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Section 132, Row X

Friends, strangers come together at RJS for one cause: Get Nasty for Bucs.

[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
Robin Tillett of Lakeland has a friend take a picture of her with Big Nasty (Keith Kunzig) as Little Nasty (Keith's brother, Ken) get revved up for the Vikings game.

By BRANT JAMES, JAMAL THALJI, SCOTT PURKS and FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


Twenty-four pilgrims stand shoulder-to-shoulder, craning their necks and squinting into the infinite blue. The numbing rush of the four fighter jets is the last formality.

As it gathers its voices in anticipation of the kickoff, Section 132, Row X has completed its collective journey to Raymond James Stadium. It is an assemblage of old friends, new friends and strangers who are more alike than they realize, even with the gang of rhinoceros-horned maniacs at the far end of the row.

"It's time to get Nasty!"

* * *

There's no such thing as game day at Keith Kunzig's Seminole house. Try game dawn. It starts when Kunzig, 35, up at 5:30 for home games, decides it's time for the Nasty Boys to muster.

Kunzig, who has developed into a character known as "Big Nasty," assembles his four-man posse with an early call.

In Tampa, "Nasty" Steve Chelena, and in Palm Harbor, Steve's brother, Jon "JC Nasty" Chelena, have their wardrobe of customized jersey, horned hard hat airbrushed with a snarling rhino and face paint ready to re-create the Nasty Boys.

In Largo, it's not so much the ringing that gives chills to 33-year-old Ken "Little Nasty" Kunzig, still in bed. It's what happens when he answers the phone.

"It's Buccaneer Sunday!" Keith Kunzig explodes, his 6-foot-3, 375-pound body convulsing with each syllable.

"That's kind of rough when you've been out the night before," Ken Kunzig smiles.

There's no going back to sleep and Ken, garbed in his "Little Nasty" jersey and red camouflage shorts, makes the drive to his brother's just before 9.

The pilgrimage is under way. From Keith and Janet Martin's driveway in Valrico, where they pack a regiment's share of tailgate supplies into their pewter Chevy Blazer; from a table at the Garden Grill in Palm Harbor, where Ernest and Dawn Ezell enjoy breakfast; to John Grillo's home in Tampa, where he disdained Sunday slumber to be at an early tailgate.

In a few hours the collective pieces of Section 132, Row X will be whole again.

graphic

* * *

The Spartans should have been so methodical as the Martins.

"Charcoal?"

"Match Light?"

"Garlic salt?"

"How about the butter?"

"I think I got all that stuff."

Morning dew glazes windshields outside the Martin home. A chill hangs as Keith, a 47-year-old director of engineering for TECO People's Gas, and his wife, Janet, 46, manager of pricing at Verizon, shuffle between the house and garage.

The garage is littered with Bucs paraphernalia: a souvenir construction helmet, in the original "Bucco Bruce" colors; an original orange and white pennant; red foam swords; and a framed poster of Lee Roy Selmon, along with two tickets: East Stands, Gate 4, Aisle 26, Sec. 0, Row 45, Seats 22 and 23, $30.

The tickets are dated Sept. 17, 1995: Lee Roy Selmon Day.

You could say they're fans.

"You really appreciate now what we went through then," Keith Martin says. "Sam Wyche Leeman Bennett "

"Ray Perkins," his wife adds.

"It seems like a nightmare now," Keith says.

Finally the Blazer is packed. The checklist is complete.

"You all set?" Keith Martin asks his wife, his watch at 7:41 a.m.

"Yep."

"Let's do it."

* * *

Keith Kunzig already has begun the black outline of his face paint by the time his brother arrives. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, foundation applied, Keith is sprawled over a dining room chair, peering into a mirror as he draws squiggly lines over his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. A grimace or tongue-wag tests the symmetry of each stroke. It's almost time for the red stick as Ken draws curves into his hairline.

"When I look back, some of the designs are pretty funny," says Debbie Kunzig, to whom Keith proposed at a 1996 Raiders-Bucs game. "We used to think, 'That was great.' Now we're like, 'Oh, my God."'

Debbie once hated football but has become a manic fan since she "said 'I do' to it all."

Her wavy hair pulled back under a team visor, she wears a Bucs jersey labeled "Mrs. Nasty" and entertains 3-year-old daughter Destiny -- "Princess Nasty" to you and me -- as Ken and Keith ready themselves.

"Sometimes I like to walk behind them at the stadium just to see the reaction," she says.

Being part of the Nasty pantheon has its advantages. Last year Ken and Keith were featured in a documentary about rabid Bucs fans. Keith won a contest that put him into the NFL Fans Hall of Fame, and he passes his "fan cards" to kids before games.

A local company specializing in sports travel packages traded Keith and Debbie trips to every away game in exchange for the use of his image on brochures.

