Hopelessly Devoted [Jan. 31, 2010]

Kelly Ritter, a Washington State University alum and dedicated Cougar fan, is a season ticket holder for the team's football games with her father. She attended two games in 2009 but has been to several bowl games the team has played in. (Photo courtesy of The Columbian)

Kelly Ritter, a Washington State University alum and dedicated Cougar fan, is a season ticket holder for the team’s football games with her father. She attended two games in 2009 but has been to several bowl games the team has played in. (Photo courtesy of The Columbian)

To know Washougal’s Kelly Ritter is to know that she is proud of her alma mater, Washington State University.

Her laptop is emblazoned with the Cougar logo. She proudly displays an 8-foot inflatable Butch — the Cougars’ mascot — in her front yard. Her cell phone ring tone is the WSU fight song. The Washougal High School teacher hangs a stuffed husky — the mascot for WSU’s biggest rival, the University of Washington — from a noose in her classroom during the week leading up to the football game between the teams each year.

Then there is Ritter’s Cougar room. One of the spare bedrooms in Ritter’s home has been converted to a shrine in honor of WSU.

“When people come over and see my Cougar room and all my Cougar stuff, I think they get this realization of what a huge thing this is to me,” she said. “They start to think I’m loony.” Crimson and gray — WSU’s official colors — fill up Ritter’s room, literally from ceiling to floor. Hand-painted Cougar logos make up a border along the top of the room’s walls, and a Cougars doormat sits at the foot of the bed, itself adorned with WSU blankets and pillows.
“It’s become a hobby in some ways,” she said. “Some people collect model cars or whatever. I collect Cougar stuff.”

And she’s not alone. Sports fanatics around the globe take their passions to levels that most casual fans don’t always comprehend. They chant at games, spend hours debating lineups and trades on online message boards and, yes, devote entire rooms to their favorite team.
With the NFL’s Super Bowl a week away, we wanted to know what makes a diehard fan so different.

“‘Fan’ is a shortened version of ‘fanatic,’ and that’s where it comes from,” said Lee Brand, who studied sports psychology at the University of Utah and is a professor of health and physical education at Clark College. “Once you find something you’re passionate about, you go above and beyond the call of duty.”

The feeling of belonging to something bigger and believing that they can help the team are powerful motivators for the most diehard fans, he said. “It’s a social element that some people really thrive on,” Brand said. “It’s a way of showing what they’re passionate about. And some people, based on their personalities, take it to the extreme a little bit.”

We put out a call to readers to find those fans who have taken it to the extreme. Out of nearly 20 confessions of fandom received, three in particular stood out. They have devoted portions of their homes to their favorite team, traveled to see them play, and have stuck with their teams through the good times and bad.

Kelly Ritter

32, Washougal

Team: Washington State University Cougars.

Fan credentials: Ritter attended Washington State University in Pullman and has remained devoted ever since. Ritter and her father hold season tickets to Cougars football games, and she has outfitted her home’s spare bedroom with dozens of items of Cougar memorabilia. But Ritter takes her fandom everywhere she goes. The Washougal High School teacher has adorned her classroom with Cougars gear, and she has the Cougar logo tattooed on her ankle. “When you tattoo their logo on your body, there’s no going back,” she said.

What need does your fandom fill?
I’ve always been a sports fan, and I am competitive. I think, to a point, it’s probably a sense of belonging to something.

My allegiance to it goes far beyond the athletic side of it. It’s not just about the sports.

What’s the tipping point, where your fandom transforms from casually following the team to setting up your Cougar room?

I’m not sure where exactly it happened for me. It’s almost like an addiction. Somewhere in there, it would be similar to somebody almost saying, ‘I can stop whenever I want to,’ and that’s exactly the problem. I can’t.

How do you explain your passion to nonfans?

I can’t, really, too well. Most people just don’t understand. They can’t understand why I would get so worked up and spend so much money and time and effort and energy on something like a football team from a university or the university itself.

You try to liken it to something else, but there really isn’t any good way to do it. My colors at my wedding were crimson and gray. I own no purple clothing. (Purple is one of the official colors of the University of Washington, WSU’s arch rival.)

Athletes and sports fans can be superstitious. Do you have any superstitions

I have this Cougar sweatshirt. For some reason, every time I wore that sweatshirt to watch a game, we lost.

A couple of times, I actually had the experience where we got part way through the game, and I got disgusted and blamed the sweatshirt. I kept trying to tell myself, ‘No, it’s not the sweatshirt.’

There were a couple of times where I took it off, and we ended up winning, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s it.’

This is terrible of me, but I burned the sweatshirt. I said, ‘This is not happening anymore. There is something cursed about this sweatshirt.’

Jay Altenhofen

50, Vancouver

Team: University of Oregon Ducks.

Fan credentials: Altenhofen attended the University of Oregon between 1977 and 1981. He lived in Seattle for a decade after graduating and would drive to the highest point he could find to get radio reception to listen to football games. Since moving to Vancouver in 1991, Altenhofen has missed one home football game in person. Altenhofen’s friend was getting married that day, but Altenhofen — one of the groomsmen — listened to the game through a pair of headphones during the service. “That didn’t go over very well with my wife,” he said.

How did you become a die-hard fan?

My family was all huge Ducks fans. It’s one of those things where you grow up, and your parents love one team and can’t stand the other, and it gets embedded in you at a young age.

What need does your fandom fill?

Sports is kind of an escapism. It’s your release. When I’m doing that, I’m probably as happy as I ever am. It’s being part of a bigger purpose.

