TROY, Alabama – The scene: a motel on the outskirts of Troy, Ala. In the parking lot, a black Dodge Charger that practically screams Boise State University football.
Stretching the width of the front windshield are the words “Boise State,” across the top in blue and orange letters several inches high. Painted on the rear windshield: “#Game Day Bound! #Bleed Blue.”
Blue and orange dice hang from the rearview mirror. Two BSU flags dangle from the back windows. The rest of the car is all but wallpapered with Bronco logos. Its license plates are in BSU frames.
It was the opening day of what was expected to be the Broncos’ dream season, before Oklahoma State and San Diego State downsized the dream. My wife and I and some friends had traveled to Troy for the season opener. We assumed the car belonged to someone else from Boise who had driven there for the game.
Until we took a closer look at the plates inside the Bronco frames. No Rocky Mountains; no red, white and blue.
The plates were from Alabama.
They belonged to Alabama native Micah Burney. He and his girlfriend, Judith Sanders, had driven to Troy from their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala., for the game.
It’s an understatement to say that Burney is a Bronco fan.
“Huge!” he said. “Most people in Alabama root for Alabama or Auburn. I’m diehard Boise State. I like the fact that they beat bigger schools, and it’s cool that their coaches suspend even really good players if they break the rules. Not all schools do that.
“I watch all of their games on TV and go to at least one game a year. I went to the games against Georgia and Virginia, to the Ole Miss game in Atlanta, the Fiesta Bowl against Arizona State … ”
He says “we” when referring to the team.
“We played great against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. …Someday I want to go to a game in Boise and see what that’s like.”
Burney’s dedication to a team so far from his Alabama home and roots came as something of a surprise. Even knowing that the Broncos’ games are nationally televised, it hadn’t really occurred to me that they would have diehard fans wearing the colors and decorating their cars with Bronco paraphernalia well beyond Idaho. This, after all, was Boise State – not Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan or another major program with instant national name recognition.
Yet here were Micah and Judith, who live 2,000 miles from Boise but were proudly sporting the blue and orange.
To fully appreciate how far Boise State football has come, you have to go back quite a ways. At the first Bronco game I attended, with my sister who was a decade older and then a freshman at Boise Junior College, the number of people on the field was almost as large as the number in the stands. It was played on a grass field lined with wooden bleachers. BJC was playing Dogwater Junior College.
OK, I made that up. But the Broncos in those days did play small, obscure colleges, at venues resembling those of lower division high school games today.
A sea change came the first time the Broncos played the University of Idaho. Boise’s little college had recently progressed from Boise Junior College to Boise College to Boise State College. U of I students decorated Bronco Stadium with banners that read “BJC, BC, BSC, BFD,” and “Welcome to the Big Time.”
The Broncos won, 42-14.
The program continued to grow. BSC became BSU. The turf turned blue. The team played bigger, higher profile schools and began making a name for itself beyond Idaho.
Fast forward to 2011. My wife and I were having dinner while traveling through Memphis,Tenn. when a man asked where we were from and, upon hearing the answer, replied, “Boise? What’s Coach Pete puttin’ in the water up there?”
A reference to then BSU Coach Chris Petersen and his team’s successes against some of the big names in college football.
But it wasn’t until the Troy game that the extent of BSU’s national reputation hit home. It wasn’t just Micah and Judith, either.
Mellanie Chorney and her daughter Emma traveled over 200 miles from their home in Kennesaw, Ga. to be at the Troy game. Both were wearing blue and orange BSU T-shirts and carrying Bronco stadium chairs. Emma had orange paint on her legs and blue and orange Scrunchies on her pigtails.
Both had painted their fingernails blue and orange.
“We stay up till 2 a.m. to watch Boise State games on TV,” Mellanie said.
Why would someone from Georgia, which hardly has a shortage of good college football teams, be that interested in Boise State?
“I like their chemistry,” Mellanie replied. “They aren’t a big school, but they play like one. Their boys aren’t recruited by the Georgias and Ohio States, but they’re good football players. I love that.”
Steve Carew and his family also were decked out in blue and orange. A pharmacist who lives in Birmingham, Ala., he seemed mildly surprised when told that I lived in Boise. As if all of the blue and orange-clad fans at the game were from someplace besides Boise.
“I grew up in Indiana, and ever since I was a kid I thought Boise would be a cool place to live,” he said. “I honestly don’t know why. But I did live in Meridian for a while before getting a job offer I couldn’t refuse in Birmingham, and I think Boise is one of the most beautiful cities and Idaho one of the most beautiful states in the country. I’d like to get back there someday. And it goes without saying that we always root for the Broncos.”
Ryan Williams traveled to the game from his home in Navarre, Fla.
“I go to as many BSU games as I can,” he said.
One thing that stood out, in addition to all the Bronco fans who don’t live in Idaho, was the hospitality of the Troy University fans. Even after the Broncos had defeated their team 56-20, they remained gracious, welcoming.
“Thanks for being here,” several of them said as we filed out of the stadium.
“Welcome to Alabama. It’s great to have you here.”
The next morning, back at the motel, Micah and Judith were packing his Boise State billboard-on-wheels for the drive back to Muscle Shoals.
“Great game, wasn’t it?” he said. “We played really well.”
Then, a bit wistfully, “Maybe I’ll see you at a game in Boise someday.”
Here’s hoping he gets his wish. And, if that happens, that Bronco fans will give him the sort of welcome their team’s distant but dedicated fans deserve.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Press one Sunday a month, often more frequently, and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Got a column idea for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.