The first thing you need to know is that Tommy Ray is not one of those fans.
He doesn’t wear crimson overalls and hoist toilet paper and a Tide box. He doesn’t have a wardrobe relying heavily on polyester houndstooth. He’s not about to paint his face, much less poison a tree.
The 336,000-plus miles he’s traveled to games, that’s been done without benefit of pennants flapping from windows or magnetic emblems declaring his allegiance. Heck, most times he’s even in neutral colors.
Nonetheless, the 69-year-old Ray, who works in the City of Huntsville Engineering Department, is the most diligently, relentlessly loyal University of Alabama football fan on the planet.
Ray has attended 566 consecutive Alabama football games, home and road, dating back to 1972. By the penultimate game of this season, he’ll have reached 600 total Tide games, with 592 total now.
Ray has seen games in 24 different states and 53 different stadiums
He has seen Alabama play 82 different opponents
Alabama is 449-139-4 in the games he’s attended
He has attended nine games that determined a national champion
It’s the longest active streak of any Alabama fan, though Ray figures he’ll come up well short of the accomplishment of the late Dick Coffee Sr. A Decatur native, Coffee saw 781 consecutive Alabama games over the course of 66 seasons.
“Obviously Tommy is among the most loyal human beings in the world when he believes in something,” former Alabama coach Bill Curry said in a 2015 interview about Ray, with whom he has cultivated a long friendship.
“I imagine half of them think I’m crazy,” Ray says of his he says of his co-workers and others who know of the streak. And, indeed, Ray knows he attracts that sort of talk.
I think I enjoy the 3 ½ hours of football as much as anybody could.”
“Most of them don’t understand,” he continues. “But I’ll be honest with you. When I look in the media guide and they’ve got four or five pages (listing the games since 1972), it gets my attention. But it was only one game at a time.”
This isn’t some obsession. It’s passion and appreciation. Yes, he roots for Alabama and has a deep reverence for its history (For what it’s worth, the ’61 national championship team is probably his favorite, though he never saw it in person). Mostly, though, it’s all about those 3 ½ hours, the full five-senses experience of a college football Saturday. Says Ray, “I’ve always said I think I enjoy the 3 ½ hours of football as much as anybody could.”
He doesn’t own season tickets, so each week it’s a different view, a different collection of people to meet – and sometimes a different challenge to get his hands on a ticket or two.
Nearly 600 football games – and he’s also seen “Phantom of the Opera” 17 times on Broadway. Think it’s because he’s obsessed with the Phantom? No. It’s the experience.
“He doesn’t let it consume him. Even though he’s so passionate you never hear him talk about it,” says Kathy Martin, Director of Engineering.
The streak began Sept. 9, 1972, with an Alabama victory over Duke at Birmingham’s Legion Field and as Ray says, “I never thought I’d see two in a row.”
But there he was the next weekend. And the next. And the next…
Three Games That Stand Out
- 1971 Iron Bowl. Alabama 31, Auburn 7. Both came into the game undefeated, with the winner destined for a bowl bid against Nebraska that would decide the national title. Ray didn’t make it to the Orange Bowl, the last Alabama game he’s missed.
- 2008 Auburn-Alabama game. Tide won 36-0, ending Auburn’s six-game win streak over Alabama.
- 2013 National Championship Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14. “That one put a lot of ghosts to sleep,” he says
Keeping the streak going is all well and good. But the devout Ray has a deal with the man upstairs. If the streak takes on a life of his own, Ray prays a power higher than even Nick Saban will have His will be done.
“I’m asking the Lord for one more game,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always been. The way I always will be. … Every year, I take it to the Lord and say, ‘If this thing gets out of hand, stop it.’”
Funny thing about longevity. There was a topsy-turvy employment stretch in Ray’s past. The shortest tenure, a four-month gig, that’s when he met Sarah, his wife and traveling partner.
He’s been involved in the engineering process for 46 years, and he’s been with the City of Huntsville since 2008 and though his business card reads “Senior Drainage Specialist,” that’s much more a title than job description.
Martin calls Ray the best surveyor in town. He works on all sorts of projects, not limited to drainage, assisting countless other departments. Right now, some flood plains and the enhancement projects at John Hunt Park are atop his to-do list.
I’m asking the Lord for one more game.”
“I’m so thankful to work for the City and for all the relationships I have with the other departments and employees I interact with. I just thank them for blessing me,” Ray says. “Like one of the people in our department says, ‘You know what I’m saying?’ I hope they do.”
There’s another streak Ray is prouder of than the Alabama streak.
He reads his Bible every day. Since March 1995, he’s read both the Old and New Testaments 24 times.
Ray likes to quote Psalms 37:3, “which sorta sums it all up,” he says: “Delight thyself in the Lord and He shall give the desires of thine heart.”
Alabama plays again this weekend, at Vanderbilt. It’s Ray’s desire to be there. Not for a streak. But for all the delights of a football weekend.