Don Howard didn”t grow up in Mississippi, nor did he attend Mississippi State University football games as a kid.
Howard, now retired after 26 years of active duty and 12 years of civil service with the Air Force, is an Illinois native who didn”t move to Columbus until the summer of 1988.
He”s been a die-hard Bulldogs fan ever since.
Howard, much like other football fans, reads the newspapers, follows recruiting on the Internet and keeps up with the team in any way possible.
But there wasn”t one particular player or moment that got Howard hooked on MSU athletics; rather, it was his passion for sports and following local teams wherever he lived.
He recalls living in Tampa, Fla., and becoming a Buccaneers fan despite growing up rooting for the Chicago Bears.
It”s a pattern he continued once he moved to Columbus, though he admits having never heard of MSU prior to the move.
Being from “Big Ten Country,” some might consider his unquestioned allegiance to MSU athletics sacrilege — he”s been a Bulldog Club member for 15 years and held as many as 12 season tickets since ”92.
“Seems crazy, I know,” Howard says, “but that”s the way I”ve always been. I”ve been to every bowl game since I”ve lived here and have only missed two home games — one to attend a high school reunion and another to attend Daytona.”
Howard”s ties to MSU were strengthened after his two sons graduated from the school. His youngest son, Tommy, also was the last quarterback for Lee High School before Columbus High was formed.
The moments shared between Howard and his sons include dozens of football and basketball games.
Howard has done his best to memorialize his 22 years as a Bulldog fan with a room in his East Columbus home. There, he has pictures, a pool table, tickets from past games and autographed memorabilia to remind him of why he loves MSU sports so much.
“Yeah, there”s a lot of neat stuff in there,” Howard joked. “I”m sure I”ll be adding to it.”
Howard, like more than 10,000 other MSU fans is making the trip Jacksonville, Fla., for Saturday”s Progressive Gator Bowl, where the No. 21 Bulldogs will face Michigan.
Howard hopes the trip is as memorable as the 2000 Independence Bowl, when MSU beat Texas A&M in the famed “Snow Bowl.”
“We stepped off the bus to big, giant snow flakes,” he said. “We knew right then it was going to be a fun night. That was the most fun I”ve ever had.”
Howard, like many longtime fans, wasn”t turned off by the 10-hour haul to Jacksonville. He admits the trek to Atlanta, where MSU was expected to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, would have been easier, but with travel points on his credit card he would have had a free hotel stay in either city.
To him, bowl games are an extended vacation around the Christmas holiday.
“It”s a social event for me,” Howard said. “It”s an opportunity for us to get together and have a vacation. We have a few drinks, eat good food, ring our cowbells and hopefully watch the Bulldogs win.”
Columbus native Ritchie Miller knows that feeling well, as he recalls the 1999 Cotton Bowl and Peach Bowl the following year.
He remembers hearing Prince”s “Party Like It”s 1999″ and watching the Peach Drop on New Year”s Eve in ”99.
He also recalls former Texas running back Ricky Williams running wild in the Longhorns” win over MSU in the Cotton Bowl.
Those moments were the high points of arguably the most successful era of MSU football. Since the ”90s, MSU has had three winning seasons and five bowl appearances.
Being an MSU fan hasn”t been hard, though.
“I know our bowl appearances are few and far between, but I”ve been a Bulldog fan all my life,” said Miller, who graduated from Immanuel Christian Center for Education. “I know it”s been up and down, so I don”t expect to always being on top.
It”s about being loyal to your school, so that”s why any time we”re in a bowl game I”m going to be there.”
Miller considers this season”s Gator Bowl berth a gift for the up-and-down years of the 2000s.
He”s been impressed with head coach Dan Mullen embracing MSU tradition and doing his best to connect with fans. He also lauded MSU”s use of social media to connect with fans, which is important for him and many others who live out of state.
Miller, a graduate of MSU and law school at the University of Mississippi, is a believer in Mullen”s coaching style and efforts to make MSU the best program in Mississippi.
“Two out of the three years I was there (Oxford), MSU beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl,” Miller said. “Made my time there sweeter, being at the ”School Up North.””
Miller lives in Washington D.C. but is currently working in Houston, Texas.
Being far away from the action has actually given Miller a chance to see the effect of a breakout season on the rest of the country.
“Obviously, I wish I lived closer, but it”s been interesting to see how we”re on the radar of people outside the state,” Miller said. “I”ve been able to have great conversation with friends in Texas, and our school is starting to get more recognition outside of our bubble. That”s been an awesome feeling. I get to share my passion for MSU with people who don”t follow us.”
One thing Howard and Miller will always have in common is being at MSU bowl games, no matter where or when the Bulldogs play.
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