FSU's Red Lightning strikes again

FSU equipment manager Frankie Grizzle-Malgrat, aka Red Lightning, became known for his enthusiasm and sprints down the field as much as for his red hair and beard. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- They entered in packs, tentatively exploring the upscale bar just a block from Doak Campbell Stadium in search of a Florida State legend.

There were parents with their children, rowdy fraternity brothers with beers in hand, and bubbly coeds laughing amongst themselves, all trying not to seem too eager. Slowly, they'd shuffle over, camera phones or Florida State souvenirs in hand, and make their request.

A father asked the legend to take a picture with his young daughter, then dropped any pretense of dignity and requested another photo of his own. An attractive waitress begged for a follow on Twitter.

Two women snapped pictures and then asked the legend to autograph their T-shirts, which were already emblazoned with his likeness. As he'd done countless times in the past few months, he graciously agreed, scribbling the words "Red Lightning" across the cotton with practiced ease.

"They all come in and say, ‘Hey, it's Red Lightning,'" Frankie Grizzle-Malgrat said. "They don't know my real name."

This was a charity event for coach Jimbo Fisher’s foundation less than a month after Florida State won the 2013 BCS National Championship and Grizzle-Malgrat, the Seminoles' equipment manager, became a superstar. He offered to donate any proceeds gleaned from his overnight success to the cause, and on this night he was guest bartending while organizers auctioned off Red Lightning prizes, including a chance to challenge him to a footrace.

Grizzle-Malgrat is 21, just six months into his tenure at Florida State after transferring from Tallahassee Community College, and his overnight fame courtesy of a YouTube video has afforded him a unique brand of celebrity. He's part Internet meme, part sports icon, part social construct -- an average guy living every football fan's dream. But mostly, Grizzle-Malgrat is a blue-collar student doing his best to navigate celebrity life with the same earnest enthusiasm that earned him that fame in the first place.

When an event organizer informs Grizzle-Malgrat that Candi Fisher, Jimbo's wife, will be arriving soon and that her usual drink order is a Madras, he's instantly flummoxed.

"A mattress?" he inquires. "Like what you lay on?"

Still, bartenders are eager to relay their knowledge as he mixes up concoctions for the growing crowd, including a special "Red Lightning" shot. The original mixture was a bit tame, and by night's end, Grizzle-Malgrat refined the recipe to one more appealing to his fans.

He takes photos with FSU basketball coach Leonard Hamilton, who was eager for an introduction. He's cornered by a trio of men wanting to buy him a drink in exchange for advice on life. After he's pulled away, the men agree: "It's like we're following Jesus."

"Everybody is his friend," Candi Fisher said. "He's just got so much personality."

But Grizzle-Malgrat understands how preposterous the situation is.

In August, he'd reached out to Florida State equipment operations manager Darin Kerns, hoping for a quiet job behind the scenes with his favorite college football team. He drove 650 miles from his hometown of Key West, Fla., on the first day of fall camp, then spent the rest of the next six hours trudging across the practice fields, collecting helmets and laundering uniforms. It was a dream job.

"This is all I ever wanted to do, and it so happened to be Florida State, my favorite football team," Grizzle-Malgrat said. "I couldn't ask for it to be any better."

His enthusiasm was obvious from the outset. Within a month, Grizzle-Malgrat's work ethic earned him a scholarship. He'd stop by the locker room as early as 6 a.m. to lend a hand, even on off days. Some nights, he'd remain at work past midnight. At practice, he began working with the quarterbacks, clicking with eventual Heisman winner Jameis Winston. On game days, Grizzle-Malgrat was a whirlwind of energy, sprinting down the sidelines following a big run, celebrating with players after a score, even jawing with the opposition when tempers flared.

It wasn't just the equipment staff that appreciated Grizzle-Malgrat's passion, however. With his shaggy red beard and bright, curly hair, he's easy enough to spot from the stands, which is how photographer and FSU fan Jake Brashears first took notice. Brashears dug up TV clips of Seminoles highlights that featured Red Lightning in the background, assembled the video and posted it to YouTube after FSU's win over Florida. It became an instant phenomenon.

By the time Florida State arrived in Charlotte for the ACC championship game a week later, Red Lightning was a household name.

For Grizzle-Malgrat, the next few weeks were a blur. In Charlotte, he met longtime broadcaster Brent Musburger, and the two struck up a friendship. At clubs, eager women swarmed him, posing for photos with their arms wrapped around him. When stopped at traffic lights, drivers honked and yelled his name. His fellow equipment managers basked in the shared spotlight, and suddenly players were joking that Red Lightning had become the most famous member of the Seminoles entourage.

"They love him," Kerns said. "Jameis came back from the Heisman and was like, ‘They were asking about you, Red Lightning.'"

Back home in Key West, Grizzle-Malgrat's sudden fame wasn't quite as much of a surprise. He's always been an avid sports fan, and he's always been passionate about his work. The YouTube video simply captured what his hometown had seen for years.

"It's him," his mother, Kim, said. "He was full on. He got most school spirit. He's constantly full throttle."

Still, his family is amused by the celebrity in their midst. At church during a trip home for the holidays, Grizzle-Malgrat was mobbed with photo requests. Kim keeps a picture from the Internet of Winston and her son captioned, "One of these men is a living legend. The other is Jameis Winston."

At Kim's Kuban, a sandwich shop she owns, a Pepsi distributor provided a banner for the national championship game that read: "Home of Red Lightning."

The video still gets clicks and numerous spinoffs have followed. At the bar, women still shout for Red Lightning, and he still poses for numerous pictures. But Grizzle-Malgrat knew from the outset that fame was fleeting, so he's embraced its inevitable end point.

Before he leaves for spring break -- a trip back home to Key West -- Grizzle-Malgrat plans to shave the scraggly beard he's been growing since August and tame the frazzled curls that became his trademark. After that, he expects, the Red Lightning phenomenon will likely fade into Internet obscurity.

"It's kind of a good thing," he said. "I'll stay out of the spotlight then."

But even after the beard disappears, the legend of Red Lightning will remain embedded into the story of Florida State's national championship run.

And when the 2014 season kicks off this fall, Grizzle-Malgrat will be back, too, sprinting down the sideline, a ball tucked under his arm, doing what comes naturally.

"I never thought just me doing my job would be something out of the ordinary for other people," he said. "Now over a million people have seen me hustle, seen the passion I have toward everything, especially sports. I guess that's what made it big."