The meme team: Meet the fans behind CFB's best reactions

ESPN Illustration

Florida State professor Bruce Thyer was in the Virgin Islands this spring, looking to do a little scuba diving. At the dive center, a TV flickered with highlights of Clemson's national championship behind the reservation desk. The friendly woman taking his information smiled.

"I'm a Clemson fan," she said.

Intrigued, Thyer asked whether she'd seen the Florida State game. She had.

"Remember the guy reading the book in the stands?" he asked.

Of course she did, she said. The only memorable part of Clemson's 59-10 blowout was the shirtless man caught on camera, sitting high in an otherwise empty section of seats, reading a mystery novel while the Seminoles' defense unraveled below. No image better represented the brutal performance or the doomed FSU season than that.

"Well," Thyer said, "that was me."

Suddenly a screech erupted from the back room.

"It's FSU Book Guy!"

It was the scuba center's manager. She was a Clemson fan, too, and she wasn't going to miss her chance to meet an internet celebrity. She rushed from her office, hugged Thyer and had her employee snap a photo.

"They actually gave me a discount for my excursion," Thyer said.

Those are the perks of being a part of the growing menagerie of suddenly famous college football fans, plucked from obscurity by television producers, then launched into the world in meme form through myriad social media platforms. It's the modern twist on Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" theory, only these 15 minutes are portioned out in three-second GIFs over years and years.

Thyer, who is 65, is a renowned professor of social work, has a doctorate from Michigan and has written numerous books. But ask any college football fan from Tallahassee to Tucson and he's not Dr. Thyer, respected educator. He's FSU Book Guy.

At a recent family reunion in Chicago, Thyer's cousins had T-shirts printed up with his meme emblazoned on the front, and they all posed for photos wearing them. All except Thyer. He was in the middle of the scene, seated, shirtless and reading a book.

You become a meme ... and can't hide

John Hurley is a Florida State fan, too. He works for the state, and he's lived most of his life in Tallahassee. He's got the gentle good humor and quiet dignity befitting a true Southern gentleman. And, of course, he's got a great mustache. That's what really captured America's hearts during the Seminoles' season opener in 2016.

Dalvin Cook fumbled what should've been an easy touchdown late in the first half, and as the broadcast went to commercial break, the camera trained on the mustachioed Hurley, staring into the middle distance, perfectly conveying a visceral melancholy that captured both the immediacy of the Seminoles' struggles and an existential malaise born from a cold, uncaring universe. He was instantly famous.

Blurring the lines between fan and celebrity is not new. Long before social media, cameras spied Spike Lee or Jack Nicholson courtside at NBA games. Fans like Green Man, Fan Man and Morgana the Kissing Bandit forced their way into popular culture by interrupting sporting events. Unsuspecting fans like Jeffrey Maier or Steve Bartman found themselves at the center of a media circus when fate suddenly thrust them into the action.

What's different now is technology. High-definition television makes it easy to spot the background characters -- Marlins Man has turned it into a career -- and cellphones allow anyone to snap a screenshot and post it to social media, where the image is shared with millions of people around the world instantaneously.

"At this point, it's become a pastime," said Brad Kim, editor of Know Your Meme, the world's foremost library for meme culture. "It's a side activity for sports viewers. We're spectating the spectators."

This notion is not lost on the folks charged with putting together the TV coverage of a game. Finding fans who can convey the emotion in the stadium to a wider audience is actually a critical part of the producer's job.

"We have an eye on people through the game," said ESPN producer Derek Mobley. "I might not take the shot in the second quarter, but we know when we have a fan that's really reacting, when a big moment happens, we see if we can get back to him and it'll be a great picture."

That's what happened to Kaileigh Thomas, better known to the college football world as "LSU Stare Girl." A cameraman had watched her section of Tiger Stadium for most of a game against Alabama last fall, but by the fourth quarter, with her team getting steamrollered, she was in no mood for the attention.

"I was just so upset and so mad, and the camera would just not go away," Thomas said. "I had no idea it was live. I thought he was just being annoying."

Thomas -- in reality, a bubbly sophomore with a sharp sense of humor -- stared daggers at the camera, a look, she said, her mother knows well. The camera stared back, slowly zooming in. It was a standoff that, amid a blowout football game, captured the country's attention.

Thomas' death stare was soon shared not just as a commentary on LSU's struggles against the Crimson Tide but as a joke about everything from college tuition to politics to a wayward storyline on someone's favorite TV show. Her look captured how we've all felt at some point.

This is, perhaps, the real value of modern college football memes. They become shorthand for an emotion that can be hard to put into words but is so perfectly conveyed by one LSU sophomore's cold, menacing stare or one Florida State fan frustrated by a fumble.

"What's great is what people are doing is slowly building a code of visual, living emojicons that serve various purposes," Kim said. "They're not limited to the direct context they came from. It's really what the face is saying that has a lasting value."

'You have to give the people what they want'

Jake Robinson's belly is a wonderful conversation starter. His friends have proved this repeatedly.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, simply google "NC State" and "GIF" and he'll be there, at the top of the screen, hanging from a pole and waving his shirt, his stomach resplendent under the Carter-Finley Stadium lights, celebrating the Wolfpack's upset of Florida State in 2012.

That was seven years ago. Both coaches from that game are gone. The ADs of both teams have changed. The losing QB became a first-round NFL draft pick, played and has retired. The winning QB is on his fourth NFL team. Robinson's celebration remains.

"As long as GIFs are around, I'll have my fame to some degree," said Robinson, who now works in hospitality in Asheville, North Carolina. "It's fun to see people's reactions -- 'Oh, you're that guy!'"

