Illinois State quarterback’s family support staff travels to Tiger game

Saturday, September 22, 2007 | 6:23 p.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Todd Drone demonstrates how his grill swings into the back of his tailgate for storage during the long drives to Illinois State road games. Drone made the grill himself and said that he received a lot of advice about patenting the design. "You can't even feel it when it's back there," Drone said.

COLUMBIA ­— Every football player, from Pee Wee to the pros, is guaranteed to have diehard fans: family.

Families are unconditional in their support, cheering on loved ones even during a blowout loss. But they rarely have Web sites.

Illinois State starting quarterback Luke Drone’s family — “The Drone Crew” — chronicles its support for their beloved No. 7 at with photo albums and links to news articles. They also wear red T-shirts with Drone Crew emblazoned across a black No. 7 on the back.

“Everyone who wears a red shirt is blood,” said Karen Drone, the quarterback’s mother.

The red shirts dominated the southern end of the parking lot at Reactor Field. The crew traveled from Mount Carmel, Ill., a town of 8,000 near the Indiana border.

Karen Drone pointed out some of the core members of the crew at the tailgate — her son’s seven siblings, including his twin sister Lindsey.

“It’s hard to remember all of them,” said Karen Drone, who is one of the Drone Crew chiefs, along with her husband, Ron Drone. It could have been more difficult for her. She wasn’t trying to name her 10 grandchildren.

All of the Drone Crew pitches in for the tailgate, which fed about 50 people Saturday. But Todd Drone, 33, one of the quarterback’s older brothers, is one of the crew’s most indispensable members. He not only put together and maintains, but he also built and hauls the crew’s grill unit on the back of his white 2003 Ford Expedition.

Like a boat or trailer, the custom-made unit is hitched to the back of his SUV. The grill is housed in a large toolbox-like trunk made out of aluminum tread plate. “All I have to do is swing it, latch it, and we’re off,” Todd Drone said, demonstrating how easy it is to grab the grill unit’s handle on the side, pull it around and secure it before driving away.

Todd Drone and his father-in-law J.R. Warnken took two months to design the grill and four days to build it during the summer. Todd Drone said he doesn’t have any regrets about his design. Along with the grill, he’s happy with the unit’s features: two drawers for barbeque utensils, a single, stovetop burner and space to hold a large cooler. Since the grill unit is hauled and blocks the SUV’s headlights, he had to install and wire LED lights in the back of the aluminum trunk.

The Drone Crew fired up the grill for the third time Saturday. “It rides well,” Todd Drone said.

But the grill will face its ultimate test in November when the Drone Crew travels to Fargo, N.D., to watch No. 7, their favorite football player. It’s about 900 miles from Mount Carmel to North Dakota State.

Rearing a Tigers fan: The Benton family had everything it would need for a typical tailgate: plenty of folding chairs, bread, lunch meat, and, of course, a baby’s playpen for six-month-old Khagan. While many people might not bring their young children to a tailgate, Mary Beth Benton of Columbia, Khagan’s grandmother, said they come along to make football games a true family affair.

“We like the sports, and they like to watch the activities,” Benton said.

Three other children came on Saturday, and although they enjoy being in the stadium, Benton has to bring activities to keep the children busy during the game.

“We bring coloring books, crayons and markers and card games,” Benton said.

The Bus: While some choose to adorn their cars with bumper stickers to support their favorite teams, Gene Stephenson and Dave Loveland have taken Tiger support transportation to a new level. The two bought a school bus from the Harrisburg Public School system almost 17 years ago and have had it tiger-striped for the past three. Seats were taken out to make room for tailgating equipment, said Loveland, who is from Sedalia.

The bus was in the northwest end of the Memorial Stadium parking lot where Loveland, Stephenson and others barbequed and chatted about all things Missouri football. Loveland and Stephenson, both longtime Tiger fans, wouldn’t have their chariot painted any other way.

“I don’t think either of us would have this bus striped any other color,” Loveland said.

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