The Puppet Lady’s puppets are in storage. Big Nasty’s horned helmet is staying home. Pinto Ron’s ketchup and mustard are still in the fridge. And everybody’s calendar is wide open.
They are the NFL’s super fans. They’ve spent years, sometimes decades, in religious devotion to their teams, traveling the country, spreading the good word of the Bucs and Bears, Bills and Chiefs. Their lives revolve around football season. And now, they’re looking at the first fall in decades with nothing to do on Sundays but watch football on TV.
“Mentally I was prepared for this,” allows Buffalo superfan Pinto Ron (real name Ken Johnson). “I could see it coming all summer. I could have gone and had a heart attack, been a baby about it, but what good would that do? I don’t like it, but I accept it.”
This season has meant the technical end of one of the great fan streaks in NFL history. Paul Zywicki, a Chicago Bears lifer, has attended every single home game — preseason, regular season, postseason — since 1981. He’s only missed six away games since 1994.
“To me, it’s like a religion,” Zywicki says. “I’ve been doing it for so long, with so many friends … it’s just something I do.”
Zywicki, who works for an owner-operator of 24 McDonald’s franchises, admits that he’s calmed down quite a bit since his younger days. “I’ve got a whole drawer of t-shirts that say ‘F--- Green Bay,’ ‘F--- Minnesota,’ ‘F--- Detroit,’ ‘F--- the New York Giants,’” he says, laughing. “I got smart and realized that wearing those isn’t the smartest thing to do.”
He contends that he’s not all that upset about the end of his streak. “I never put a whole lot of reverence in the streak,” he says. “Something was going to happen.”
One element Zywicki is missing, though, is a beloved road tradition: two Crown Royals in the Bears’ team hotel bar before the game. “I know it doesn’t help the Bears win,” he says, “but I feel like it does.”
Zywicki’s NFL fan streak is an all-timer. But in terms of devotion to the cause, nobody goes harder than Pinto Ron.
As the maniacal, table-smashing Bills Mafia is to your standard tailgate crew, so too is Pinto Ron to your average NFL fan. Until this season, he hadn’t missed a Bills regular season or playoff game since 1994. 1994! That’s 423 straight games that ran more than a quarter-century.
That streak in and of itself is impressive, and it remains alive, Ron contends — “It’s a streak of games I’m allowed to attend!” But what’s made Pinto Ron a Buffalo legend and a pregame-fan-footage staple is the infamous ketchup bath he takes before every home game. Seriously, check this out:
The tradition began 30 years ago, when Johnson held out a hamburger and asked his brother Frank for a squirt of ketchup. Rather than squeezing the bottle right over the burger, Frank fired up a blob of ketchup from a few feet away … and began one of tailgating’s greatest traditions.
Over the years, Pinto Ron welcomed more and more ketchup guys, added mustard girls, and turned the entire affair into a must-see tailgate event. Circle up at 11:30 on Sunday morning and you’d see Ron get a dousing. He’d spend 20 minutes or so posing for photos, and then he’d go through an elaborate cleanup ritual that involves five gallons of heated water and a team ready to clean out his ears. (No, really. Tailgate pros rank right up there with surgeons and pilots in their attention to detail.)
Much farther south, Keith Kunzig gets up early on gameday mornings, too, but his is a more solitary endeavor. A financial advisor during the week, Kunzig arises at around 6 a.m. on gameday Sundays, already amped up. It’s then that Kunzig begins his transformation into Big Nasty, the fearsome Tampa Bay Buccaneers superfan who looks like some hellish combination of a rhino, a construction worker and a member of the Insane Clown Posse.
Big Nasty — don’t call him “Keith,” not for the rest of the day — is out the door by 9 a.m. “It takes me about two hours to get into the stadium,” Nasty says. “Everyone’s stopping me to get pictures. I think of what Richard Petty says: ‘Never turn down someone asking for an autograph, or one day they’ll stop asking.’”
Now 53, Big Nasty has been posing with Bucs fans for 35 years, and he loves his work. “It’s not like it’s a job,” he says. “You want to make everyone’s game day experience memorable. People look at you like you’re part of the team.”
Earlier this year, Big Nasty won the honor of being inducted into the Ford Fan Hall of Fame in Canton. One of his co-inductees: a former Kansas City schoolteacher named Janel Carbajo, better known as the Puppet Lady.
Gametime is the Puppet Lady’s time to shine. She sets up along the front row of Arrowhead Stadium with an array of signs, props and — of course — puppets.
Her Chiefs lineage dates back more than three decades. “I was dating my husband — he wasn’t my husband then — and he found two tickets in the Kansas City Star,” she says. “We made it a standing date, and it’s been a standing date for 32 years.”
The Puppet Lady doesn’t own a monstrous streak, but she hasn’t missed many games — most often, to give birth to some of the kids who now join her for games. As the family’s added kids, they’ve added tickets.
The problem with bringing kids to football games is that they’re not always interested in the games themselves. When Carbajo took her two-year-old daughter to the game, she brought along an old Sylvester Stallone boxing puppet to keep her daughter entertained. They slapped a Chiefs mini-helmet on the puppet, and thought that was that.
“All of a sudden, I noticed I was getting put on the big screen,” Carbajo says. “I acquired another puppet at Spencer’s Gifts, and started putting the opposing team’s helmet on it. Then it became a challenge to me, to see if I could get on the big screen every game. Then they started looking for me!”
She’s since become something of a celebrity in the greater Kansas City area. When she taught school, her students would come up to her in the hall, proud that they’d spotted her on television. Out in public, people will stare at her, often not able to place her but realizing they recognize her from somewhere.
Now, though, that’s all on hold. The Chiefs are allowing fans into the stands, but at a price point beyond which Carbajo feels comfortable spending.
“Oh my gosh, it’s really disappointing that we’re not going to be able to take part in that,” she says.
So what will everyone else do now? Pinto Ron was in Miami for the Bills’ Week 2 win over the Dolphins, since Miami is one of the few stadiums still allowing fans for games. He’s also plugged into the Buffalo Bills network, so he’s considered traveling along with the Bills to hang out with Bills fans on the road. He did exactly that on opening weekend when the Bills thumped the Jets, enjoying a condiment-free afternoon at a New York City sports bar.
For most superfans, though, this fall means getting accustomed to an unfamiliar Sunday environment: their own homes.
“I haven’t woken up at home to watch a game in 25 years,” Pinto Ron says. “I don’t remember what I used to do 25 years ago!”
“I knew it was coming, but it wasn’t until Saturday night, Sunday morning that I started to feel it,” Zywicki says. “I was like, ‘What am I doing here? I’m supposed to be in Detroit.’”
“It’s going to be very difficult not to go,” the Puppet Lady agrees. “This COVID is such a mess.”
As devoted as they are to their various teams, fans still seem to have a sense of proper perspective. We are still in a pandemic, after all, and the games are still taking place.
“It was inevitable that something was going to happen,” Pinto Ron says. “I’m just going to throw an asterisk on my streak.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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