Canzano: Flying a flag for college football fans
Washington vs. Michigan title game on Monday.
My neighbor Tom is a creature of habit. His lawn is meticulous, he washes his car in the driveway on weekends and hangs a purple University of Washington flag from the front porch during college football season.
Tom Kallas is 80.
The former UW baseball player meets up with a handful of other retirees every morning at 5:30 a.m. at Willamette Coffee House in the Portland suburbs. Afterward, a few of them go for a two-mile walk together.
“We meet seven days a week,” Tom said, “and we walk seven days a week.”
I told the coffee-house barista this week that if I were an assassin, Tom would be an easy mark. I know exactly where and when to find the guy.
“Yeah,” she quipped, “but you’d have to get through me first.”
Kallas worked as a vice president at Pitney Bowes for a couple of decades. He was in charge of mailing and shipping. This week, he finds himself on cloud nine. The Huskies will play in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday against Michigan. Tom and his wife, Elaine, can’t wait to watch the game on television.
“It means a lot,” Tom told me. “I’ve always just been proud of that institution. It’s a part of growing up that I’ll never, ever forget.”
Tom was born in Seattle. He attended Queen Anne High, played baseball, and was a two-time All-City selection. He hit .409 during his junior season. It earned him a scholarship to UW, where he played catcher for four seasons.
The first time I met Tom, he told me a fun baseball story. Once, he was asked to serve as the catcher for Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. It was part of an exhibition at the Kingdome before a Seattle Mariners regular-season game.
“Bullet Bob” had an endorsement deal with a hardware company that required him to tour the country and throw three-inning exhibitions in front of MLB games. Tom caught the eight-time All-Star and World Series champion for nine outs. It was a thrill. But after the game, the promoter warned Tom to steer clear of Feller in the clubhouse.
“Don’t engage with him,” the promoter said.
Feller was a World War II veteran who interrupted his baseball career and volunteered to enlist with the United States Navy after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The pitcher was a fierce competitor. He had a pile of nicknames, including “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” and Feller was often prickly in social settings.
Feller pitched three innings and walked off the mound. Then, the two men went to the locker room to shower and change. It was quiet for a while. But because Tom is a social butterfly, he struck up a conversation with Feller.
“Mr. Feller,” Tom said, “it was a pleasure to catch you.”
The two men talked for a spell. Feller offered to sign a baseball and invited Tom to hang out with him for the big-league game that followed. Another Hall of Fame player, Earl Averill, joined the two men in the stands. He signed the ball, too. And this is how Tom came to spend an evening sitting between the two diamond legends, talking about life and watching baseball.
Said Tom: “I still have the ball.”
When it comes to championship football games, we get consumed with debates involving the quarterbacks, defenses and head coaches. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns in the semifinal victory over Texas in the Sugar Bowl. And Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is chasing a national title, fresh off a dramatic Rose Bowl win over Alabama.
They’re good storylines, of course. But too often we forget about the die-hard fans who hang flags from their homes, buy season tickets, wear school gear, and tune in on television.
We forget about people such as Tom.
College athletics has become obsessed with the pursuit of media-rights dollars. Conference realignment stinks. Football revenue, specifically, is driving the madness. And I wonder if the sport will ever find its way back.
It’s why I needed to tell you about Tom today. This column is as much for me as it is you. Because Tom and his wife aren’t just stakeholders, they’re reminders of the deep generational and regional connection between fans and the college teams they root for.
“I have to tell you,” Tom said, “if Oregon were playing in this game, I’d be thrilled for the Ducks, too. I’m being serious. This is about shining a light on the entire Pacific Northwest.”
Tom and Elaine have known each other for more than 60 years. They told me about their first date this week. It was at a lake. And the first time Elaine cooked a meal — a skirt steak she mistakenly sliced up before cooking.
“It was as tough as shoe leather,” Tom said, “but I ate it.”
They fell in love, got married, had children, and made a life together. Elaine’s father rowed crew at UW. She and Tom have plans to go on a date next week to see “The Boys in the Boat” — a terrific film that centers around the true story of the Washington crew team that went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
My wife and I saw the movie this week.
Go see it yourself.
It’s a dive into the soul of college athletics. It’s a reminder of the simple, rich origins of intercollegiate competition. I challenge anyone to invest a couple of hours sitting in the theater and not feel flat about the off-the-rails mess unfolding in front of us.
This week, ESPN and the NCAA agreed to a $920 million, eight-year extension to their media rights deal. I suppose that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, the CFP is due to expand to 12 teams next season and the rights will be up for grabs in 2026. NBC is interested in bidding. So is ESPN. And it was reported that Fox was preparing a massive bid.
The Pac-12 imploded this summer amid greed, back-room deals and dismal leadership. The conference is being rebuilt by Oregon State and Washington State. And within days of the end of the football regular season, there were more than 1,200 players in the transfer portal.
Florida State is suing the ACC. It wants out. The bowl season was a grind to watch with all the opt-outs and, despite the windfall media deals of the era, nobody knows how sustainable the ecosystem is. The entire thing is simultaneously more lucrative than ever — and wobbling.
Monday’s national title matchup is going to be a great game. Michigan is fierce and physical. Washington has a wicked passing attack, a generational talent at QB and a head coach who is stoic and smart on the sideline.
It’s like Tom said: “One of the things I like most about Kalen DeBoer is that you can never tell if his team is ahead or behind by looking at him.”
I like UW.
But college sports fans deserve to find more victories themselves.
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