It’s that time of year again: the air turns cool and crisp and it’s fun to grab some snacks and watch some favorite movies. Or football. Or both! Last night I was stuffing envelopes with 501st Legion patches while watching my Gamecocks play (horribly) and it struck me how long I’ve been a fan of both football and Star Wars. So I thought I’d take this chance at the beginning of football season to talk about how the two have intersected in my life over the years.
People don’t normally equate sports with geekdom. Sure, we all played outside as kids but I was too busy in the eighties arguing where Boba Fett came from to try out for the middle school football team. I’ve always been a fan of the game, just never a participant. My inner geek was always getting picked on by my inner sports fan. So imagine my surprise when football started becoming a regular fixture of my Star Wars hobby!
The first sign something was up came from New York. The 501st was only a few years old when Keith Arbeeny, a member of the Empire City Garrison, strolled into Giants stadium with a set of Stormtrooper armor repainted in red, white, and blue. He’d modified the armor with huge shoulder pads and an imposing shielded helmet. The crowd went insane. Everyone knows Star Wars, and if I’ve learned anything from my wife the Giants fan, New York loves their team. The combination made Keith a rock star. He was soon after inducted into the Giants Fan Hall of Fame.
Soon after in 2004 Joe Sauter of Bloodfin Garrison (the 501st unit in Indiana), posted pictures of his Colts Trooper. His Stormtrooper armor was enhanced with bright blue under armor, blue lenses, horse shoe decals, and a flowing cape. He was voted the ultimate fan and featured on the cover of Intake magazine. He now has a permanent banner hanging up in Lucas Oil Stadium. Joe would later tell me it was rough being in armor at a game: drunk spectators loved to give him good-natured punches thinking the armor offered protection. It does not. But Joe took it like a champ and gave the fans something to cheer for.
At about the same time, Jon Leopold of Great Lakes Garrison (Michigan) marched into Ford Stadium, also wearing blue and white. His armor said it all: decals and logos everywhere. Kids flocked to the Lions trooper and fans shot YouTube videos of him. A local sports journalist ran across the stadium to do a segment on Jon and later ended up beoming a 501st Legion member himself (TD-1044)! Even Megatron himself, Calvin Johnson, hung out with him at a charity softball game. Even when the team was down the fans always celebrated seeing Lions Trooper at the games.
More football troopers quickly followed. In Cincinnati a guy in Bengals armor appeared regularly at games. It turns out he was never a Legion member, just a guy who had the same idea as us. But the Legion continued the trend. Larry Jehle of Bast Alpha Garrison (Louisiana) decided to change things up. Fresh off of the Saints’ Super Bowl win, Larry repainted his Mandalorian armor in dazzling burnished gold with “Who Dat” inscribed under the mythosaur skull. Larry used his newfound fame to help raise awareness of post-Katrina New Orleans, reinforcing the long relationship between the 501st and charity work. Hanging out with hot chicks wasn’t a bad thing, either.
And still more came. Football troopers even started appearing on the collegiate level. Bruce Jernell of Garrison Tyrannus (Virginia) paid homage to his beloved Virginia Tech with Hokie Trooper. Resplendent in Chicago maroon and burnt orange, his was the first to resemble actual football gear, all the way down to his athletic pants. His logic? Full armor wouldn’t be as flexible as football gear when hanging with the cadets and tailgaters. Steven Lewis followed suit with his Vols Trooper, sticking to full armor. Orange was no longer just a Rebel color, the Empire had seized it for its own!
I was not about to be left out. In 2009 I repurposed an old set of “TK armor” (as we call Stormtrooper armor in the Legion) and repainted it in glorious fashion: bright “safety blue”, glossy black, and shiny silver to create Panthers Trooper in honor of my beloved team the Carolina Panthers. With blue eye paint, cat-scratch marks, some decals, and a cape I was all set to make a splash. In 2010 I marched in the DragonCon parade in Atlanta, Georgia alongside my buddy Colts Trooper himself. The crowd went bananas. Weeks later I got an invitation from the head of Panthers fan relations telling me how terrific Panthers Trooper was and how excited they were to finally have one for the team. Apparently word was getting around. The teams actually _wanted_ us to do our thing. In the world of sports fans, that was a big win. Move over, San Diego Chicken, the new mascots are in town.
The combo just seems to work for people. A football player already looks like an armored tank, so a Stormtrooper adds that cool Star Wars element. Anyone who’s watched Fox sports knows Cleatus, the big armored football robot. Essentially that’s what we “football troopers” are in the eyes of fans and they love it. I mean who wouldn’t?
Meanwhile the legacy continues and grows. Sean Carmichael from the New England Garrison is about to roll out Pats Trooper, working off clone armor instead of the TK, and it looks fantastic. At Celebration 6 in Orlando Darth Vol was present at the Imperial Bash, proudly showing off his Tennessee orange. And roaming the floor of the convention was Darth Vader done over in Dolphins colors with an Imperial officer wearing the orange-and-green alongside him.
What does it all mean? Film scholars might offer that Star Wars works from basic archetypes of heroes and bad guys and that these tropes can be applied to other to forms of story-telling. After all, professional sports is just live theater without a script. But I’m not sure it goes as deep as that. As humans we dig being part of a tribe, and teams can be our tribes complete with colorful tribal symbols. You add space-men from Star Wars and now a fan can feel like the Empire is on their side!
Me, I’m just glad I finally found a way to make my inner sports fan and my inner geek get along.
Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion “Vader’s Fist”. He’s also man-servant to R2-KT “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold”. You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.