The depth of Nasty passion is not lost on Row X. Grillo watches from 20 seats away, but he, like many rowmates, lives vicariously through their energy.

"That's one dedicated person," he says. "I have to say, I admire someone like that."

* * *

Grillo has watched games from privileged perches at Raymond James, as a guest of his father-in-law, Detroit Lions radio announcer Mark Champion, in a broadcast booth suite. But there is nothing like being in that molded red seat, he said, watching some "raw, in-your-face football."

Up at 7:30 and out the door soon after, Grillo meets Dollar Rent-A-Car co-workers Dan Bourbeau, Keith Sawayda, Keith Hessefort and Vaughn McIntire, as well as Brian Harris, who works for Comp Serv, a Dollar vendor, at a tailgate at 9:15.

Bratwurst, grilled onions, beer and classic rock set the scene under their Bucs tent.

"A day of relaxing, a day of fun," Grillo says.

The Ezells are more intense. Ernest is ready to reach for the ankle tape by the time they reach their tailgate and play some sandlot football.

"You have to go there with the thought that, 'I'm on the field. I'm going to be the guy that, we're down by six, 10 seconds left on the clock, we're in the red zone, and I'm the one getting the ball,"' said Ezell, a mortgage processor.

* * *

There's more than tongue-wagging and No. 1 finger salutes to the Kunzig brothers, but few get to see it. Ken, a fire inspector for SimplexGrinnell, and Keith, who works at a Tampa Metroflex gym, live mostly anonymous lives when the makeup comes off.

Underneath the layers of beads and baubles they wear to each game, each wears an ID card of their mother, Estelle, who died of a heart attack in 1999.

"I know, in my heart, she's there every game with us," Ken says.

After grinding to nubs six sticks of $6 black, red and white makeup pencils, the Insane Clown Posse-meets-The Crow face motif emerges.

"Time to get nasty!" Keith barks.

Debbie Kunzig ties a bandana to her husband's head as he practices his Gene Simmons leer in the living room mirror. Ken's extra pencil strokes ensure his lips are as black as evil.

All Nasty systems are go.

* * *

The charcoals are chalky white at the Martin tailgate by the time the Kunzigs hop in Keith's Chevy truck.

For 15 years, the Martins have been tailgating on two oversized lots at Douglas Street and Glen Avenue. The Tampa Stadium Authority was nice enough to demolish Tampa Stadium and build Raymond James right across the street.

Sunday morning, they arrive about 8:45, before the lot's owners.

Not a soul is in sight.

There was a time Janet Martin hoped she could teach her husband to grill the occasional palatable meal.

Now the student has become the master.

"I'm not even in his league anymore," she said. "He's the best. People can't wait to get out here and eat."

Every chef has his secrets.

"This stuff," he said, pulling out a roll of tin foil, "is like duct tape."

Minutes later, Olga McDonogh pulls in from church. After a hug, Keith slices up the first batch of chicken and Italian sausage, hands out forks and begins the hors d'oeuvres.

Rodney and Carla Porter arrive a bit later, park their Nissan Pathfinder parallel to the Martins' truck and set up a folding table and chairs.

Rodney pulls out a package of Johnsonville Brats.

"They're so good you can feel yourself dying," he says.

"Oh, man," Keith Martin smiles. "We're going to live like kings today."

Rodney Porter made his special dip that morning.

What's in it?

He falls silent. He grips a chip, scoops the thick, cheesy, lumpy dip and puts a jalapeno on top.

"I don't remember."

This is the second trip to Raymond James for Rodney and Carla, who has battled a high-grade sarcoma in her right lung since 1999. This visit, Keith says, is on him.

"They're just always so nice to us," Rodney says, "and not just because she's sick. They've always been generous people."

The tailgate is not the big deal for the Nasty Boys: a Miller Lite here, a Skoal Bandit there and a Publix sub as they lean against Keith's truck in the Hillsborough Community College lot.

Keith lowers the tailgate he had airbrushed with pictures of himself, Ken and Destiny and a Bucs pirate ship sinking a Green Bay Man O'War. He plops down, shares salutations with fans on the other side of a fence, and poses for pictures with his brother and the Chelenas.

It's not like the old days, when the Kunzigs, Jon, a health consultant, and Steve, who owns a sign company, and friends plied their madness at Tampa Stadium.

"We used to get pretty looped," Keith says. "This guy used to hold up a big sign to show us where our seats were. They had that one long set of bleachers, you know, and once you got up to the top, the beer man was like the end of the rainbow."

Now the day is more about the spectacle, which begins soon after someone answers Ken's pressing question.

"It's about a quarter of 12."

* * *

Janet Martin knows how hard it must have been to stop Rembrandt from painting.

