September 05, 2016

Here at the MMQB, we are big fans of offbeat road trips. So is Rhett Grametbauer, an NFL fan who traveled around the country in an old VW bus to see a home game for all 32 teams in one season. We asked him to share his tales from the road:

I grew up in Austin, Texas, and more than willingly embraced most every aspect of being a Texan, including being a die-hard football fan. Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Cowboys, once said football is as important to Texas as religion is to a priest. Respectfully, I think he underestimated the importance of football. When I was growing up, Texas had two pro football teams, the Oilers, and the Cowboys. I picked Dallas because the blue star on their helmets looked more like Texas to me than an oil derrick did. I also thought the Roger Staubach was cooler than Dan Pastorini.

In 2011, I was recovering from a failed attempt at earning a Ph.D. in marketing from LSU. It was not so much an issue of failure as an eye problem. After two years in the program, LSU failed to see the beauty of what I wanted to be the topic of my dissertation: the unrelenting and sometimes illogical devotion sports fans have for their teams. I argued that there are no better examples of brands than a sports team and no better brand communities than fan bases.

Rhett Grametbauer drives Grayson Berry and Hail Mary into Chicago.

But my argument didn’t persuade the professors, and I soon found myself moving back to Austin. I had failed to convince LSU of the merits of studying the loyalty of sports fans. But after countless hours of contemplation on the subject, I had more than convinced myself that this was my calling in life. Most of my family and friends thought I was crazy, but I had the insatiable desire to live the life of a fan of each team in the NFL—to make an almost anthropological study of football fans. One day at a game at every NFL stadium, and all in 16 weeks. Again, sounds crazy, but to me it sounded possible. Like climbing Mount Everest, the feat was not unprecedented; there were a few brave souls who had completed the trip before me.

Friends and family relentlessly asked me why was I doing this. What did I hope to get from going on a four-month “vacation?” There would be no dissertation or Ph.D. at the end, so what was the finished product in mind? All I knew is that I wanted to film the experience for a documentary and write an entertaining book about it all.

Hail Mary broke down several times along the 25,000 mile journey.
Courtesy Rhett Grametbauer

The outward appearance of my sanity took another turn for the worse when I decided that I needed to drive to every stadium in a 1967 Volkswagen bus.  Now that would be unprecedented. To me, there is no vehicle more symbolic of an epic road trip than a split-window VW bus. After searching for a few months I found one that seemed to have everything I was looking for and she fit within my budget. I named her Hail Mary, and drove her back from Houston to Austin with smoke coming out of the engine and the transmission popping out of fourth gear on the highway. Undeterred by the smell of smoke and gasoline, I spent 2012 preparing Hail Mary for the adventure of her life and mine.

A year later, in 2013, Hail Mary and I were both deemed to be road ready. That year was also the last year of Candlestick Park and the Metrodome, the site of so many moments, both good and bad, in Cowboys history. It only felt right that I should say goodbye to these historic stadiums in person.

I set my schedule in April. The route would take us 26,149 miles around the country. Hail Mary would have her work cut out for her. Soon after mapping out my trip, I started buying tickets in order to convince myself that this trip was actually going to happen. It might be more interesting to say that I walked off a steady job directly into the waiting arms of Hail Mary, but that isn’t how it happened. I managed to earn a decent living and save money as a freelance proposal writer. Unlike a typical desk job, my freelancing gave me freedom to take this trip.

I left Austin on Sept. 3 for the first game in Denver with my friend Grayson Berry and our cameraman, Eric Carpenter. The three of us weren’t sure what to expect; we just knew that to make this happen I had to take the first step—backing out of my driveway. I had ideas of what each stadium would be like based on 35-plus years of almost exclusively watching games on TV. We tried to blend in and wear team colors for each stadium we visited, but it didn't always work out since our wardrobes were limited to what we could fit into one bag.

We has so many unique experiences, from seeing Peyton Manning throw seven touchdowns opening night to shivering in the single-digit wind chill in Foxboro, the coldest home game in New England in the last 20 years. But the two NFL cities and fan bases that stood out to me were Cleveland and Buffalo. When I experienced a game at those places, it not only changed my view of those cities, but may have changed my life.

Pumpkinhead commands his tailgate in Cleveland.
Courtesy Rhett Grametbauer

Cleveland is a team mired in a losing streak as long as Hail Mary has been on Earth. National media and fans of other teams scoff at the possibility that the Browns will ever play in a Super Bowl. These people have obviously never spent a considerable amount of time around the Browns organization or the fans of the team.

