HOOVER, Ala. – The easy thing, the cheap laugh, is to take a ride down the big escalator at SEC Media Days, down into the The Wynfrey Hotel lobby teeming with overly excited football fans, and make fun of the guy wearing a giant championship ring as a hat.
What kind of clown shows up in public with that thing on his head, a pro-wrestling-style championship belt – emblazoned with Alabama’s signature “A” – slung over his shoulder and whited-out sunglasses with “Roll Tide” in red lettering obstructing one eye?
Turns out, just a guy who likes to spread a little joy, a guy who works at a local Wal-Mart and enjoys getting to feel like kind of a big deal for four days every summer. Shannon Villa is king of the Lobby People, although his story is not much different from his fellow fanatics.
“We enjoy each other’s company. We all share the same passion,” Villa said of the hundreds who flock to The Wynfrey Hotel lobby each July to catch a glimpse of (or picture with, or autograph from) their favorite team’s coach and players on their way to and from interviews. It has become a little community.
“I’ve got three or four people that I look forward to seeing every year, like, ‘I knew you would be here!’”
And there he is, in that championship-ring hat, which he saved for two years to have an extra $300 to buy. And that wrestling belt that he bedazzled himself for $100. And his wife, Bianca, who used to shake her head at him as much as the gawking strangers.
“I was against it at first, honestly,” she said, holding their infant son. “Just the money – and I thought he was crazy. But I’ve definitely come around, just because of the way he makes people light up. Even at his store, everyone says, ‘Hey, it’s Alabama Ring Hat Guy!’ It’s amazing. It’s kind of inspirational, and I really hope our son becomes like him.”
Villa gets four weeks of vacation from work. He uses one to attend the entirety of SEC Media Days.
He showed up on Auburn’s day, Monday, to playfully taunt Tigers coach Gus Malzahn and his rivals’ fans. He got to the lobby at 6 a.m. on Alabama’s day, Wednesday, and stayed there until after lunch, posing for pictures with other fans and snagging signatures from Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and three of his players.
Fellow Bama fans “love it,” Villa said. “You want to see the one guy that just goes all out. I do it for the smiles. Some people say I go overboard, but I’m still making other people smile, so it’s worth it.”
He and retired police officer Mike Connell, an Auburn fan, might not agree on Saban – “Jerk,” Connell said – but they do share an affinity for the camaraderie here. Connell has been making the 50-mile drive from Clanton, Ala., to hang out in The Wynfrey lobby and rub elbows with the Tigers and their faithful for the last 15 years.
“I just want to mingle with them any way that I can,” he said.
Connell has two bad knees, so he can’t go to games anymore, and a neurological disorder often makes him uncomfortable in crowds. But not this one. Here, he finds comfort.
“No one will ever come with me to this,” he said, “but there’s two or three people I see here every year. It’s like a family. We share old memories, remember old games.”
Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming Auburn fans are “loyal to the bone,” Connell said his all-time favorite interaction here was with a player who never quite lived up to the hype: quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Connell doesn’t hold that against him.
“He was a real good guy,” Connell said. “He stayed until everyone got their picture or autograph. He made everyone feel important. (Tommy) Tuberville always did that, too. You could actually have a conversation with him.”
That was the draw for Craig Tillery and two friends who made an impromptu trip to SEC Media Days (their first) on Monday. They’re all Auburn fans from Autaugaville, Ala., about 80 miles away from Hoover.
J.R. Andrews still lives there, while buddy Adrian Motley is now in Newnan, Ga., 140 miles away, and Tillery has moved to Birmingham. Motley was off work this week and called Andrews with the road-trip idea.
Andrews immediately took an unscheduled day off and they hit the road, calling Tillery on their way to town. He was at work and promptly took a half day.
“Something came up. I had important business to take care of,” Tillery said, grinning. “This is pretty important. This is the unofficial kickoff for the SEC season, so it’s definitely good to see other people who are great thinkers like ourselves get to come together and converse and see what we think the season could possibly be.”
They were anxious for Malzahn and the players to pass by them Monday.
“We’re opinionated,” Tillery said, “so we’re going to give them our opinions on how we think they can improve.”
And what suggestions were they planning to make? Three of the newest members of the Lobby People all but sang it together in unison.
“Run the ball!”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.