It's an hour and 15 minutes to kickoff when she begins plotting to steal her husband from the grill.

"I have to break it to him gently," she says. "This is going to take a while."

Janet's cry of "Last call" gets the process moving at noon, but 15 minutes later he's still serving chicken and cheese sandwiches.

Ten minutes later, Janet turns up the heat. "Honey, it's 12:25," she says. "I've been so patient."

Keith finally gives in. The chairs and table are put away. The food and drinks go back into the coolers. The tailgate slams shut.

Ron Ronz, a 47-year-old CPA from Seminole, is in a much bigger hurry to get inside. He is about to miss one of his game-day pleasures: warmups.

"We're boring," he concedes.

His wife, Mary, 47, is 15 feet ahead and hitting battle speed as they glide down Himes Avenue, past the purple-faced Viking fan and the band warping Van Halen's Panama into a Bucs fight song.

On the other side of Raymond James, as if triggered by some migratory instinct, the Nasty Boys ready for the march to the stadium.

Ken Kunzig adjusts his hardhat and Jon Chelena jams a Viking rag doll farther down on his horn. A grunt here, a high five there, a quick tongue wag and the Nastys are marching in.

Enjoying the looks of familiarity and shock, the group struts to the intersection of Dale Mabry and Tampa Bay Boulevard, Keith bellowing,"Heeeeeeere, Culpepper."

The unsuspecting woman in the Vikings Culpepper jersey senses the crowd part around her as Kunzig approaches from behind. Her initial look of terror when she turns and gazes into his black-lined eyes delights the partisan crowd, and white teeth flash under his dark lips.

The pep rally begins in the intersection as Jon Chelena pumps his hands at the four-deep row of cars, imploring them to honk.

"Come on, don't be like the club section people! Honk your horns!"

Sharing his excitement or wishing to appease him, they respond, and the throng grows. A car whisking Gen. Tommy Franks into a VIP lot adds a honk to the merriment.

Then there are the photos. Dozens of them. The group poses for almost 20 on the short walk to the turnstile. There are Bucs fans, Viking fans, and kids by the score. Everybody is welcomed into the well-practiced group shot, as long as they stick the tongue out far and proud.

"We have a lot of fun with this," Jon Chelena says. "This is just the greatest."

The Ezells are already settling eagerly into their seats, well ahead of the rest of the row.

"We just wait and wait for them to open the gates," Ernest Ezell says. "Everybody is so excited to get in here. You get around all these die-hard people and it's kind of hard to resist."

Dawn, a Vikings fan since the 1970s (chosen because purple is her favorite color) knows the 84 on her Minnesota jersey might as well be a target. It doesn't matter. She wouldn't have missed this chance to show her love for her favorite team.

"Being here makes the game," she says.

Ezell and the others had found the heart of it all, why grown men paint their faces and families forgo a quiet Sunday at home, why women are willing to wear Randy Moss jerseys into a stadium of people who came to jeer him. Why the expense of a ticket, the annoyance of traffic and leftover charcoals are worth it for a few hours with 65,667 like-minded souls.

"I love this," Ron Ronz says. "Where else can you get 100,000 people wearing the same color and cheering for something?"

Through seasons of sitting together, some of the fans in Row X have become friends, buying each other baby gifts or Christmas presents, becoming more than someone who passes them a beer.

"We've got a real good row," Ken Kunzig says. "Really good people."

Moments before kickoff, the Nastys hold their customary pre-game prayer on the concourse, then hustle to their seats. No need to check their tickets.

"If we went to the game without the makeup on they'd probably kick us out of our seats," Keith Kunzig says. "They'd be like, 'Who are you guys?"'

* * *

It takes Keith Kunzig nearly three quarters to realize the row contains a traitor.

"Viking fan? Where?" he grunts, fixing his gaze down the row. His attention is diverted back to a serious problem for the self-ordained instigator of the 12th man, however: The Vikings are making this blowout more interesting.

"Come on, 12th man, let's go!" he growls. Even the "Grey Poupon section" behind them in the club level is roused.

Seconds later, Warren Sapp intercepts a pass from Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, sending the stadium, and 23/24ths of 132, Row X into a tizzy. Martin slaps hands with Porter; Steve Chelena with anyone within reach.

Dawn Ezell, hoping the moment passes quickly, sips a drink as her husband finds neighbors to congratulate.

"It's hostile," Ernest says. "There's no other word you could put to it other than hostile. It's war. We're no longer married as long as the game's going on."

At that moment, standing in the horde of fans, jubilant, confident his support had somehow enabled this resounding win, it seemed worth it.

"There's nothing like being in that stadium on a Sunday," says Jon Chelena, sweat beading on his cheeks. "It's the camaraderie of it. It's a stress relief. It's amazing."

