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KU, K-State fans share gonzo stories The Sunflower Showdown is in Manhattan today.

  • Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, at 7:23 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, at 7:31 a.m.

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Sports fans often display human-like traits during the week, only to go gonzo on game day.

So you have people like Steve Widler, who makes a 900-mile round trip drive from his home in Iowa to attend every Kansas State home football game.

And Jake Petersen, who races down the street screaming in celebration after a University of Kansas bowl victory while a neighbor yells at him to shut up.

And Matthew Joyce, a Spirit engineer, who once helped chase down some TV sports personalities in the K-State football stadium parking lot to have them autograph a van that wasn’t even his.

And Mike Randall, who hauled his KU gear to Afghanistan during a deployment, then refused to find out the score of Jayhawk basketball games until he watched tapes of the games sent by his family that wouldn’t arrive for days.

Fans like these from both schools will meet again today when KU and K-State play their annual Sunflower Showdown football game in Manhattan, starting at 11 a.m.

Widler already is in Kansas after driving 450 miles from Washington, Iowa, with his wife, Vanessa, in their white Dodge van. The van is two years old and already has 40,000 miles on it, he said. It sports permanent Powercat logo decals.

“When we travel we get all kind of people coming up to us and making comments about it,” Widler said.

Widler doesn’t hide his Wildcat loyalty in Iowa. At his house, which is only 30 miles from the University of Iowa, a propane tank has a Powercat on it, the mailbox has a K-State sign on it, a purple flag flies outside and a K-State stone sits in the garden.

“We have to have that because our neighbors have an Iowa State sign in the front yard,” he explained.

Widler, who works for Tyson Foods, attended K-State in the 1970s, and even though he graduated from Emporia State, his heart remained in Manhattan. A room in his house is dedicated to K-State. It is done in purple and white and lined with Wildcat photos.

Although his house looks oddly out of place in Big Ten country, he gets along fine, he said.

“A lot of the Hawkeye fans know about K-State because (K-State football coach) Bill Snyder came from there,” Widler said. “They have a lot of respect for K-State and Bill Snyder. So a lot of the comments I get are positive.”

KU, with a 1-3 record, is a heavy underdog against the undefeated, No. 7 ranked Wildcats today. But that doesn’t keep hope from stealing into the heart of Petersen, who is such a devoted KU fan that for years he has been among the few who have remained in Memorial Stadium to the bitter end of blowout home losses, no matter the weather.

“I’m not getting my hopes up high, but if they hang around in the fourth quarter, they got a chance,” he said.

Petersen, a Sedgwick County probation officer who has KU gear filling his home and office, has been a Jayhawk fan since the third grade when his dad took him to a Kansas-Missouri basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse.

He hates it when fans leave football games early. The players see it and lose morale, he said. He knows this because he used to talk to some of them.

Being a loyal die-hard during the down times makes it all the more rewarding when the Jayhawks win, Petersen said. “When you support your team, especially one that struggles, and they actually win, you can say you’ve been there the whole time.”

When KU won the Orange Bowl in 2008, Petersen carried a KU flag down the street at 10 p.m., running and screaming like a 2-year-old, he said, until he fell down and twisted an ankle.

“It was crazy. I kind of made a fool of myself,” he said.

Which is a good job description for any fan.

Joyce, a systems integration engineer at Spirit, who grew up in Manhattan and graduated from K-State, is a die-hard Wildcat fan who has never left a game early even during the dark, pre-Bill Snyder days. But he sees people leaving early even now that K-State is winning again under Snyder.

“You stay until the end,” Joyce said. “Even my daughters know better than ask that we go home early, even if the weather’s bad,” he said.

Joyce was at the 1998 KSU-Nebraska game won by the Wildcats, 40-30, for the school’s first victory over Nebraska in 29 years.

ESPN had dispatched its “Game Day” crew to Manhattan for the event, and Joyce was part of a group that decided to round up the network’s personalities and have them sign their names on the interior panelling of a friend’s van.

They found two of the three ESPN stars, but couldn’t track down color analyst Kirk Herbstreit until after the game, Joyce said.

“Ten or 15 of us surrounded him, and kind of hustled him to the van,” Joyce said. “He took a step up and turned around and said, ‘You guys aren’t going to kidnap me, are you?’ ”

Joyce remembered it as a great night, and the ESPN folks were impressed, he said.

“At the time, they said it was the biggest crowd that had ever showed up for one of these tapings,” Joyce said.

When Randall, of Rose Hill, went to the Middle East war zone with his heavy equipment outfit as part of the Kansas Air National Guard, he took his devotion to KU, and a lot of KU memorabilia, with him.

Randall attended school in Wichita and college in Oklahoma, but he became a Jayhawk fan after he started watching KU basketball games. Serving in Afghanistan with a unit from Kentucky, he was the only Jayhawk fan around during a broadcast of last season’s KU-Kentucky national championship game, a 67-59 KU loss.

“I’ve been a KU fan longer than I’ve been born,” Randall said.

Randall had his family send him tapes of Kansas basketball games and he refused to find out who won them before he watched them.

“It ruined my day if somebody told me,” he said.

He watched them until the end, never cheating to find out the score.

“When you’re away from home like that, you’re still a fan,” Randall said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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