A meme was born here, in Section 105 of Scott Stadium. A meme cherished by the college football Internet. A meme so admired by TV producers that they’re still talking about it. Why, it was like an intertitle in a silent film: [man cries]. Imagine looking into a feed in your TV truck and seeing Sad Virginia Fan.
Last week, on an evening warm enough that mosquitoes were still dive-bombing our forearms, Mike Bunting pointed to the first row across the stadium bowl. That’s where he was sitting on September 12, when his Virginia Cavaliers played no. 9 Notre Dame. The Cavaliers held up remarkably well, leading the Irish by a point late in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame got the ball back with just under two minutes remaining. Cavs fans were itching to storm the field. “Imagine a scene from the movies where there’s a celebration and everybody’s distracted,” Bunting said. “They don’t have a care in the world. Then the camera pans down to one guy who realizes what’s happening.”
When we met, Bunting wore a blue blazer and khaki slacks. He had the posture and waistline of a goalpost. His speech was odd yet charming, with the precision of a computer science/computer engineering double major (Bunting calls himself an academic “try-hard”) and the formality of an old-time sportswriter.
So Notre Dame had the ball. Bunting and his pal Dagoberto Valladares watched from the front row. “Our hands were matter-of-factly positioned on the ledge,” Bunting said. “Our elbows were at 90 degrees, and we were leaning forward as if it were a situation room scenario. We’re seeing every single play. The first downs are coming like nothing. We look at the clock. There’s barely any time left.”
With 19 seconds remaining, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer took the snap at the Cavaliers’ 39-yard line. He pushed off his back foot and heaved the ball. It landed in the hands of wide receiver Will Fuller, who had beaten Virginia’s defensive back by a few steps. Fuller ran into the end zone.
“At that point in time, my hands had sort of fallen forward,” Bunting said. “My body fell limp. My upper body slouched over the ledge in a lifeless kind of way. I remember remaining still for a very long time.” At that point, Bunting’s friend Maggie Daniels reached out and patted his back. A successful two-point conversion made the final score Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27.
Bunting stayed to sing “The Good Old Song,” then left the stadium in a fugue state. When Bunting got home, his neighbor Tara Saunders came running out of her apartment. “Mike, Mike,” she said, “I think you might be famous!”
Bunting’s lifeless form had been spotted by producers inside a TV truck and broadcast to the nation. Twitter had harvested the image and renamed it Sad Virginia Fan. It’s a process that still feels strange, even though it’s become exceedingly common: a meme was born.
Once upon a time, a fan glimpsed in the stands would vanish into cathode ray tubes, like the Houston Oilers diehard who flipped the bird on Monday Night Football. No longer. By the time Bunting got home on September 12, he was hanging in a digital portrait gallery alongside Shirtless NC State Guy, Crying Alabama Kid, and, of course, the immortal Lulu and Junior.
The people who sit in the stands at college football games have attained a weird stature where they can become as famous as the players themselves. I’ll spot you Tiki Barber, but can you name another product of Cavaliers football as familiar as Sad Virginia Fan? And what do you remember about the 2013 LSU Tigers: Ego Ferguson or the guy in the white baseball cap who celebrated like a tyrannosaur?
Granted, it’s a strange sort of fame. Because only the back of Bunting’s head was visible on TV, he has only been recognized once by someone who didn’t already know him. “At a sorority formal, one student came up and identified me as Sad Virginia Fan,” Bunting said. “I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know what your name is, but I wish I had a prize to give you. Want a picture?’”
There are famous fans in other sports: the Crying Piccolo Player in college basketball; the Miami Heat’s “Good Job, Good Effort” Kid; the endless cutaways that Fox will give us during the MLB postseason. But the fan shot feels like a more organic part of a college football broadcast, and it takes on different meanings as it makes a broken-field run through various media.
For TV, the fan shot serves as an emotional cue for the audience. “A shot like that of a fan in the stands tells the story of a game without an announcer having to telegraph it,” said Bill Bonnell, producer of ESPN’s Saturday Night Football.
When it reaches the web, it mutates slightly. Scott Davis, an editor at SB Nation, combs through eight college games each weekend for crowd shots he can post online. A typical game produces about 10 shots, which can usually be found after touchdowns or bad penalties. (An ump show like Texas–Oklahoma State in Week 4 might have 15 to 20.) “The home team losing is where you find the most gold,” Davis said. Hence, the bounty yielded by Georgia’s laydown to Alabama last week. But if Georgia-Alabama has more clips, a last-second gut punch like the 2013 Iron Bowl is likely to yield better clips. Davis runs them as animated GIFs played at 50 percent speed, “because it makes everything twice as sad.”
“I don’t think people feel much sympathy or remorse,” he said. “Because something about that separation between TV and real life makes it OK. We have that psychological distance from actual humanity. It’s like the more upset the fan, the better the entertainment.”
