CARBONDALE — Bob and Judy Garrison drive from their home in Asheville, North Carolina to Carbondale to watch the SIU Salukis play every home football game.
Neither could remember the precise year they began these 1,000-mile road trips. They both said they started driving to Carbondale for the games sometime before the 2000 season, back when the Dawgs played in McAndrew Stadium.
In addition to driving to every home game and some road games, in their black Mercedes-Benz C-300 4Matic, the two say they have seen a trend — a lack of loyalty from some of the other fans throughout the years.
“They leave if we’re winning. They leave if were losing,” Judy said. “It’s like, ‘where are you going? You’re not trying to beat the traffic.’”
Those fleeing fans are not like the Garrisons, who stay to the final play of every game, from tailgating pregame until the game’s final whistle, no matter the score.
The tailgate tradition started with Judy and Bob meeting two other couples for pregame tailgating in the parking lot. The group has grown from those six to more than 40 people as of the Dawgs’ 2017 football home opener Sept. 9 against the Mississippi Valley State Delta Dogs.
Judy, who retired in 2013, taught advanced math to middle school students. She earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in education from SIU Carbondale. She met Bob while he was working in Carbondale.
“He’s an adopted Saluki,” she said with a smile. Judy said her husband, who retired from working in "industry," loves the team just as much as she does.
What keeps this couple coming back to Carbondale? It’s the closeness with the team the Garrisons have enjoyed throughout these 17-plus years.
She said they would not have this sort of connection to a bigger school, because they would not have the sort of access to the players and coaches. They would also have to be rather wealthy to tailgate and watch a big program.
At the Garrison tailgates, they grill sausages, burgers and other meats. They drink Yuengling beer, which is said to be the oldest American-brewed beer. They buy it at home and bring it along on their journey because their tailgating guests love it, and the Pottsville, Pennsylvania-brewed beer cannot be found in Southern Illinois, but it can be found in North Carolina. While most of the group drinks beer, Judy prefers white wine out of a wine tumbler that sits inside of a tall, plastic sippy cup so it cannot be spilled.
The Garrisons use a grill that SIU football coach Nick Hill’s family owned when Hill played quarterback for the Salukis. The grill is the shape of a football helmet with a yellow goal post on top and a Saluki logo. The name Hill and the number 7, Nick’s old jersey number, are emblazoned on it. The Hill family, who has known Judy and Bob since the Saluki football coach was in college, shares this grill with the Garrisons and other families.
The couple has had season tickets in the same spot since Saluki Stadium opened in 2010. They sit in Row 1 of Section 107, which is at about the 35-yard line and just behind the offensive line bench.
“We pledged quite a bit of money to Saluki Way,” Judy said in reference to how they attained those seats. “That’s alright. We wanted to do that, or we wouldn’t.”
Saluki Way is former SIU Carbondale Chancellor Walter V. Wendler’s brainchild that he unveiled Sept. 9, 2005. Saluki Way started as a 10-year project that would integrate academic and athletic complexes. Since then, the university has built Saluki Stadium and the Boydston Center, which were both completed in 2010, as well as the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex, which was completed in 2012. The plan also included renovating SIU Arena, which was completed in 2010, and the Richard “Itchy” Jones Stadium, completed in 2014 before the start of SIU’s baseball season.
The Garrisons have even flown on the team plane for road games against rival teams such as Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State.
“Fact is we’re donors,” Judy said when asked about how they’ve gotten to fly with the team in a charter jet. “But (it’s) also that we drive so many miles to see them play. We aren’t millionaires, but we are dedicated.”
Judy and Bob, who have no children of their own, have current and former Salukis who they consider to be adopted sons. Their "sons" are players the Garrisons say they know personally.
Judy even texts the players she knows before and after games.
“I keep in touch,” she said.
Their current Saluki "sons" are Withney Simon and Daquon “Ice” Isom. Their other "sons" included former Salukis Brad Biggs, Jeff Evans, David Pickard and Jayson Dimanche. DiManche played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2013 to 2015. The Garrisons even traveled north to see DiManche play in Cincinnati, which is another 728-mile round-trip drive from their Asheville home.
This season has been a little rough.
“Last week (at South Dakota on Oct. 27), we finally got a drive going,” Judy said. “The player put the ball down on the ground and spun it in celebration. (The referee) called a penalty for celebrating. (It was) a young mistake. We don’t need that.”
Mistakes like that get Hill’s ire.
“Nick (Hill) is so easy-going, until he isn’t,” she said.