As soon as I started heading up the steps of section 34, I saw him.
He was sitting on the end of the row with a knit cap that looked like a Razorback with tusks and ear flaps. He was also wearing a Razorbacks leather coat and sweatshirt to evade the chill of the day along with the head gear.
It took him a moment to see me and my 10-year-old son, J.D., and me, but as we approached his row, he said, “I missed you,” and threw his arms around both of us almost like we were in a burrito.
Then, he pushed his mom and me together to make us hug. As we both stumbled forward by the force of his enthusiasm, we caught each other and politely embraced.
J.D. began asking if we would see Arkansas Super Fan Canaan Sandy and his mom, Ginger, weeks before the Missouri-Arkansas game at War Memorial Stadium.
J.D., 10, and Luke, 8, are big fans in their own right and are already realists. They knew Arkansas didn’t have much of a chance to beat Mizzou, but J.D. was more apt to attend if he could see his “friend.”
Like many media types, I got to know Canaan and Ginger from being around different events, the Little Rock Touchdown Club, the Landers Award and other high school and college games I covered.
I then introduced them to my boys at a couple of Hogs games. J.D. especially took to him and looks forward to rare meetings.
So, when we took our assigned seats at WMS, I texted Ginger to see where they were sitting. It was 30 minutes to kickoff, and we weren’t far from the North end zone, where they sat, so I told J.D. we could pop over and say “hi.”
After our warm greeting and discussions about the game, it wasn’t long and J.D. was asking if we could sit there. It was apparent Canaan wanted us to, so I obliged.
The sparse crowd nearly guaranteed no one would sit in those seats, so we stayed.
I noticed a couple of things immediately. Canaan is a very astute. He watches each play intently, cheers and he and Ginger discuss what went right/wrong on the play. He cheers more for players that he has gotten to know such as freshman receiver Treylon Burks.
On the first third down of Mizzou’s first possession, Canaan grabbed J.D. I from behind and pulled us up. He insisted we stand on those plays and other Razorback red zone situations.
He encouraged us and others to yell. J.D. ore than happy to oblige. Each time he grabbed JD, he was a bit surprised but smiled.
A semi-obnoxious Mizzou fan, which had half dozen beers in the time we saw him, started a friendly feud with Canaan before kickoff and took a few pictures.
Canaan was less tolerant of the Mizzou fan once he ran down the aisle and threw his hands forward signaling first downs and touchdowns.
“That’s why you don’t drink alcohol,” Ginger said to J.D. as he nodded.
Later Canaan said something in frustration to the guy, which Ginger didn’t approve of and said, “Be nice, Canaan.”
When the guy left, presumably to buy more beers, I waved at him in disgust. Canaan shook his head “no” and put his finger to his lips, as a warning so I wouldn’t get in trouble with Ginger.
J.D. wanted to get in on the act, so I told him if Arkansas scored again he could run up the aisle. When the Hogs took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, he did and laid it on thick and earned applause from all of those around.
He got a high five and big smile from Canaan who was beside himself.
When the game pushed into the fourth quarter, and times were desperate for the Hogs, Canaan was not too disappointed or unrealistically optimistic.
He just cheered and called out encouragement to specific players who made a particular play.
I don’t think he got upset once, maybe booed once or twice on a questionable call. That takes a special person to sit though as many games as he does and watch your team stumbled to a 4-20 record.
I thought to myself I need to think of him when I get frustrated by my teams when I yell at the TV or scatter items about the living room. He doesn’t get frustrated; he just loves his team and gets ready for the next game.
The other thing that gives him clarity is he gets to know the players and coaches as people. He started attending Burks’ games at Warren High School as he was being recruited.
He’s made relationships with other players that way, too.
Former Hogs coach Bret Bielema took to him, and they remain friends. When you care about someone as a person it changes how you root for them. That’s the difference between Canaan and other fans.
J.D. had already noticed our proximity to the players exit ramp to the locker room and was plotting a strategy to get autographs by the third quarter.
He knew if Canaan accompanied him to the gate that separated fans from the players; some Hogs would stop and sign autographs. So with about five minutes left in the game, he invited Canaan to join us. He happily agreed, and the pair stationed themselves close to the gate.
Soon the likes of freshman receiver Trey Knox and former Pulaski Academy receiver John David White were stopping to see Canaan and sign autographs for JD and a group other kids who had assembled.
Several of the players hugged Canaan, probably for the second time that day since he hugs many of them as they make their way to the stadium before the game.
I couldn’t help but smile as I saw both of them enjoy each other’s company as they got to see their heroes.
Meeting athletes is one of J.D.’s favorite pursuits. From former Cubs manager Joe Maddon, to the entire Iowa State basketball team to Sidney Moncrief and Darren McFadden, he’s got an impressive list.
Somehow I think he will manage to hook up with Canaan again for more pictures and autographs. It was a cool way to end the day.
I’ve been to hundreds of games. Some are etched in my memory forever and others have faded away.
I am not sure I would remember this meaningless game at the end of a hapless Arkansas season 20 years from now. Sure, I’ll display the picture we took as a family outside of War Memorial Stadium.
It’s always special to go together, so that may stick with me.
However, I will always remember this game as particularly awesome because I was the guest of a very special Hog fan and young man and his mom.
We saw first-hand what it means to be a true fan.