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“If things are going well, I’m a nice person to be around. I participate in conversation, I act like a human. But when things are not going well, I’m very quiet and solemn. If they lose, I’m just rotten. The family just leaves me alone. They just let me grieve.”
— Scott Rynbrand, 40-year Steelers fanatic

What’s the difference between a fan and a fanatic?
Super sports fans

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin

It’s sports fan season. 

Jim Jakiemiec has so much amazing sports memorabilia he had to open a sports bar in his basement to hold it all. 

Jim Nelson drives to all the Michigan State University football games in his Spartan green 1937 Ford. But his support of athletes goes beyond cheering in the stands. He started a scholarship program to get MSU athletes back to school to finish their degrees.

And Scott Rynbrand, Pittsburgh Steelers fan extraordinaire, has some wacky habits he’s convinced make a difference in whether his beloved Steelers win a game.

Pull on your favorite sports team shirt and learn about these “super fans.” 

Scott Rynbrand
We got a tip that Scott Rynbrand’s Kentwood home is filled to the brim with Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia.

So it’s sort of disappointing to arrive and see nothing but a Steelers doormat.

“Oh, I don’t have that much,” says Rynbrand, as he answers the door wearing a Steelers jersey.

There’s a Steelers flag on the fence out by the pool, he points out. Oh, and a windsock out in the garage. And the barbecue tools. And a hammer. Don’t forget the toothbrush holder, his wife, Mary, reminds him, and the bath mat. Oh, and the wastebasket. And the refrigerator magnet. And the bobbleheads, beach towel, Christmas tree ornaments, coasters, stepping stone, fleece throw, checkbook cover, pajamas, autographed football and “Reserved Parking for Steelers Fans” sign on the garage wall.

Not that much, really.

“Some salt and pepper shakers,” his wife, Mary, offers, pointing to a ledge above the stove. “And some drinking glasses. Would you like some lemonade?”

Sure, if it’s OK with Scott if somebody else drinks out of his Steelers glasses.

“As long as it’s not a game day,” he says.

And here’s where things get wacky.

Rynbrand, 50, a 40-year Steelers fan, is convinced his actions have something to do with whether his beloved team wins or loses.

This is Steelers Superstitions Central, where Rynbrand refuses to use any of his Steelers stuff on game day (they might lose), insists on standing up for the entire game (if he sits, they might lose), and won’t allow Mary to watch with him.

“The times she has entered the room, bad things happened,” he says. “Fumbles, interceptions, you name it.”

So Mary’s a jinx?

“She appears to be,” he says.

So now she’s banished. She doesn’t seem too broken up about it.

How did this all start? He must be from Pennsylvania, right?

Nope.

“I watched my father suffer so much watching the Lions week after week,” he says. “I thought there’s gotta be a better team to root for.”

Oh, he roots.

“Sundays in this house, if the Steelers don’t win, it’s a very sad place,” says Rynbrand, inside sales manager for — get this — Contractor’s Steel Co. in Wyoming.

“If things are going well, I’m a nice person to be around,” he says. “I participate in conversation, I act like a human.”

Sure enough, when three baby bunnies emerge from a nest in his garden, Rynbrand stops everything just to watch the cuties for a few minutes. Nice guy.

“But when things are not going well, I’m very quiet and solemn,” he says. “If they lose, I’m just rotten. The family just leaves me alone. They just let me grieve.”

He’s traveled to Pittsburgh twice to watch his beloved Steelers in person.

“Both times, they lost,” he says. “So I don’t go to games anymore. I had a chance to go see them in the Super Bowl in ’06, but I turned it down.

“I fully understand that what I do has no impact on the game,” Rynbrand says, in a transparent attempt to appear sane. “Yet I continue to behave this way.”

Rynbrand, despite his quirks, has an interesting take on sports as part of life.

“Football is a team game,” he says. “Each player has a responsibility, and if any of them fails to do their job, their opportunity to win is limited.

“It’s the same in business,” he says. “When you’re part of a business, you’re a group of people with a common goal. You forge ahead to meet that goal. You have the sole purpose of victory.

“It’s the same way in life,” he muses. “Or in a family. You work together.”

His own family supports Rynbrand’s Steelers fanaticism. Mary, bless her, even planned a surprise trip for them to see a Steelers’ game on their 15th wedding anniversary.

The Steelers lost.

“That must have been hard for you,” Rynbrand tells Mary, as if he’s realizing this for the first time.