For rivals, sad fan shots are prison currency on Twitter and on message boards. As one academic essay put it: “In [Tennessee power couple] Lulu and Junior’s presence on the Gator message boards … we see how Gator fans have used humor … to gain power over rivals, especially over those rivals in whom there is some perceived threat.”
“My favorite,” said Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, “is when fans from one state school where the people are known to be a little hicky make fun of fans from another state school where the people are known to be a little hicky. There are a lot of pots calling the kettle black in this world.”
For the college football writer, the fan shot has yet more meanings. Take Week 1’s Stunned SMU Bros, resplendent in their white button-downs and $250 sunglasses. “That’s a shot where somebody is not only looking for and getting a good emotional reaction,” said Spencer Hall, the founder of Every Day Should Be Saturday, “they’re doing what’s at the root of what I do: snap anthropology. Everyone saw that and said, ‘That’s exactly what SMU fans are.’”
Indeed, think of the crudest stereotype you have about a fan base. Now double it. The fan shot seems to confirm it. SMU students are dazed frat boys. We Texas “tea-sips” — in the form of Texas Swearer (Sarah Smith) — are entitled bastards. LSU fans — in the claws of T-Rex Guy — possess the madness of Les Miles.
The fan shot serves as a census of the people who actually attend games and mill about tailgates, not the sanitized view of fans that schools prefer to show off. “Look at the big scoreboard in the stadium,” said Harvey Jackson, who edited the “Sports and Illustration” volume in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. “Most of what they pan to are college kids and mothers with little kids. It’s almost like it’s a family affair. I don’t remember seeing — and here I grasp for the right word — people like the Tennessee folks.”
For the writer on deadline, fan shots can be a handy sight gag. “They are the ornaments on the Christmas tree of an article,” said Drew Dunlevie, one of the founders of the Texas Longhorns site Barking Carnival. Or you can ditch the article and just do a supercut of angst — see Saturday Down South’s sad-fan roundups or the collected hits of Timothy Burke.
Finally, the fan shot provides a kind of emotional sustenance to the college football writer. Like the GameDay sign, it reminds him that he is the chronicler of a pulsating, unruly universe — a place where fans actually care. “Seeing how people react, good or bad, it’s kind of a justification in a strange way of what I’ve decided to do,” said Adam Kramer, a writer at Bleacher Report who founded the Kegs ’n Eggs blog. In other words: We ain’t covering the NFL.
Derek Mobley, the director of ESPN’s Saturday Night Football, was sitting in a truck outside the Los Angeles Coliseum. Before him were screens showing feeds from 16 cameras that were shooting the Stanford-USC game inside. Each screen was underlined with a camera operator’s name, many of which sounded like trucker handles: Stoney, Hillbilly, Stick.
There were eight seconds left in the first half. Stanford had the ball on USC’s 17-yard line. The feed from Camera 25 had caught Mobley’s eye. It showed a female Trojans fan with long black hair and a Trojans logo on her right cheek. Her mouth was agape, and she was leaning over the railing and pounding the wall. Call her Nervous USC Fan.
“Take 25!” Mobley said. Now, Nervous USC Fan was on national TV. Putting her there relieved the announcer, Sean McDonough, of having to say, “Huge play right here …”
Sitting in the empty Coliseum press box the afternoon before, Mobley explained the place of fans in a college football broadcast. Mobley wasn’t averse to fan shots: At the U.S. Open the previous Sunday, he caught a woman shaking her head in wonder during the Djokovic-Federer final. But he considered such shots the garnish of a broadcast. His main job was to chronicle the game, then squeeze in Todd McShay’s sideline reports and the obligatory blimp shots, along with the Aflac Trivia Question and Pacific Life Game Summary — a.k.a. the stuff that pays the bills.
Mobley professed uninterest in a fan’s digital afterlife. “If I’m going to make this guy a social media sensation — I don’t think about that,” he said. Mostly, this is because he doesn’t have time. The director of Arizona Diamondbacks broadcasts can linger on Alpha Chi Omega sisters taking selfies; Mobley has to work fast.
The job of providing fans for Mobley to put on TV falls to camera operators like Shawn Dechant, a big, strapping guy who looks like an ex-quarterback doing the studio show. During USC-Stanford, Dechant was carrying a wireless RF camera and roaming the sidelines. If a team crossed into the red zone, he would “go scouting for some atmosphere.”
“Atmosphere” has been a mainstay of college football telecasts since the ’60s, when producer Roone Arledge decreed that crowd shots could personalize an otherwise dull game. But finding good atmosphere requires skill and luck. Dechant’s first problem is that his camera says “ESPN.” As soon as fans see that, they make the “we’re no. 1” sign and start screaming. This produces generic, near-unusable footage. (Some fans get so fired up that their schools have asked ESPN not to put them on the air.)