In the hours leading up to the Civil War (the annual football game between the University of Oregon and its chief rival, Oregon State University), what was going through your mind?
We’re on pins and needles, and we’re carrying rosary beads and Bibles. We’ll resort to prayer if we have to.

I try to protect myself to say, ‘It’s just a game. If we lose, it’s not the end of the world.’
But when you sink your heart and soul into something, and you give so much, there’s so much to lose. All kinds of emotions.

You often tell yourself, ‘Why do I put myself in this situation all the time? Why do I put so much into this?’ But you know you can’t help it.

How do you explain your passion to nonfans?

It’s hard. I use humor as much as anything. People say, ‘It’s just a game,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, it’s not. It’s not just a game.’ Most people think I blow it out of perspective, unless they have a team of their own and feel the same way.

I don’t try to explain it, because I don’t know that anybody that isn’t as passionate about their own team can understand it.

As I get older, I overcome the losses a lot easier. It’s just a game.

You once listened to a game through a long-distance telephone call. Tell me about that.

It was a huge game. I lived in Seattle, and I didn’t get radio reception really good, so I would drive to the top of the highest point and tune into the game in Eugene.

For some reason, there was a game I couldn’t get to come in — it was some huge game — so I just called my mom and said, ‘Put the phone up to the radio,’ and I just got caught up in the game.

She went away, and she could come back and ask, ‘Do you want me to hang up now?’ I go, ‘No, no, no. It’s really close.’

It ended up being like two hours.

Bergen Peterson

50, Vancouver

Team: Green Bay Packers.

Fan credentials: Bergen Peterson of Vancouver grew up a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but her husband, Jim, grew up in Green Bay, Wis., so the Green Bay Packers have become their family’s favorite team. In January 2008, Bergen and Jim gave up their 25th wedding anniversary vacation to Phoenix, deciding instead to attend two Packers playoff games. “It really sums up our family,” Bergen said. “We’re spending our anniversary at a football game.”

What need does your fandom fill?

It’s family. It’s something we do. Every Sunday, we watch football. It’s just that time you have and the moments you always remember, like the quiet of the stadium when Brett (Favre) threw an interception at the end of the (NFC Championship) game. I don’t think anyone can understand that, unless you’re physically there, how quiet the stadium was. And when we left the stadium, the streets were quiet. It’s an experience you never forget.

What impact has fandom had on your life?

Some people go to a ski vacation, or they go to Sun River, and that brings their family together. Ours is centered around a three-hour game. It gives us an opportunity to see each other.

What is it like to be a diehard sports fan in Clark County, even when your own team is far away?

It’s probably one of the better places to be, because you’re not the odd man out.

This community has always been receptive to all sports. Even Oregon and Oregon State or Washington and Washington State, it’s a friendly rivalry. It’s not a negative rivalry. That’s really special. It allows you to follow your teams and be proud of your teams, whoever they are.

You canceled your wedding anniversary vacation and made impromptu plans to see two Packers playoff games in a row. What compelled you to do that?

The odds of going to two games in a row like that with so much impact and emphasis, when will that ever happen again?

The other part of that was, we really thought, ‘This may or may not be Brett Favre’s last game.’

We knew, if we left, we wouldn’t come back. So we said, ‘What the heck? Let’s try this and see what happens.’

The Packers lost that second playoff game in the final moments. Were you glad you stayed for the game?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t have traded any of that. I know the kids will never forget that game, and we won’t forget that. It’s those memories that carry you forward and help pass on that love of the game through generations. It doesn’t mean having to go to every game. You have those special moments like we did. Even though they didn’t win, we’ll always remember it.

Fans Speak

We heard from more passionate fans than we could fit into our story. Here are snippets from some of their stories:

Bruce Wollam

63, Ridgefield.

Team: Chicago Cubs.

Wollam has an entire room in his Sun City West, Ariz., condo dedicated to the Cubs. He became a fan in 1984 while living in Goldendale and has followed the team ever since. It’s been more than 100 years since the Cubs won the World Series. “Cubs fans like to think that any team can have a bad century, but after 101 years, that joke doesn’t even work anymore,” he wrote in an e-mail. Still, Wollam remains optimistic. “I tell people that next year is the year of the Cub. I say this every year, and one of these years I’ll be right. Go Cubs!”

Stacey Monahan

33, Vancouver.

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers.

Monahan doesn’t take it well when the Steelers lose. “My family has learned to not talk to me after a loss, and my employees have called in sick the day after a loss just to avoid me,” she wrote in an e-mail. On the other hand, her family has learned to take advantage of wins. “My kids have learned to ask me for anything when my team wins because they know I will say yes. My husband has also learned the same rules.”

Brandi Bazurto

45, Vancouver.

Team: Seattle Seahawks.

During the mid-1990s, Bazurto and a friend were on their way to a Seahawks game and made it to Tacoma before realizing that they had forgotten the tickets at home. Instead of coming home and missing the game, her friend called a former co-worker at Horizon Air, who went to Bazurto’s apartment, picked up the tickets and put them on a plane headed for Sea-Tac International Airport. Bazurto made it to the game in time for the second quarter. “I can’t even remember if the Seahawks won that day or not, but the whole experience was worth it just to see them play,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have been a season ticket holder for 10 years now, and I never have to worry about forgetting my tickets again because for a small fee I can get replacement tickets at the stadium.”

Read the original piece on Columbian.com.

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