What Would NFL Games Without Fans Mean to the Superfans?

Three superfans—Atlanta's Bird Lady, the Giants' License Plate Guy and Cleveland's Pumpkinhead—weigh in on the reality on fan-less NFL games this fall.
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Carolyn Freeman has already lost two cousins to COVID-19 and is keeping a close eye on her sister, her sister’s father and six cousins who have also come down with the disease. She received calls from two of her regular doctors warning her that she is at heightened risk and to stay indoors.

When a pandemic rips through your life, it’s often the little things that can become a salve, glimpses of familiarity. Freeman, known to Falcons regulars as Bird Lady, a Superfan whose bright red hair, feathered headdress, flapping wings and other metallic-colored accoutrements have been a fixture at games for more than two decades, has heard from former players like Mohamed Sanu and Robert Alford through social media direct message. Her network of fellow Superfans and friends remains active via text.

It keeps her laughing, which, over the course of a phone call on another Tuesday morning in this new reality, she does at the end of nearly every sentence.

“I’m crazy locked away in my nest,” she said (she refers to her home as the Bird Lady Nest; it’s painted Falcons colors). “I’m losing feathers and everything.”

Carolyn Freeman, aka Bird Lady, at her nest.

Carolyn Freeman, aka Bird Lady, at her nest.

While her non-profit is at a standstill Freeman still looks for ways to help, talking with aid organizations about ways to pitch in during the pandemic. She watches old Falcons games too, but recently caught a replay of Super Bowl LI on the local NBC affiliate and phoned a friend working at the station, chiding the program director for airing a game in which her Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots. “Who do you think in the state of Georgia wants to watch this football game?” she said.

For Freeman, football is a path back to what life was, and she’s not alone. The NFL has championed itself as a valuable distraction during a time when all other major sports have shuttered. They went ahead with free agency as planned. They will go ahead with the draft as planned. They are planning on a regular 16-game season.

One major question, recently raised by Falcons owner Arthur Blank in an interview with NBC Sports, is whether or not that season takes place in front of fans. There’s optimism coming from inside the league, as recently as Tuesday. But the longer the world remains on lockdown, the more difficult it is to imagine a scenario where, in late summer, more than 50,000 people each week in cities across the country will pile into stadiums without extraordinary safety measures in place. Staging games without fans would reroute the plans of hundreds of thousands of people, but it would also prod at the heart of a few loyalists whose identities are tied so closely to their favorite teams.

In nearly every city there is a Bird Lady. Some wear barrels or license plates. Some dress up like Darth Vader or saddle themselves with real adult-sized shoulder pads. Some can whistle louder than a jet engine and some lead signature alphabetic cheers on the jumbotron. All of them may be looking for somewhere else to go in September, when the very thing that provides much-needed escape (and a taste of local celebrity) must lock them out in order to keep going.

“I’m praying that this is not how we’re going to have to live our lives from now on,” she said. “The prospect of a season without football fans? I don’t know how that is going to work. There’s so much crap going on in the world. People need a release.”

* * *

Joe Ruback has man caves in the basement and garage of his house dedicated to the New York Giants. Game-worn cleats hang on the walls, alongside jerseys and gloves and a gigantic string of Giants-themed license plates that he wears around his neck for every home and away game. (He says he has not missed a single game since 2000, and cannot remember a time in his life when he watched a home game on television.)

Ruback, who is familiar to fans and viewers as License Plate Guy, said that, despite all the work he’s put into curating the ideal home viewing experience, the prospect of actually having to use it as intended is horrifying.

“It’s mind boggling to think that I’m actually going to use the man cave for a regular season game,” he said. “I’ve never seen a live Giants game on TV.”

Joe Ruback, aka License Plate Guy, at home.

Joe Ruback, aka License Plate Guy, at home.

As a teacher at Rising Ground in Yonkers, he still conducts physical education classes with his students over video chat and gives them bonus points for wearing Giants gear. He said that, throughout the early stages of coronavirus, he kept telling himself “not football.”

That’s when the charity softball game he puts on with former Giants safety Landon Collins had to be canceled. Then, a player’s birthday party that Ruback was invited to was postponed. He started reasoning with himself. “O.K., I can deal with training camp being closed to fans, which I definitely believe is going to happen. In my opinion, there’s no way training camp is open to fans. I can deal with that. I understand that. I support keeping everyone safe.

“So now you’re pushing forward to the season and camp is not that long. Then it’s the preseason. It’s becoming more of a reality than not. I’m hoping the NFL and the powers that be decide to push things back instead of playing without fans.”

To see Ruback on the field before games is to observe someone completely in their element. He has custom handshakes with players. He is mobbed in the parking lot and stands for pictures with his signature plates. He is, along with the Jets’ “Fireman Ed” Anzalone, one of the most recognizable features of the notoriously bland MetLife Stadium.

He knows it’s hard for someone to understand the feverish saving and spending of his disposable income on something like this, but there is a certain high attached to the moment; one that would be impossible to replace from home.

“The Giants happen to be my drug of choice, and when you’re addicted to something you’re going to see it through whether it's good for you or bad for you,” he said. “It’s part of my extended family. I get my enjoyment and fulfillment. I get those things from the Giants.”

* * *

Most football fans are smart enough to realize that, on the list of the aggrieved related to this moment in time, they are far down the list. Jobs have been lost, businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed, people have died. By comparison, having to watch the game they love on television instead of in-person with their friends is a laughably small price to pay for the greater good of society. Full stop.

The conversation about fanless games is simply an avenue into discussing what helps a person feel whole again after something like this, and how they might approach the situation if the pandemic changes it forever (or for now).

Gus Angelone, known by Browns fans as Pumpkinhead (it is what you think, he wears a pumpkin on his head), has been a staple in Cleveland for nearly 20 years now and has been to every home game since the team rejoined the NFL in 1999. A single father of two boys, he’s been spending his time recently running home school while he’s temporarily laid off from the General Motors plant he works at.

Gus Angelone, aka Pumpkinhead, and his sons at a game (left) and at a function with Baker Mayfield (right).

Gus Angelone, aka Pumpkinhead, and his sons at a game (left) and at a function with Baker Mayfield (right).

Sundays are a massive undertaking with a gigantic tailgate, though he derives the most joy from seeing his two sons learning about what their dad has created (and the fact that, at a function Pumpkinhead was hired to appear at, they got to meet Baker Mayfield).

“Nobody else is doing what I’m doing,” he says “We sit in the front row above the visitor’s tunnel. The employees, the players, the organization, everyone involved knows us. Whenever they see us, we get special attention. They’ll always put us on the JumboTron and the executives will give us a wave. The players will throw hats and gloves to the kids.

“I think they’re starting to get it. They’re in fifth and sixth grade and their friends know it’s me.”

When asked to help people understand why he’d be so upset, he talked about the extended family and friends that come to his tailgate every week. This is their Sunday Dinner. This is their reunion and connection. Throughout the pandemic, he hasn’t been able to see anyone. He’s afraid to take his boys to the grocery store.

Football season is supposed to represent an end to all of this. A time when people can be together again, not a reminder of what they're missing.

“It was eye-opening when they shut the NBA down, then baseball. Everything has been a falling domino,” he says. “If it gets to the point where there’s no fans at the games, I don’t know. I’d be crushed. I’d have to make sure my kids are safe, and if that’s what they deem necessary, that’s what we’d have to do.”

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