Dechant’s other problem is that from the sideline he can reliably see only the first two rows. This is why many of the most memorable fans who make it on TV, from Mike Bunting to the Air Guitar Memphis Fan, come from the front row — those fans are simply easier to find. You occasionally see a good fan shot in the nosebleeds, like the legendary Washington State Popcorn Eater. That shot, ESPN producer Steve Ackels noted, was captured by one of his three game cameras, which mostly shoot the action. When the ball leaves a camera operator’s side of the field, he or she will often go hunting for fans.
During the USC game, Dechant’s feed, Camera 15, would linger on one or two fans. To watch them here, in their pre-TV state, felt almost invasive — it made peepers out of all of us. The fans would clap, or nudge each other; one received a high-five from another fan wearing a pith helmet. After a while, if Mobley didn’t take a shot, Dechant’s camera would tilt down and make a Blair Witch walk along the sideline, hunting for new fans.
To find a true emoter — the Stunned Trojans Fan, say, who goes Surrender Cobra when Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan plays like Andrew Luck — Dechant had to watch a fan for several plays. Then, of course, the fan had to produce a reaction instead of jetting for the trough urinal before the inevitable commercial. And even if all of these planets aligned, Mobley had to decide to put the shot on air.
In the ESPN truck, Mobley moved the broadcast away from Nervous USC Fan and back to the game. Hogan rolled right and threw to wide receiver Devon Cajuste for a touchdown. In the Camera 25 feed, Nervous USC Fan did a partial slump — a half-Bunting — and pursed her lips in disappointment. It was a look that said the annual “USC is back!” hype might again be nothing but. But Mobley never put her back on the air. At halftime, I asked him why. “She wasn’t bummed out enough,” he said. America would never know her mild despair.
If you look at enough crowd shots, you begin to notice they fall into five categories. The first is Happiness. This is the lamest category — no college fan much cares about another fan base’s happiness. “Usually, there’s some level of deprecation there,” said SB Nation’s Scott Davis. “If it’s a fat guy who’s happy, it’s a lot funnier than if it’s a normal fan.”
Thus directors have gifted us with Shirtless NC State Fan, Shirtless Arkansas Fan 1, and Shirtless Arkansas Fan 2. The latter inspired one viewer to tweet: “Thank you shirtless, fat Arkansas fan for confirming every stereotype about Arkansans on national television.”
A second category of fan shots is Puzzlement or Bafflement. This is symbolized by a now-universal gesture, the Surrender Cobra. “I don’t know where the default — both hands interlocked behind the head with elbows flexed out — came from,” said SI’s Andy Staples. “I never reacted to something shocking and disappointing that way in my life.” See a Mississippi State fan after an early Week 1 fumble; or Georgia’s entire student section during the October 3 throttling by Alabama. Body paint makes Bafflement more touching.
Horniness deserves its own fan-shot category, if only to find a spot for the two UTEP fans who got a small mountain outside the Sun Bowl renamed Handjob Hill. This is also the place to note the “Caught Cheating” Ohio State Couple from January’s playoff game against Alabama. A female Buckeyes fan placed her hand on a male fan’s back, and then quickly and awkwardly withdrew it. A subsequent Vine inspired all sorts of fan fiction about whether TV had exposed an affair. In fact, the Daily Mail reported the next day that the man and woman were a longtime couple and, as of that writing, remained together. It was just one of those things.
Dada — our fourth category — is “a boundless source of joy,” said Spencer Hall. It’s here we find whimsy, insanity, and dry skin, in the guises of Washington State Fireball Guzzler, Mad-Dogging Florida Fan, and NC State Nipple Massager.
As LSU T-Rex Guy, Caleb Bates more or less defined the category. Early in the Tigers’ November 9, 2013, game versus Alabama, Bates was tipped off that he was on TV. “My mom and some of my friends texted me,” he told me recently. “I was telling my friend beside me, ‘Hey, we could do something dumb.’”
Bates didn’t know what “something dumb” might be. But when LSU’s Travin Dural caught a pass in the back of the end zone, Bates had a flash of genius. “My inner Jurassic Park came out of me, man,” he said. The CBS camera cut from Miles’s open-fingered clapping to Bates curling his hands into claws and flashing his teeth, like the T. rex in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” Within minutes, fellow fans told him, “You’re on Tiger Droppings!” Then: “You’re on Bleacher Report!” He was an instant celebrity.
Two weeks later, Bates, who was also part of the spirit squad, was on the sideline for the LSU–Texas A&M game. The JumboTron camera found him. LSU fans chanted, “Do it! Do it!” Though Bates didn’t want to be “quote-unquote that guy,” he gave the masses what they wanted. When he applied for an internship sometime later, his potential employers inspected his social media feeds for bad behavior. All they turned up was the T. rex. Bates said they didn’t hold it against him. He is now an electrical engineer living outside Nashville.
