full at the Miami airport, fans told us their best yarns about their brush with greatness

October 08, 2015

The MMQB asked readers to send us stories of their unlikely interactions with NFL heroes. We received many great submissions and wish we could print them all; thanks for all the responses. Here are a few of our favorites.

“Hi, I’m Dan”

I am a lifelong Dol-fan, and I was about 10 when Dan Marino took the reins from David Woodley. I was skeptical at first, but he soon became my favorite player, and as is the case with most Dol-fans, he remains my favorite player of all time.

A couple years after Marino retired, the Jay Fiedler-led Dolphins had a home playoff game against the Ravens. I was in my late 20s then and still trying to get my little brother into football, so I brought him to Miami for the game. It had become an annual tradition, starting with Marino’s last home game as a Dolphin (a Monday Night loss vs. the Jets). The Saturday night before the game, we were strolling down Washington Ave. in South Beach. All was quiet—the clubs in Miami don’t start rockin’ until 10 or 11 p.m., so we were just killing time. As we approached a parked limo on the side of the street, we saw a guy leaning against it all by himself. I said to my brother, “How crazy would that be if that guy was Dan Marino?”

“Yep, that would be pretty crazy,” he replied.

As we got closer, my brother said, “Ummm, that kinda looks like Dan Marino.” I didn’t have my glasses on, so my vision wasn’t great.

I said, “C’mon man, you wouldn’t even recognize him if he came up and introduced himself. I can’t believe after all my years of trying, you don’t even know what Dan Marino looks like.”

We got a few steps closer. It was Dan Marino. Leaning against a limo, all by himself. We were the only three people on that quiet street. As we approached, he looked at us and watched my jaw drop. Realizing he had been spotted, he calmly walked up to us with a smile, shook our hands, and said, “Hi, I’m Dan.”

I stammered through something like, “This is my brother. His name is Dan, too. You were the greatest quarterback who ever played the game.”

He looked genuinely appreciative and said something like, “Hey, thanks man.”

Within seconds a group of people led by a professional-looking woman with a clipboard came out of a nearby establishment, said they were ready and whisked him away. As he departed, he looked back over his shoulder and waved to us, almost looking like he felt sorry for me for acting like such a moron in the presence of such perceived greatness.

So that was my Chris Farley slap-myself-on-the-forehead-calling-myself-an-idiot moment with Dan Marino. No smart phone cameras or videos back then. I’m kinda glad.

—Rick Hinshaw, 42, Gaithersburg, Md.

“Here you go, kid”

One summer, when I was about 7, I spent a day at Eagles training camp. Back in 1992, camp was held at West Chester University, about a 40 minute drive from my house north of Philadelphia. My dad and I left early, hoping to get a prime spot as close as possible to the sideline.

I brought along a black sharpie and an Eagles Zubaz hat. I was going to get a lot of autographs. Looking back, a Zubaz hat was an incredibly stupid choice (not just for the size of the signing area, but for the fashion sense). How would I be able to tell the signatures apart? How would I tell the difference between the Andre Waters signature and the Andy Harmon one? I mean, there was no way the entire team wouldn’t stop by to sign for me, right? There was no way this hat would be able to hold all these signatures.

It was about this time in my life that I really started to follow the Eagles. Reggie White, Mark McMillian, Keith Byars ... these guys were gods to me. But there was one player I loved above all others: Randall Cunningham. He was tall, fast and could throw the ball a mile. He had a cool flat-top haircut and would jump OVER defenders when he was scrambling. I was saving prime space for him, right above the Eagles logo in the center of the hat.

We sat and watched morning practice, right up against the rope line that led from the field to the locker room. As the session ended, players started up the hill toward the building. I got my sharpie ready. I had the hat in one hand and the pen (uncapped for extra convenience) in the other. And then...

Nobody stopped. Not one player. Not Reggie, Mark, or Keith. Even Vai Sikahema didn’t stop to sign my damn hat! What was wrong with these people? Then I realized that Randall hadn’t made it up the hill yet. He was still talking with Rich Kotite. He started towards us.

“Randall! Randall!” Not even a glimpse at me. “Randall! Sign my hat, please!” I would definitely have used the word please. I was a very courteous child.