We were invited to the Browns’ facility in Berea and to spend game day with superfan Pumpkinhead and his nation behind Barley House in the Warehouse District. The Browns facility exuded the confidence of a five-time Super Bowl champion. From the motivational quotes on the wall to the feverish buzz of game-day energy prevalent throughout the complex, the excitement for Browns football was palpable. We were given a tour of the facility by the head of the team’s fan club organization, the Browns Backers. With a fan club on every continent, Cleveland truly has a worldwide fan base, something that few other teams in the NFL can say.

After our time at the Browns facility, we made our way to be part of Pumpkin Nation. The headquarters for the pregame festivities is an average RV parked on the side of the Barley House. However, what goes on in the parking lot before Browns games is anything but average. On a Thursday in mid-October, the lot began to fill up six hours or more before kickoff. The fans brought an excitement and a sense of optimism that is distinctively Cleveland Browns. We were invited to stand on top of the RV and take everything in. The feeling was indescribable as the crowd roared with life. Standing before hundreds of cheering fans, I could only imagine that it was the same feeling a musician gets when performing on stage. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I will never see the Cleveland Browns in the same way. I know this team will win a Super Bowl.

Rhett and friend Grayson hang out with Rocky the leprechaun in Denver.
Courtesy Rhett Grametbauer

My experience in Buffalo was just as crazy. We arrived and stayed the night in Hammer’s Lot, which is across the street from Ralph Wilson Stadium. Super fans Hammer and Ketchup Kenny are institutions at Bills games. Hammer greeted us with open arms and provided everything we could have asked for, including authentic Buffalo wings.

Ketchup Kenny is also known as Pinto Ron because he cooks on top of an old dilapidated red Ford Pinto. Bacon is cooked on top of a saw, an Army helmet is the bowl for stir-fry, and a bowling ball serves as a shot glass. At some point during the tailgate, the fans demand that Ketchup Kenny make an appearance. Slowly, the chant of “ketchup, ketchup” begins, building, until the fan we knew as Pinto Ron emerges from the crowd. He is immediately and willingly doused with ketchup, poured down from countless fans armed with an endless supply of the condiment. Ketchup Kenny then happily poses for pictures with fans in Hammer’s Lot. Count me as one of the crowd that snapped a picture with a ketchup-covered Kenny.

What the Bills mean to the people of Buffalo is indescribable. There is something admirable and almost noble about the relationship the Bills fans have with their team. All of the theatrics and tangible friendships I made around a Bills tailgate in Hammer’s Lot made for an oddly wonderful experience of football euphoria and something every football fan should experience. 

Hail Mary is unequivocally the best money I have ever spent, and this trip was my life’s greatest adventure thanks to her. I can honestly say I have regulated my imagination with reality and will never see the world of the NFL in the same way. Having lived this experience, I would implore you to have the courage to breathe life into your dreams.

Interested in trying your hand at a trip like mine someday? Here’s the full schedule we followed:

Sept. 5 Ravens at Broncos
Sept. 8 Packers at 49ers
Sept. 9 Texans at Chargers
Sept. 15 Titans at Texans
Sept. 19 Chiefs at Eagles
Sept. 22 Bears at Steelers
Sept. 26 49ers at Rams
Sept. 29 Giants at Chiefs
Oct. 3 Bills at Browns
Oct. 6 Patriots at Bengals
Oct.10 Giants at Bears
Oct.13 Bengals at Bills
Oct. 20 Patriots at Jets
Oct. 21 Vikings at Giants
Oct. 24 Panthers at Buccaneers
Oct. 27 Bills at Saints
Oct. 31 Bengals at Dolphins
Nov. 3 Vikings at Cowboys
Nov. 4 Bears at Packers
Nov. 7 Redskins at Vikings
Nov. 10 Bengals at Ravens
Nov. 14 Colts at Titans
Nov. 17 Cardinals at Jaguars
Nov. 18 Patriots at Panthers
Nov. 21 Saints at Falcons
Nov. 24 Broncos at Patriots
Nov. 25 49ers at Redskins
Nov. 28 Packers at Lions
Dec. 1 Titans at Colts
Dec. 8 Rams at Cardinals
Dec. 15 Chiefs at Raiders
Dec. 22 Cardinals at Seahawks

25,000 Miles to Glory, the documentary of Grametbauer’s trip across the league, is available to watch on iTunes and Google Play.


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