The granddaddy of all fan shots is Sadness. Sadness is so powerful that you can use it only once per broadcast, ESPN’s Mobley said. The first time Crying Alabama Bro weeps, the world weeps with him. The second time, the ogling begins to feel exploitative and cruel, even if you’re an Auburn fan.
“This person looks like their world has ended because a 20-year-old from another state scored a touchdown,” Staples said. “And you know what? In that moment, it may have ended. They may be able to get over it later at a bar.”
The Sadness category is lousy with crying children — like Kace Whaley, the 8-year-old Crimson Tide fan who wept after Auburn’s Chris Davis ran back a missed field goal for the winning touchdown in the 2013 Iron Bowl. After the play, Whaley turned to his father and asked, “Why? Why didn’t they tackle him?” CBS’s director took the shot. Mobley said he would have made the same decision. “I’m OK with the crying kid,” he said. It’s on the nose, as they say, but it works.
The schools that sit right below the traditional football powers are reliable sadness factories. In 2011, ESPN’s cameras caught Sad Texas Tech Fan, his head hung in shame, during a beatdown versus Oklahoma State. But Sad Texas Tech Fan was holding one “finger gun” aloft, and thus became Sad But Noble Texas Tech Fan — a genuine hero. As Hall noted, the reason such schools figure heavy in this category is due to a cruel irony: They have fewer T-shirt fans, and thus the true believer sticks out. “It’s this perverse calculus that gives us the most loyal fan looking the most pathetic,” Hall said. “Which is so tragically unfair.”
It’s not a bad description of the fate of Mike Bunting. Though he got to see a baseball national title and a no. 2 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament this year, Bunting has spent four years watching his football team go a combined 12-29. Bunting was there for last year’s one-point loss to North Carolina, when the Cavaliers had too many men on the field on the game’s climactic fourth-down play; he made the drive of shame back to Charlottesville after watching another gut-kick loss to Virginia Tech (UVa’s 11th straight to its rivals) — a loss that kept Virginia out of a bowl game.
“It’s a four- or five-hour time commitment every Saturday,” Bunting said. “As someone who’s extremely busy, this is not only something as a sports fan I enjoy doing. It’s something I have to carve out of my schedule. When this devastation comes …”
When he became Sad Virginia Fan, what startled Bunting was the way his identity uncoupled from that of his meme doppelgänger’s. The “real” Bunting is the smiling president of Virginia’s Cru Christian Fellowship and the Engineering Student Council. He’s the guy who is always whirling between meetings — he met me after a job interview with a tech company — but who always stops to check in on his friends. He’s the person about whom people say, “He’s such a nice guy.”
Sad Virginia Fan, on the other hand, is a mess. He’s frozen in his moment of despondence. Bunting doesn’t like that. He looks at his digital self and finds it unrecognizable. He had stamped an emotion not only on himself but on the program.
The idea underlying the fan shot is that it’s candid. It’s as if we viewers are watching a Saturday-afternoon nature documentary. If we’re very quiet, we might glimpse the Dancing Missouri Bros in their natural habitat …
But this notion isn’t exactly true. A fan like Caleb Bates knew full well he was on TV. It was just a matter of getting the bit right. Moreover, two weeks after Bunting went meme, another Virginia fan prostrated himself over the railing during the Cavaliers’ blowout loss to Boise State. It was no longer a spontaneous reaction; it was the hip way to be sad.
Let’s push this idea a step further: I submit that everything that happens in the stands in a college football stadium is a kind of public performance. I know this because I was once an undergraduate emoter at Texas. Texas suffers its own gut-kick, last-second loss to Notre Dame in 1996? My jaw hangs open. I do the Surrender Cobra. I turn around to let my fellow Texas fans see me. … Ricky Williams bulldozes Texas A&M’s Dat Nguyen the next year? I smile as wide as the Joker. I shoot my arms out wide. I turn around to let my fellow Texas fans see me. … It was as if I were trying to have a physical reaction that summed up what everyone was feeling.
“I’m not a thespian,” Bunting said. “But I do, as a sports fan, have my ways of showcasing what I’m currently feeling.”
When Bunting slumped over the wall against Notre Dame, he was truly crushed. But as he started to rise up, his pal, Bethany Pritchard, told him she wanted to take a picture. So Bunting held the pose a few seconds longer. He’s not sure whether the image of Sad Virginia Fan that ESPN transmitted to the world was the first, genuine slump or the reenactment. “In a sense,” he said, “I was playing the part of expressing my utter devastation.”
This isn’t to say Bunting’s emotions were faked. Rather, it’s to argue that they are inseparable from acting. College football fandom is Kabuki theater scored by the fight song. Don’t think of Mike Bunting as an unwilling meme. Think of him as someone whose performance was intended for 60,000, and, through the magic of TV, became one for millions.