AUBURN, Ala. — Military personnel now have an avenue to some of the toughest tickets in college sports.
Gameday for Heroes in Columbus, Ga., collects donated tickets to fill requests from active duty or wounded veterans who want tickets. But it’s not just about football for Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson, who lost his right leg during an ambush in Iraq eight years ago.
“You never get tired of hearing thank you,” Olson said before last Saturday’s Utah State-Auburn game.
The nonprofit group was started two years ago by the Columbus-Phoenix City Auburn Club to supply tickets to Auburn games for soldiers at Fort Benning. Now its reach has spread via word of mouth and the Internet.
Active duty and wounded military personnel like Olson are taking in college football games everywhere from South Bend, Ind., to Tallahassee, Fla.
The group provided 102 donated tickets to the Auburn game. Olson, who spent 18 months recovering at Walter Reed Military Medical Center, is an avid college football fan from Washington who got to bring his dad to last season’s Arkansas game.
“We pulled into our parking space and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Olson said. “It was neat just to be with him and all the fans here. It was special for me to be here with him.”
The Auburn tickets came with other perks, too, including tailgating at a prime spot just across from Jordan-Hare Stadium and a table laden with sandwiches and munchies.
Gameday for Heroes gave out tickets on opening week at places like Alabama (six), Florida (2), Georgia (2), Tennessee (4) and Texas Tech (2), said Jana Tarleton, the club’s president.
Some 25 tickets already have been donated for the Oct. 8 Notre-Dame-Air Force game for different military branches, said Tarleton, a 1991 Auburn graduate.
“I’m not an Auburn fan doing this,” she said. “I’m a military fan.”
Her group fields requests through its website, gamedayforheroes.org, and tries to fill them through donated money or tickets.
Tarleton said Gameday for Heroes Inc. distributed some 400 tickets to Auburn games the past two seasons. It also raised money for six season tickets for wounded soldiers.
The program has allowed Marine Cpl. Kristopher Brown to get a couple of tickets to see his favorite team Florida State play rival Miami. He lived in Tampa, Fla., before moving to Ohio in the eighth grade and has only been to two Seminoles games.
“I wasn’t planning on them getting me tickets just because it’s such a big game,” said Brown, who is stationed in suburban Cleveland. “I was ecstatic. I can’t even explain it.
“It’s like the game I’ve always wanted to go to.”
He has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq , where his 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines had 46 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen serving with them killed in 2005.
Three members of the Texas Army National Guard based in Austin attended the Auburn opener. Spc. Brandon George, Sgt. Antonio Haro and Lt. Jorge Lugo are attending jump school for three weeks at Fort Benning, about an hour away from Auburn’s campus, and are scheduled to deploy this fall.
Only Haro had been to an Auburn game. Lugo even has a Texas longhorn tattooed on his back. But the courtesy tickets delivered to the hotel by Tarleton’s husband, Mike, gave them a chance to spend a Saturday with 84,000 people cheering at a football game instead of watching movies on the laptop, Lugo said.
“It means the world,” George said. “There’s nothing better than to know that people are actually thinking about what you’re doing.”
Added Haro: “Just the whole experience is very heartwarming.”
Mike Tarleton said Gameday for Heroes started as a community service project for the Auburn club after a fellow church member wondered aloud if he could get tickets for those at Fort Benning.
“Now a lot of colleges are calling us saying we’ve heard about this and we want to figure out how you’re doing it,” said Steve Taylor of Columbus, who supplies the prime tailgating spot. “It’s really nothing but generosity of people donating tickets. That’s all it is. It’s tax deductible for them.
“If there’s a better cause, I’m not aware of it.”
Auburn coach Gene Chizik, whose father served in World War II, said he appreciates the gesture for those in the military.
“Anytime we can do anything for those guys, that can bring a little bit of joy to their life, to get away from whatever their issues or problems might be, I think it’s an outstanding idea,” Chizik said. “It’s a great program, and it’s just a great idea.”