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48 HOURS OF FOOTBALL: Lifelong fan gives hugs at every Tiger Walk

Friday, October 28, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 28, 2011
Gayle Johnson hugs a Missouri football player as the team makes its way across the Providence walking bridge and into Memorial Stadium before Saturday's game against Oklahoma State

Hour 17: 8:50 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 22

Gayle Johnson waits for her boys at the end of the bridge.

Soon the Missouri football team will leave its team hotel and start the drive to Memorial Stadium. The buses will pull into the parking lot across the street, and the players will walk over the stretch of concrete and brick suspended above Providence Road as they make their way through the family and fans who gather to wish them good luck before the game. They will smile and shake hands as they move through the crowd. But they will stop when they get to Johnson.

“I give them all hugs,” she says. “They’ll come for hugs, most of them.”

She is standing where she always stands two hours before home games, at the closest spot to the last step on the bridge. She wears a gold fleece, black pants and shoes, a black and gold bracelet and tigers on her earrings. Her fingernails are painted gold. The third finger on her right hand has millimeterwide black stripes.

She’s always been a fan, even when her husband’s job in the military took them to Omaha, Neb.

“We were never Big Red,” she says. “I’ll tell you that.”

Retirement meant the couple got to come back to Columbia.

“We love it,” she says.

It’s five until nine, and the crowd is getting restless.

Bodies now line the side of the bridge and form a tunnel at the bottom.

Players’ families wear jerseys and buttons and wait for their chance to wish their sons and brothers and cousins good luck. Some can’t make it to the home games, so Johnson makes sure to cut out newspaper articles and mail the so they can see the pictures.

Youngsters stick close to their parents’ legs as they wait for a chance to high-five their heroes.

“Little kids love to come see the boys,” Johnson says.

The sun glistens off brass instruments. Cheerleaders rustle pom-poms. Truman the Tiger spins his tail.

It’s almost time.

“You’ll see them come,” Johnson says. “The patrol will lead them.”

On cue, the escort and two black buses breach the hill. The fight song starts, and the players start their walk in two single-file lines.

Johnson goes to work as the first players take their last step off the bridge.

The hugs come quick and fast.

She leans forward and wraps her arms around the shoulders her head barely reaches.

Sheldon Richardson, Jared Culver, James Franklin and on down the line.

The players in the line farthest from Johnson stop and cross sides to wait for her embrace. They know the drill.

Dominique Hamilton. Andrew Wilson. Marcus Lucas. They smile and hug her back.

Then, after just three short minutes, it's over.

The band disbands. Cheerleaders disperse. Truman the Tigers wanders away.

Johnson heads toward her tailgate.

Her boys disappear into the stadium.

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