TAMPA — Within the barren confines of Raymond James Stadium, amid the vast sea of unoccupied red seats, one parcel seemed a bit emptier than all the others Saturday.
West side, 50-yard line, eight rows up. Suzanne Ward badly wanted to be there, like she always has. From the program’s birth in 1997, the USF and East Bay High alumnus religiously had shown up — home and away — for her beloved Bulls.
Geography be darned. Though Ward resides in Oregon, she never had missed a USF football game during the program’s 23-season existence. Until Saturday.
The lingering COVID-19 crisis did what weather, work obligations, canceled flights and illness couldn’t. Because fans weren’t permitted for Saturday night’s 2020 season opener against the Citadel, Ward’s streak of 276 consecutive USF football games ended.
“It’s a shame,” said Ward, who once flew from Singapore (where she was on a business trip) to attend a Bulls game.
“This sounds funny, but I get invited to the bars up here. They say, ‘Why don’t you join us to watch a USF game or an FSU game,’ or whatever. I’m like, ‘Why would I do that?’ It is gonna be a little strange.”
Ward’s absence Saturday leaves Jim Louk, longtime play-by-play man for Bulls radio broadcasts; and team chaplain David “Rev” Lane as the only humans believed to have attended all 277 Bulls football contests. Ward, who manages a software development team for Intel, plans to start a new streak next weekend.
“This will be the one miss,” she said.
She was informed that USF has a few dozen tickets it plans to award “special fans” for all 2020 games, including next Saturday’s trip to Notre Dame (which will seat 20 percent of the stadium’s capacity) and the Sept. 26 visit to FAU Stadium (also 20 percent).
Home games? Ward, single with no children, purchased her season tickets long ago, and expects to have seats close to her normal ones if and when USF allows a limited number of fans back in Raymond James Stadium.
Moreover, because of the COVID-19 crisis, her pre-bought plane tickets that will go unused this season can be used for ’21 at full value.
But being grounded even one weekend remains a tough pill to swallow.
“I have a 65-inch TV upstairs,” Ward said earlier this week, “so me and the cats will be ready to watch.”