These days, he usually keeps his shirt on for photo requests, but at parties, the crowd gets excited, and he has a few drinks and then ...

"There was a whole summer where I ripped shirts Ric Flair style," Robinson said. "You have to give the people what they want."

You don't end up hanging from a pole, waving your shirt in front of TV cameras without being the outgoing type, but what has caught Robinson by surprise is that, seven years later, we're still celebrating with him.

Robinson's lasting legacy as "Shirtless NC State Fan" is an interesting case study on the life cycle of fan memes. Some flash across the screen, spend a few minutes worming their way through Twitter's expanses, then disappear as quickly as they arrived, forgotten forever, while others, like Robinson's belly, become part of college football history.

The internet can be a fickle beast, and the line between what sticks (Grumpy Cat, Crying Michael Jordan) and what doesn't (we miss you, Harambe) often makes little sense, though Joe Veix, a writer and artist based in Oakland, California, has tried to figure out the answers. He researched the typical life span of memes (spoiler alert: about four months) and said the key to a lasting impact is likely the emotional connection a meme creates with viewers.

"If it draws on a broad emotion that can be applied to many different situations, then it will likely last longer and be shared more frequently," Veix said.

Robinson has seen it firsthand.

He'll be scrolling through Twitter or browsing Reddit, and every month or two, there it is. His belly. The pole. The shirt spinning wildly. If there's something to be celebrated online, Robinson's GIF is likely celebrating, too.

The downside of celebrity meme status

F. Scott Fitzgerald posited that there are no second acts in American lives, but in the meme universe, Mike Bunting offers hope.

Today, Bunting works for a tech company in Austin, Texas, but in 2015, he was front row in the student section to watch his beloved Virginia Cavaliers endure a gut-wrenching defeat. Notre Dame's backup quarterback tossed a game-winning TD on the final play, and in exasperation, Bunting collapsed over the wall in front of him, dejected and lifeless, as the TV cameras captured the scene and displayed the score beneath him. He is Sad UVa Fan.

When he got home, a friend told him the photo was all over social media, so he clicked onto the now-defunct Yik Yak app on his phone -- and there it was, his exasperated husk, draped over the wall -- again and again and again.

"I was trending," Bunting said. "I checked the Blacksburg Yik Yak page and there were 50 posts about it, and they weren't even involved in the game."

That's the downside to celebrity meme status. While Bunting's image has been deployed by everyone from SportsCenter anchors to Jimmy Fallon, and his mother even made a Christmas ornament out of it, it's those rival Virginia Tech fans who seem to enjoy it the most. And after UVa's basketball team became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2018, Bunting was famous all over again.

Chris Baldwin knows that sting all too well. When Michigan State pulled off one of the most unlikely last-second wins in college football history against Baldwin's beloved Michigan, it was his stunned face, arms raised, hands behind his head, that became the lasting image from the game. He wasn't the first Surrender Cobra, but he's the most famous.


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Today, he's a software developer in Michigan. And while the emotion of the loss wore off long ago, his viral moment lives on. His Surrender Cobra was one of the most iconic images of the 2015 season, included in every highlight reel. Michigan State and Ohio State fans quickly made T-shirts with his face emblazoned across the front, and sell them before every game against the Wolverines. Baldwin gets no royalties. And pictures? Yeah, he's taken a few, reenacting the scene with strangers at airports and hotels and restaurants.

"Hundreds for sure," Baldwin said. "A thousand seems like a huge number, but I wouldn't be shocked."

Baldwin is the eternal symbol of Michigan's failure, but he hopes one day that might change, as it did for Sad UVa Fan.

Bunting was in the stands at John Paul Jones Arena this spring for the watch party for the NCAA men's basketball tournament championship game between his Cavaliers and Texas Tech. When the game ended with a dramatic Virginia win in overtime, Bunting charged onto the court with thousands of other Virginia fans to celebrate, just as he'd planned to do at Scott Stadium four years earlier before having his heart broken on the final play. A TV reporter caught up with him and put him on camera.

"I'm no longer Sad UVa Fan," he screamed. "I'm National Champion UVa Fan."

What is the future of sports memes?

What's important to understand about each of these memes, Thyer said, is that they're organic. LSU Girl, Michigan Surrender Cobra, Shirtless NC State fan -- they all represent some raw emotion, felt in the moment, captured for posterity by the internet.

But as the memes go mainstream, there's an obvious question: Is there a tipping point in which the whole thing feels too contrived to enjoy?

Veix suggests that, outside of sports, we've entered a "post-meme" epoch, where authenticity isn't expected and many of the most popular memes are appreciated out of irony or surrealism. Sports, and college football in particular, might be the last bastion of earnest enthusiasm on the internet.

"Maybe this is because the games themselves are kind of old-fashioned and timeless and incorporate their own long-held traditions, and this form of meme-ing is now just a wholesome new ritual," Veix said. "Plus, being a sports fan requires a certain kind of extreme earnestness -- you really have to care about your team -- so maybe the memes reflect that mentality."

So maybe we've already seen the best college football memes the universe has to offer. Or maybe these moments don't need to be organic to be adored at all. Perhaps college football fans eventually blossom into their own version of the Instagram influencer, posed and prepared and manufactured for mass consumption.

If that day comes, Thyer said he'll be ready. The next time a camera finds him in the stands, he wants to be reading one of his own textbooks, he said. It's free publicity, after all. He also bought a new shirt. It's flesh colored, with a design of bulging pectorals and well-defined abdominal muscles. He wants to look good for his next 15 minutes of fame.