Most little boys like playing sports. Many of them like watching sports. Some little boys write letters to their favorite players, begging for autographs. I wrote letters to college coaches, giving them advice on their play-calling. And, of course, begging for 8x10 glossy photographs that bore their resplendent signatures. Gene Stallings, Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, Gary Barnett, John Thompson, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski.
Heck, I was such a weirdo that I even wrote letters to referees. NFL referees Jerry Seeman, Dick Hantak, and Bob McElwee never got back to me. But Red “Giving Him the Business” Cashion did. He wrote me a note encouraging me to become a referee, sent me a business card from his insurance agency in College Station, Texas, as well as an autographed football card.
I didn’t follow Red’s advice. When I got to high school, I suddenly thought that being the bassist in Jethro Tull was more impressive than being the offensive coordinator for the University of Alabama football team. When I got to college, I forgot about Jethro Tull and took up analytic philosophy, postcolonial studies, and Dostoevsky. I never became a referee and all of my autographs sat entombed in a plastic tub my mother bought me for my 12th birthday.
Eventually, I made my way back. Twenty years after I hounded every coach in North America for their signature and convinced my parents to show up 37 hours early for every big league baseball game we ever attended, I got back into autograph collecting. Initially, my foray back into the hobby consisted solely of organizing the autographs that I had. I started perusing the Sports Collectors Digest website for ideas on how to consolidate the collection into a compact and enjoyable form.
I purchased a fat, three-ring binder, some clear plastic pages, and some comic book backing boards. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I placed all of my autographed pictures, ticket stubs, and pieces of notebook paper into the binder. To improve the presentation of the numerous autographed slips of paper in my binder, I acquired a sports card of the player in question and placed it next to their autograph. All of a sudden, I had an instant conversation starter I could show off to friends, family, and new acquaintances.
Once I had my collection in order, I got back into seeking signatures. The autographs I’ve sought have been purely nostalgic, mostly college coaches to add to my collection. It seems weird to me to seek out autographs from athletes and coaches that are younger than you. For me, autograph collecting was a combination of hero worship and constructive criticism towards coaches whom I thought were insufficiently aggressive in their play-calling. It was the equivalent of putting posters of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy on my wall and blowing them kisses before bed.
The first letter I wrote was to former Tennessee football coach Phil Fullmer when he was rehired as the school’s athletic director. Within a week of sending him a note, an autographed picture of the coach showed up at my door. Ohio University football coach Frank Solich, a favorite of mine since his time at Nebraska, also responded with an autographed 8x10.
My crowning achievement as a born-again autograph collector came on a cold night in the nosebleed seats of Boston College’s Alumni Stadium. Sitting in the last row of the upper deck, a seat that I love for its offensive coordinator-like view, I made the acquaintance of former Texas Longhorns coach Mack Brown. At the time, Brown was doing color commentary for ESPN. When I looked to my left, I saw Brown and Joe Tessitore calling the game from the press box, not 15 feet away. During a break, I caught Coach Brown’s attention by flashing him the “Hook ‘Em Horns” hand sign. Mack flashed it back and I responded with an exaggerated handwriting motion. The coach took an autographed piece of Longhorns stationary out of a folder on his desk and slid it to me through a narrow opening in the press box window.
I got lucky that time. “Hook ‘Em Horns” has long been a part of my repertoire. I’ve never been to Austin, but I’ve been flashing “Hook ‘Em Horns” at random passersby since the late 1980s. I realized that there are bound to be plenty of college sports hand signs with which I’m unfamiliar. Ever since that night, I’ve made a comprehensive study of the subject in case I ever sit in the nose bleed seats again near a press box containing a former college football coach whom I’ve long admired and whose former school happens to have a well-known hand sign.
Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in U.S. History from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the history of professional sports in Atlanta. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor