These are the people who wait in line for Nick Saban's autograph at SEC Media Days
From families to school teachers, Tide fans take off work and skip school for the chance to see -- and possibly get something signed -- by Alabama's coach
HOOVER, Ala. -- Alabama fan Hannah Braswell paid $99 last week to buy Nick Saban a present.
It's a framed painting called "Bama Hold 'Em," which shows the Crimson Tide's five national championship coaches fictionally playing cards. Braswell even put a houndstooth bow on the painting as part of her annual attempt to give Saban a present at SEC Media Days.
In the past, Braswell has brought wooden nesting dolls that commemorate every stop of Saban's career. She once gave him Alabama and LSU wooden footballs that he accepted. A high school art teacher, Braswell has already started painting nesting dolls for next year.
"He's always just so nice to everybody, and I just thought he would feel appreciated if someone gave him something," Braswell said of the coach who is revered in the state of Alabama like none other since Bear Bryant.
Ten times Nick Saban has come through The Wynfrey Hotel as Alabama's coach. Ten times I've watched the autograph craze that resembles a tsunami. Each year, I try to better understand why people take off work to camp out in a hotel lobby for up to seven hours for a fleeting chance at an autograph. What causes a person to self-identify themselves so much that they want to experience this year after year?
It's become such an annual occurrence that I recognize some of the regulars, and they build relationships. They talk to each other about the past year, share food if someone's hungry and discuss how to best get autographs. They even bring their new babies.
Look, there's Shannon Villa, the man who for four straight years wears an Alabama championship belt and ring head to SEC Media Days. This time, he has his wife Bianca and 1-year-old son Damien with him. Villa arrived at 6 a.m. and bought a hotel room upstairs just for his wife and son.
"It's his first media day," Villa said of his sleeping baby parked in a stroller. "I think he enjoyed himself. I come for the excitement."
Villa ducked out before Saban signed autographs, blaming his wife for leaving. "Sure, blame me," she said. "It's [the baby] I'm worried about. He still has to eat."
How does a wife feel about a husband dressing up with a championship belt and ring head? "I've done gotten used to it," Bianca said. "When he first started doing it, I was like, 'You're crazy.' But now I'm just used to it. It doesn't even bother me anymore."
Say hello to Bradlee Helton, a 16-year-old who described how he collects Alabama autographs outside football practices by sneaking in between cars. "You got to go someplace crazy that nobody really thinks of," Helton said. "If it's only one person, nobody will say nothing."
Helton says he already has 15-20 Saban autographs through the years. That raises the age-old question: Exactly how many Saban autographs does one person need in life?
"It's kind of past need. It's how many we have," Helton said. "We love the game of Alabama football and love having the autograph to show how good fans we are. Back at home they literally call my dad 'Alabama.' That's his nickname. They don't know his real name. It's that deep to us."
Meet Frederick Lee, who drove six hours from Columbia, South Carolina, to attend his first SEC Media Days. He's a case manager at a hospital and had to try to explain why he needs two PTO days off work to attend something called SEC Media Days when he's not a media member.
"I told her just turn on the SEC Network, you'll see it," said Lee, who had twice tried at other events to get Saban's autograph before finally succeeding Wednesday.
Meet Henry Hassey, who got Saban to autograph a painting of his likeness leaning up against a goal post, which mirrored the famous painting of Bear Bryant. Hassey said he commissioned a friend to do the Saban painting, and they hope to sell autographed Saban paintings for $1,000.
"If we get a collegiate license, see Alabama will get some money, and she'll get some royalties off it," Hassey said. "I mean, it's a shot in the dark."
There is always something new you'll see at the Saban autograph tsunami. This year was no different. A man with a media credential standing outside the roped-off fans got Saban's autograph as Alabama director of communication, Josh Maxson, watched in amazement and got upset.
In the news media business, this is a major no-no. The autograph seeker disappeared before I could find out his name.
"I call it Saban madness," said one man in charge of keeping fans inside the ropes. "You've got to keep hollering at them to get back. My voice is gone from hollering."
During Saban's 10 minutes of signing, some autograph seekers became aggressive. A lamp titled and nearly fell over as outstretched arms reached for the coach with four national championships in seven years.
"This year, we have people from up north from Indiana and Michigan to get things signed, and they've been killing us," said Braswell, the teacher with the Saban gift who attended her eighth straight SEC Media Days. "They're coming over the top, very aggressive. There are actual fans here and there are people who do this for a living. They're making good money off it. They don't have the respect for the fans."
Braswell struck out on Saban accepting her gift before he departed with four police motorcycles escorting his car out of town. Saban's driver, Cedric Burns, told Braswell he already has the "Bama Hold 'Em" painting. Braswell was fine with the rejection. She'll be back next year with more nesting dolls.
"You see familiar faces," Braswell said. "You develop relationships after you've been coming so long. Every year you come back and it's like you've never been away from each other. We look after each other."
In this mad world, maybe that's the best explanation why Alabama fans spend half a day in a hotel lobby waiting for autographs.
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