By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL/Designated Writers
He will walk up to the booth Saturday at Independence Stadium, buy his ticket – likely on the home side, just below the press box – and spend the next few hours with thousands of other people watching the Independence Bowl game between Brigham Young and Alabama-Birmingham. He will blend into the masses in his typically unassuming way.
But Rusty George will be unlike just about everybody else in the stadium.
When they kick off the 45th Independence Bowl, it will be the 45th time George has seen the annual game begin. That’s right, he’s seen them all.
“I can’t prove it, but there’s no reason to doubt me,” he says. “It’s something I’m proud of, but it’s not really worth anything. Everybody who knows me knows that I say it every year. And I’ll be there for this one.”
It would be nice if he had a ticket stub or a program from every game.
About all he has to show for it is a Tulsa pennant from the inaugural game against McNeese State in 1976.
While there may be other people who have been to all 45 – bowl officials, media members, etc. – George may be the only person who has gone strictly as a fan. And to those who know him, it is no surprise.
“He’s the ultimate local sports enthusiast,” says Bubba Cordaro, who has known George for more than 40 years. “He’s supports it all. He finds a way to support everything in every way. As long as something is going on, he will support it.”
George may very well be the #1 sports fan in Shreveport-Bossier City. It’s almost more surprising when you don’t see him at a local sporting event. It should come as no surprise that George will attempt to go to both the Independence Bowl AND the Louisiana Tech-LSU basketball game that night.
“I’ve done my fair share,” he says. “I do what I can to support local sports.”
That’s 45 years of never being sick on game day. Forty-five years of never being out of town. Forty-five years of always being interested, no matter who was playing in the game. “I’ve always planned on going,” George says. “I’ve never thought about missing it.”
Now 72, George began going to Independence Bowls because he was a Tech graduate and the bowl had a tie-in with the Southland Conference at that time. After the first year, the Bulldogs then played in the next two games and George has just kept going ever since. “I figured it was just something to do,” he says.
“There’s not much more for us to do anymore. (Minor league) baseball is gone. Centenary still has basketball but it’s not what it used to be. Horse racing isn’t what it used to be at Louisiana Downs. The bowl is the one thing that’s still hanging on and I’m glad it’s still here.”
Like many people, he points to the Notre Dame-LSU game in 1997 as being the most memorable, but George mentions an early game in bowl history as being significant. In 1979, Syracuse took on McNeese and marked the first time a former national champion would appear in the Independence Bowl.
“When Syracuse came here, for a some reason it just gave it a little more of a big-time feel about the game,” George said. “I don’t know if was their band or their tradition, but things started to change.”
In typical local sports historian form, George is quick to note that when BYU tees it up against UAB, it will be the 21st team that has won a national championship to play in the Independence Bowl.
He’s attended the game with different groups and sat in different places and does admit to not always being there when the final horn sounds.
“I may not have sat through every minute of every game, but I’ve certainly been there for the start of every one of them,” George says. “I usually sit on the home side, not too far down from the press box. I’ve sat in both end zones and on both sides. I always end up moving at least once, depending on how the game is going.”
The 1997 game was special for George not only because it was Notre Dame and LSU. He attended that game with his father Walter. “I believe that was the last football game he ever saw in person,” he says.
In the least shocking news of the day, George has no plans to end the streak. “I’ll probably keep going as long as I am physically able at this stage of the game,” he says “I sort of joke about it … when I write my obituary, I may lead off with ‘Well, it looks like I’m going to miss my first Independence Bowl.’ ”