“It made for a long ride home,” she admits.

“It really is who he is,” Mary says. “Being a Steelers fan is part of his personality.”

When the Steelers win, friends call the house just so Mary can hold up the receiver and they can hear Scott’s jubilation.

“When the team loses, friends will call and ask, ‘How’s Scott doing?’” Mary says. “As if he was diagnosed with some disease.”

Last season, Rynbrand hoped his Steelers would return to the Super Bowl and defend their AFC championship from 2010, but the team suffered a 29–23 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

“He walked into the bedroom after that game,” Mary says, “and said, ‘Honey, I don’t know what I could have done differently.’”

 

“I wanted a warm, welcoming place where people can come and let their guard down, relax and start bantering about sports. A place of friendly arguments, where you can say, ‘That call was bad,’ or ‘No, it wasn’t.’”
— Jim Jakiemiec

Jim Jakiemiec
When Jim Jakiemiec moved into his brand new Rockford home 11 years ago, the basement was unfinished.

“Raw,” he notes. “Cee-ment.”

His wife, Jodi, was trusting. “She said, ‘Do whatever you want in the basement,’” he recalls with a grin.

So he did.

Welcome to J.J.’s Sports Bar, a place so cozy and sports-fan crazy, J.J. could charge admission. But he doesn’t. If the neon “open” sign in the front living room window is lit, friends come on in.

“I wanted a warm, welcoming place where people can come and let their guard down, relax and start bantering about sports,” he says. “A place of friendly arguments, where you can say, ‘That call was bad,’ or ‘No, it wasn’t.’”

Or don’t say anything. Jakiemiec’s amazing collection of sports memorabilia might leave you speechless.

“Once you start collecting, it snowballs,” he confesses.

The Detroit Tigers are his favorite, but no one team is enshrined here. “I spread my love around,” he says.

His vast collection — covering every wall of his basement — is an eclectic blend of family sports history and big time athlete names.

He framed a 1927 photo of his grandmother with her Vassar varsity basketball team. “Look at the uniforms, the hairdos,” he says.

He has a photo of his dad when he played football for Ferris in 1958; a program from the 1956 high school sports banquet listing his mom as a cheerleader.

He displays baseballs signed by Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Pete Rose and Al Kaline. He has one of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, a basketball signed by Magic Johnson, a golf flag from the Buick Open his spectator dad was dared to steal at age 18, a hockey stick signed by the 2006 Chicago Blackhawks, a basketball signed by Larry Bird.

“I purposefully put the Larry Bird ball and the Magic Johnson ball far apart from each other,” he notes. “They were big rivals in the pros.”

Autographs — Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle — are everywhere.

How many?

J.J. grins. “Not enough.”

One Christmas back in 1995, he unwrapped a small box from his dad. Inside was a baseball, covered with signatures from the 1948 Cleveland Indians.

“He got it when he was 10 years old. That was the last year they won the World Series. There are probably nine or 10 Hall of Famers on that ball,” he says, peering through the acrylic case. “It had just been sitting in my dad’s drawer all these years.”

Now it’s a family heirloom.

“If you appreciate sports at all,” he says, “there’ll be something for you here.”

He looks around. “One big problem I have is not enough wall space.”

No sweat. He’s started tacking things on the ceiling.

He and Jodi, both Central Michigan University grads, decorated the basement bathroom in Chippewa maroon and gold and filled it with their CMU sports collection.

Jakiemiec crafted two yellow baseball foul poles and drew foul lines so that anybody standing in the bar is between them. A sign above the bar reads: “Everything’s fair at J.J.’s”

A boxing bell from the 1930s is rung on special sports occasions, but don’t stand too close — it’ll make your ears ring for awhile.

And, “If somebody commits a party foul ...” Jakiemiec begins.

“Like if they yawn,” his good-natured wife interjects.

“... I’ll pull out a flag and throw it at ’em,” he finishes.

His earliest sports memory?

“Hitting a grand slam in T-ball when I was 5.”

A lot has happened since then. Jakiemiec has wrestled, played flag football and tackle football. He’s played baseball and run track. He spends every Father’s Day watching the West Michigan Whitecaps with his dad and son.

This sports fan stuff is in his genes. His mom is a passionate University of Michigan fan.

“The day of the Michigan-Ohio State game, we’d wake up and she’d give us white T-shirts and a bunch of markers to make our own shirt,” he recalls.