* * *

The Bucs' 38-24 victory is less than an hour old, and a cortege of cars inches out of sandy lots onto Dale Mabry. The Ezells are off to a post-game dinner. The Martins have a tailgate to disassemble.

Keith Kunzig, his red 99 jersey saturated in sweat, sits again on his tailgate, looking as spent as in his days as a junior college lineman. Helmet at his side, bandana pulled off to reveal a sprawl of soaked hair, he crams his thick hand into a plastic box of Huggies Baby Wipes.

"These things take the paint right off," he says, pulling Big Nasty off his face in wide red swaths. "And they make me smell goooooood."

Swigging down a bottle of water, he bobs his head and offers his brother the box.

"Now that was a good day."

PROFILES

KEITH AND JANET MARTIN, CARLA AND RODNEY PORTER

BEST MOMENT AS A BUCS FAN: It was Dec. 28, 1997, when the Bucs beat the Lions 20-10 at Houlihan's Stadium in an NFC wild-card game. "Let me tell you why it was important. I was out at Arkansas visiting my parents, and I already decided I wasn't going to go home to the game. My mother actually bought me a ticket to fly back for the game and then fly back to Arkansas. That was really something." -- Keith Martin

WHY DO YOU DO THIS?: "I'll tell you why, my wife and I both, this is the only thing we do aside from our children. It's our deal. We do this, we get away, we do the tailgating, we enjoy doing it. It's our own thing we do. elip Our splurge, we call it. We don't do a whole lot more than that." -- Keith Martin

WHY DO YOU DO THIS?: "We both love football. I grew up with five brothers, I was the only girl. That's what my dad did on Sunday. We watched football. Keith and I met in Gainesville and we were crazy about the Gators. Keith and I, when we moved down here, we absolutely fell in love with it. It's the only thing we do between me and Keith. It's the only thing we do together because we're both so busy. We both work full-time and we have a very busy family." -- Janet Martin

KEITH KUNZIG, KEN KUNZIG, JON CHELENA, STEVE CHELENA

WHY DO YOU DO THIS?: "Me and my brother played ball ourselves, and since we can't play anymore, it makes us feel like we're part of the game. And the crowd loves it. The 12th man is important in football, and that's why we scream." -- Ken Kunzig

WHAT IS THE FUN PART OF BEING A FAN?: "All the crazy fans from the other teams like to come over and see us and we play it up. We had Bird Man (Eagles mascot) in our section and we were doing this thing like we were tussling with him. All the fans are cool with it ... except the Philadelphia fans. They seem to be nasty everywhere."

RON RONZ, MARY RONZ

WHY DO YOU GO TO THE GAMES?: (He has season tickets to the Bucs, Rays and Lightning.) "What can I say? I'm a sports nut."

RICH SMOOKE, MICHAEL SMOOKE

BEST MOMENT AS A BUCS FAN: "I won the Home Depot/Bucs drawing for $2,500 worth of table tools at the Monday night St. Louis game a couple of years ago. I was on the field and presented a certificate. Out of the whole stadium, I won and had my name on the Jumbotron and everything. That was a great night and a great game." -- Rich Smooke

HOW LONG A FAN?: Since 1979 when he moved from New York. "That was a great year to become a Bucs fan. That was a great year for Tampa." -- Rich Smooke

BRIAN HARRIS, PAM NICHOLS

BEST MOMENT AS A BUCS FAN: "When (Washington's Dan Turk) fumbled the snap on the field goal, and we went to the NFC final (1999)." -- Brian Harris

WORST MOMENT: "I remember being in the old stadium (Houlihan Stadium) and nobody being there except for opposing fans." -- Brian Harris

JOHN GRILLO, DAN BOURBEAU and KEITH SAWAYDA

WORST MOMENT AS A BUCS FAN: "Let's try the 11 years of double-digit losing seasons. That's kind of one big blur, really." Second worst -- "The rotating door of coaches, anywhere from Sam Wyche to, good God, I can remember faces, but I can't remember names." -- John Grillo

WORST MOMENT: "Last year, the first game of the playoffs when they got spanked up in Philly." -- Dan Bourbeau

DAWN and ERNEST EZELL

WHY DO YOU GO TO THE GAMES?: "The intensity. It's first being around the fans and watching the fans rile their team up to play the game. First of all, you have to be a true football fan. That's where it begins at, and then you have to have fans that will pretty much go to the extremes for their team." -- Ernest Ezell

BEST MOMENT AS A BUCS FAN: "The first year I went to a Bucs game was two years ago and I actually got to go to a Minnesota game then. Just walking into the stadium and the ship is phenomenal to see. The first step I made into the stadium was my most memorable moment." -- Dawn Ezell


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