Local Yellow Jacket diehards psyched for Orange Bowl

dmaley@macon.comJanuary 4, 2010 

For Kathy Tufts, marriage meant forsaking all others — and one of her favorite colors, red.

That’s because she married a third-generation Georgia Tech man. It was a bit of an adjustment for Tufts, who grew up in Ohio with little interest in college football. She was introduced to the excitement of game day. She read “Football for Dummies” so she could converse with fans. She learned the meaning of “clean, old-fashioned hate” and shunned colors associated with that other big-time college football team in Georgia. She now favors old gold and white.

“I’ve got a whole section of my closet that’s Georgia Tech colors,” said Tufts, who lives in Kathleen.

She’s also got a house full of rabid Tech fans. The roster is:

n Her husband, Winfield, a retired Air Force colonel;

n Her oldest son, Winfield Jr., a Tech student and official driver of the Ramblin’ Wreck, the 1930 Ford Model A that serves as the school’s mechanical mascot;

n Her middle son, Cameron, a Tech student;

n Her youngest son, Karsten, a Houston County High School senior who was recently accepted by Tech, and;

n Herself.

There’s a charged atmosphere in the Tufts home this week, as there is all across Yellow Jacket Nation. All eyes are on Miami, the site of Tech’s Tuesday-night showdown with Iowa in the Orange Bowl. This event, which culminates one of the best football seasons Tech has had in years, is the focus of all those who bleed white and gold.

The game has broken apart the Tufts family. Winfield Jr. and Cameron are going — they’ve attended every Tech game this season and they’re not going to miss this one. The other three Tuftses couldn’t swing it because of work and school commitments.

“It’s killing me that we can’t go,” Kathy Tufts said. She came up with an alternating plan to create a big-game experience — an arrangement to watch the Orange Bowl at the Tavery in the New Perry Hotel.

Because the Air Force kept the Tufts family moving across the country and overseas, they had few chances to see any Tech sporting events in person until a few years ago. But when Winfield Sr. was stationed in Omaha, Neb., the whole family drove eight hours to St. Louis to see Tech beat Kansas in the NCAA basketball tournament.

When Winfield Sr. retired in 2006, the family settled in Houston County because, as he put it, “I wanted to be settled by the time (the boys) started college, and I wanted them to be able to go to Tech if they wanted to.”

They wanted to.

Shortly after the Tuftses moved to Kathleen the boys gave their mother three Tech football season tickets for life. She calls it “The gift that cost me.” The family has been at every Tech home game since.

All three Tufts sons have been members of the Goldfellas cheering squad, which means they have painted their bodies yellow, donned yellow wigs and screamed like maniacs at football games.

Cameron had the privilege of helping tear down a goal post in Bobby Dodd Stadium following Tech’s big win over Virginia Tech in October. Then, in keeping with Tech tradition, he and a mob of other students paraded the structure across campus to the president’s house, where it was duly cut up into souvenir-sized pieces.

“That was probably the greatest moment of Georgia Tech unity that I’ve experienced,” Cameron said.

Karsten ended up with a chunk of that goal post. He took it to his wood shop class at Houston County High and created a plaque to mount it on. It reads, “First home win against a Top 5 opponent since 1962,” and hangs in an honored spot on his bedroom wall.

Youth is served

The Tufts are by no means the only extreme Tech fans who live in Middle Georgia.

Mark Elliott can remember significant plays of Georgia Tech football games that he saw six years ago. That may not seem that remarkable for a college football fanatic — until you realize that Mark was only six years old at the time.

Mark, 12, is the son of Jim and Michelle Elliott — his dad is the Warner Robins city attorney. When it comes to passion for the Yellow Jackets, Mark makes up in fervor what he lacks in seniority

“My dad went there and I was pretty much born into Georgia Tech,” Mark said. “I went to my first game when I was 1.”

In honor of the Tech quarterback, Mark has started a “Josh Nesbitt for Heisman 2010” Facebook group. He’s got two huge Fathead wall decals in his bedroom; one of Buzz the Georgia Tech mascot and another of a street sign that says “Georgia Tech.” If a birthday party or other social obligation comes up on a Saturday during football season, he’ll bring along a cell phone so he can keep up with the score.

This morning he’s in Florida — barring any unforeseen circumstance — making his way to Miami for the big game.

“I’m pretty confident,” Mark said. “Their quarterback has been out for a long time. Maybe he’ll be rusty.”

Mark said he goes to four or five Tech football games a year.

“I just like the feeling in the stadium when it’s third down and everybody’s yelling,” he said. “When the Ramblin’ Wreck comes out, that’s great.”

The bowl that stole Christmas

As devoted as Mark is to the Yellow Jackets, he’s got a way to go before he compiles a résumé of zeal like that of Dirk Palmer of Warner Robins.

With the help of his well-traveled motor home, Palmer attends almost all of Georgia Tech’s football games. He says he misses one a year on average.

This includes away games; even the ones in Athens, where University of Georgia fans have been known to be rude to those wearing Tech colors. “A lot of guys won’t even go to the game because of the hassle they face,” Palmer said. “I’m never going to let them keep me from going.”

Palmer and his wife, Ruth, are piloting their motor home to Miami for the big game, despite the cost in time and money.

“We sacrificed Christmas to do this,” said Palmer, who retired from the Air Force and now works in civil service. “We didn’t put up a tree and we limited ourselves to one present each.”

Palmer estimates that he spends about $10,000 per year on traveling to Tech football games. A lot of that money is for fuel — not only to power his motor home, but to run a generator for a whole weekend of tailgating. But he says it’s worth it.

“It’s our family thing,” he said. “It’s the camaraderie. ... When I moved back here in ’93, I bought season tickets and I ended up driving up by myself. Over time, Ruth became more interested and my daughter became more interested. Then we said, ‘Let’s make a weekend out of this. Let’s get an RV.’ It became a social as well as an athletic event.”

When Palmer is tailgating he’s often greeted as “AFR,” which is short for AFRJacket, which is the name he uses on The Hive, a Web site for Tech fans. He says he has made 13,000 posts on Hive message boards over the years.

Palmer’s the son of a Tech alum. He grew up in Connecticut, Virginia and North Carolina, but his dad took him down South to the Tech-Georgia game every year. When it came time for Palmer to go to college, he applied to Tech but got put on a waiting list. He opted for Brigham Young University instead.

His football allegiance never changed, however. Palmer traveled to Provo, Utah, in 2003 to watch the Yellow Jackets take on the Cougars of his alma mater. He was there to cheer for Tech.

Palmer seldom misses a Tech bowl game. He has even been to the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, when the game-time temperature was near zero degrees.

The weather in Miami should be warmer for Tuesday’s Orange Bowl. But Palmer isn’t worried about the conditions nearly as much as he’s worried about Iowa, which has had plenty of time to prepare for Tech’s option offense.

Palmer says he’s not blind to Iowa’s strengths, but he’s still predicting a Tech victory.

“I feel good,” he said. “I think we’re going to win.”

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