I was crushed. It was probably hard for him to hear me over the hundred other people yelling his name, but still, he was MY favorite player. He had to have known this. I turned to my dad. “Why didn’t he sign?” I asked. Before he could answer, I heard a voice.

“Here you go, kid. Thanks for coming.”

I turned, and standing before me was the largest man I had ever seen. I didn’t know this player. He was wearing number 34 and was handing me a pair of gloves. Running back gloves. With a signature on them. “See you later,” he said, shaking my hand.

I learned later that Herschel Walker was a new Eagle, having signed as a free agent earlier that summer. Just like that, I had a new favorite player.

Photo: Phil Huber for Sports Illustrated

As we drove home from camp that day, I couldn’t stop looking at the gloves. How could someone’s hands get so big? Didn’t he need these for the games? Was he going to get another pair? This was like giving me part of his uniform. I hope he didn’t get in trouble with Kotite.

Twenty-plus years later, I realize that players give their gloves, towels, cleats, headbands, etc. to kids all the time. I like to think, though, that Herschel singled me out because he saw how upset I was. I like to think he wanted to make my day. He took a few seconds to stop and interact with a young fan, shake his hand, and thank him for coming to watch him play. I’m sure this happens today too, but as a seven-year-old kid, having a professional athlete stop and talk—it meant everything to me.

—Tommy Loughner, 30, Englewood, N.J.

“That’s awesome, buddy!”

One February night in 2012, my rec league team went out for a bar crawl in Nashville. We were on our fifth or sixth stop of the night, and we were outside on a closed patio having a drink before moving on to the next place. My buddies and I noticed a bunch of people hovering around one person, and then one friend asks me, “Dude, is that Junior Seau?” I’ve been a Patriots fan since the early ’90s, so he was easy to recognize, even with a hat on.

About a half-dozen of the guys and girls on our team knew who he was, but we didn’t want to bother him by going up and acting like Wayne and Garth meeting Aerosmith. As luck would have it, though, we wound up standing next to one of his friends at the bar, and after we asked if that was actually Junior, his friend told us, “You guys should go talk to him. He loves meeting people.”

So we walked up and introduced ourselves. Junior was by far the nicest guy you could possibly imagine. He seemed like he was having a blast, took some pictures with people on our team, and had a bigger smile than any of us in the pictures when I saw them the next day. And of course, even after he knew our names, he called us all “Buddy.” After someone said we’ve all watched him his whole career, he said, “That’s awesome, buddy!” Of course, I had to send the “You’ll never guess who I just met!" text to all my friends up in Connecticut and rub it in.

A couple of months later, Seau was gone, and it was like a gut punch, but that’s the Junior Seau moment I’ll never forget. He was a beast on the field, but that night he was just a guy out on the town having a good time meeting some fans from back in the day. Thanks, buddy.

—Matthew Rewinski, 30, Nashville

Photo courtesy Matthew Rewinski

The man in the gold Corvette

Shortly after moving to our new house in Orchard Park, N.Y., we heard rumors that an NFL player was moving in down the road. Most sightings of this larger-than-life personality were through the windows of his gold Corvette Stingray as he passed our house in the afternoon, so my first actual encounter with him after all that build-up is something I will never forget.

It was a winter afternoon, and I was 10 years old. Like most winter afternoons in Orchard Park, the roads were covered with snow, and there was very little traffic. My friends and I were using a snowdrift to build a snow fort when we saw someone coming up the road on a snowmobile. We were not known to make the best of decisions at that age, and this one was not far from the top of that list. We all decided that when the man on the snowmobile passed us, we would pelt him with snowballs. We were not sure if he was on to our devious plan, or if he was going to stop anyway, but the snowmobile came to a stop in front of our fort. He took his helmet off, and it was then that we realized we were about to talk to Jim Kelly. He pulled over to offer some advice to us about making snow forts, adding snow to the top to make sure you always had structure to avoid a collapse, etc.