“We’d have a maize and blue breakfast. Yellow eggs, blue pancakes. She’d even dye the milk blue. I got caught up in the magic of sports — the joy and heartache that every team goes through.”

When Jakiemiec talks about sports, he’s sort of poetic. So it makes sense when you find out he’s an English teacher at Kent City High School.

When he watches, coaches or plays sports, he sees a bigger picture.

“It’s the human element,” he says. “Mistakes will be made. How do you deal with it? You have to deal with tough losses, injuries. It’s a microcosm of the big picture of life.”

Jakiemiec coached high school softball for 13 years and wrestling for 10 at Kent City High School, but then his own kids — Payton, 15, Brooke, 13, and Mason, 10 — started playing and he started coaching them.

“We’re running around doing kids’ sports all the time,” he says. “I love it.”

When he’s not cheering on his kids, chances are you’ll find him down at J.J.’s, cheering on somebody else.

“People start sharing their stories about sports,” Jakiemiec says. “They’ll tell how their grandpa played football at U. of M. Every piece I have is connected to someone. It’s a smaller world than you think. We’re more alike than you think.”

He smiles.

“That’s the magic of sports,” he says. “It brings people together.”


Nelson, a retired financial services guy, is a sports fan in a way that goes way beyond cheering for the Spartans. He established the George Webster Scholarship — money that helps former MSU athletes who left school without graduating return to MSU to get their degrees.

Jim Nelson
When Jim Nelson attends home football games at Michigan State University, he really goes green.

Nelson and his wife, Mary, cruise to East Lansing in his green 1937 Ford — the perfect shade of Spartan green.

“It’s the same model my folks had when I was born in 1938,” he says.

He turns a crank and the windshield cracks open.

“This is the old A/C unit,” he says with a grin.

Nelson, 73, looks dapper in a matching green sport coat. He’s been an MSU fan since the day he walked onto campus as a freshman in 1956. He joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, earned a business degree. He graduated in 1960, spent years working and raising three kids, then nabbed season tickets in 1978 and has had them ever since.

“Your university is a springboard for your whole life,” Nelson says. “Most of my lasting friends are from MSU.”

Old friends know where to find him, parked in the tunnel lot at home games, tailgating in his vintage Ford with sandwiches, coffee and donuts — and answering near constant questions about his very cool car, even from fans of the opposing team.

But Nelson, a retired financial services guy, is a sports fan in a way that goes way beyond cheering for the Spartans.

He established the George Webster Scholarship — money that helps former MSU athletes who left school without graduating return to MSU to get their degrees.

Many athletes run out of their athletic scholarships before earning enough credits to graduate, he says, sipping coffee in the driver’s seat of his Ford. They go from being popular, successful campus stars to college dropouts.

“Too often, the athletes are just seen as entertainment,” Nelson says. “You get some great athletes going through, but then some of them don’t graduate. They go in the discard pile. We do that to a lot of potential heroes.”

To be eligible for the Webster scholarship, former MSU athletes must have earned at least two varsity letters, attended on an athletic scholarship, and left school no more than 15 years ago.

George Webster, a defensive star on MSU’s national championship teams of 1965 and ‘66, is thought by many to be the greatest player in Michigan State football history. He went on to a successful 10-year career in the pros.

He died in 2007 of heart failure, after enduring a myriad of health issues. He battled throat and prostate cancer and lost both legs because of circulation problems.

Nelson’s initial hope was to graduate two students a year through the scholarship fund. In the last four years, 17 former athletes have graduated.

“The idea is not just to get them degrees, but so they can carry on the George Webster mission,” Nelson says, “which he did from a wheelchair, without any legs.”

Webster visited schools and talked to kids about avoiding drugs and alcohol, about staying in school and continuing their education.

“Your self-concept determines your future,” Nelson says. “These athletes’ self-concepts did not include finishing college. This shows them that someone has an interest in them.”

When they graduate, Nelson springs for an MSU blazer for them.

“I tell them, ‘My hope is that when you see that hanging in your closet, you’ll think ‘When’s the last time I put that on and encouraged a kid to continue their education?’”

Nelson loves a good football game as much as the next guy.

“The social part of football, with the games and the players you get acquainted with — that makes for good memories,” Nelson says. “But how can you show loyalty not just to the university, but to the individuals?”

Giving to the fund “is a way to say thank you to the athletes for all the excitement and memorable moments.”

For more information on the Webster scholarship, visit websterfund.org. GR

   
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