Photo: Mark Duncan/AP

After imparting that wisdom, he asked if we’d like to go for a snowmobile ride. One by one he took each of us around the neighborhood. (I think I may have ripped the pocket on his jacket trying not to fall off the back.) When everyone had a turn he asked if we wanted an autograph. Of course, we all said yes, and he went back to his house to return with a personalized autographed head shot for each of us. He even stayed long enough for me to get my K-Gun poster signed.

To this day that is one of my favorite memories. When I was older I babysat many of the kids who lived around his house, and it was not uncommon for him to come out and throw the football with us. I think very famous people live up to the aura that surrounds them, but Jim Kelly surpasses everything that we had ever thought about him.

—Stephen Fintak, 36, Atlanta

“Who gives this bride in marriage?”

I’m an ordained minister and licensed to solemnize marriages in Ohio, so when this past spring a former student of my wife’s put a query out on Facebook for an officiant for his June wedding, she volunteered me for the job. Once I accepted the role, I found out her student was engaged to former Bengals running back Pete Johnson’s daughter! My wife hadn’t heard of Johnson but had heard of his more-famous Buckeye and Bengals teammate, Archie Griffin.

I can’t say that Pete Johnson was my NFL idol, but I liked him as a player. He and I both attended Ohio State, the Bengals are my team, and they were really good under Forrest Gregg when Johnson played. They went to the Super Bowl during that time after beating San Diego at home in the famous Freezer Bowl game.

I met Pete Johnson the day of the rehearsal, and the next evening I asked him, “Who gives this bride in marriage?” “My wife and I!” he exclaimed. At the reception the fanboy in me enjoyed chatting with Johnson (and Griffin), and getting a picture I’ll always value.

— Mark Youngkin, 55, Pickerington, Ohio

Photo courtesy Mark Youngkin

“Dude, be that guy!”

February 19, 2006, a little over a month after the Patriots had their season come to an end in Denver (you might remember Champ Bailey’s 101-yard interception return), I was waiting in the Miami airport for a flight back to Raleigh-Durham with the women’s basketball team for Campbell University. (I was a junior there, from southern Vermont, and the team's play-by-play broadcaster.) At our gate, a flight from Boston landed. Being from southern Vermont, I took a look at the passengers coming off the plane, and sure enough, many were adorned Patriots and Sox and Celtics and Bruins gear.

I happen to notice one man who wasn’t; he was wearing a long brown coat and a winter hat and had two kids walking excitedly next to him. As they turned the corner to leave our gate, I saw who the guy was: Tom Brady, or as many people on the flight might say, “Dood, Tawm friggin’ Brady!” Stunned, I sat up to approach him but then I said to myself, Nah, don’t bug ’em. Don’t be that guy. And then I slapped myself and said, “NO, DUDE, BE THAT GUY—IT’S TAWM FRIGGIN’ BRADY!" I threw down my CD player (it’s 2006, remember), didn’t care if anyone watched my stuff, and chased him down the long airport corridor.

As I got near, I said, “Excuse me, sir?” and he just kept walking. So, I said again, “Excuse me, are you Tom Brady?” and tapped him on his golden right arm to make sure he knew I was speaking to him. He half-turned back to me and said, “Yep, how ya doin’, man?" and I said, “Good—can I just shake your hand?” To which he looked down at his left hand holding the handle to his rolling carry-on luggage and his right hand holding his cell phone and plane ticket, and said, “Sorry man, I got no hands,” and kept walking. Knowing this could be my last chance to ever speak to a three-time (now four) Super Bowl winner and the QB of my favorite team, I blurted out, “OK, man, no problem. Hey, watch out for Champ next time—he’s good.” At that Brady chuckled, and said, “I will, man!” and went off on his way to a well-deserved vacation, or meetings, or who knows what.

Shaking with excitement, I walked back to my gate; as I did, I passed two middle-aged couples who’d been on Tom’s flight. I stopped and asked them if they realized Tom Brady was on their flight, and they all said they did and that he was very nice to those who wanted an autograph, but then put on headphones and slept. As I sat back down and knowing no one in the Miami airport would really care, I had to call my parents and, like I did here, tell them about the time I met Tawm friggin’ Brady, dood.

— Clinton Oftedahl, 31, Westminster Station, Vt.

Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

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