Eric Herrera and Grant Shirley were kicking field goals when they heard the shout.
It was around midnight on Oct. 30, 2013. The two University of Georgia students had snuck into Sanford Stadium with a group of friends for the second time that semester, bringing with them a confidence greater than normally possessed by college freshmen.
“Once you hop that fence the first time, the nerves kind of go away,” Shirley said.
Having grown comfortable with the thought of trespassing into the 10th-largest college football stadium in the country, they made the most of their time. They brought a football to throw and even ran 40-yard dashes.
After about 30 minutes, the group moved on to kicking field goals. When somebody put one through the uprights, they celebrated with screams and shouts as if one of the Bulldogs had done the same on a fall Saturday in Athens.
“When no one catches you within five minutes,” Shirley said, “you think you’re safe.”
But they weren’t safe. As they continued to make noise on the field, a loud shout of “Hey, who is that?” rang out from above. Although neither Herrera nor Shirley knew exactly where the shout came from, they knew it was time to go.
“Everybody just starts running everywhere,” Herrera said.
The story of Herrera and Shirley is not unique in the Southeastern Conference, or the nation as a whole. Students at schools all around the NCAA make it a point to try and gain access to their schools’ stadiums on a non-gamedays during their time in college.
In 2017, SEC champion Georgia saw seven instances of criminal trespass at Sanford Stadium. The Louisiana State University Police Department reported 12 incidents of trespassing at Tiger Stadium, and the University of Tennessee Police Department issued 11 misdemeanor citations for criminal trespass at Neyland Stadium.
“If the stadium is secured and a student enters, we consider that a criminal trespass,” said Mike Richardson, public information officer for the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Police Department, via email.
Students caught trespassing in Neyland Stadium either receive a misdemeanor citation or custodial arrest, Richardson said, in addition to a “student conduct referral.”
At Georgia, entering Sanford Stadium is part of a larger tradition known as the “Trifecta.” Those who complete it also run the bases at Foley Field and climb on top of Stegeman Coliseum, home to the Bulldogs’ basketball and gymnastics teams.
While some schools have traditions like this — Ole Miss student Dan Welsh said he snuck into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as part of a “freshman bucket list” all first-year students try to complete — other students around the SEC said their schools have no such traditions.
Thomas Knight, a student at the University of Alabama, said when he snuck into Bryant-Denny Stadium his freshman year, he was just a lifelong Alabama fan who wanted to see what the stadium was like outside of game day.
“I didn’t really even have plans on sneaking into the stadium, but we were doing a little loop around the stadium and the idea kind of just jumped in my head,” Knight said.
At Tennessee, Jacob Morton’s experience was similarly spontaneous. He and one of his friends had discussed the thought of going to Neyland Stadium, but they had never summoned up the nerve.
On Feb. 13, 2014, snow canceled classes at Tennessee. A massive snowball fight broke out on campus, and an unlikely source devised a plan.
“[Former Tennessee quarterback] Josh Dobbs is just throwing rockets at people saying, ‘Hey guys, let’s go, we’re going to Neyland,’ ” Morton said. “So we all follow him and sure enough, we walk straight through the gate, didn’t have to sneak in or anything.”
While Morton waltzed through the gates unimpeded (repairs were underway at Neyland Stadium, which led to the gate being open), students elsewhere are not so lucky. They have to go through stealthy, dangerous and borderline criminal means to enter their school’s stadium.
Knight found no easy entry when he tried to access Bryant-Denny. There were no doors or gates open, and an attempt by his friend to open a door by scanning her student ID failed.
Then, he spotted his access point. On the south side of the stadium, Knight saw a broken glass door that led into the stadium.
“My freshman self thinks, ‘Oh, there’s our way in,’ ” Knight said.
Ole Miss student Adam Gardner said the most common way to enter Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is by climbing on top of an air conditioning unit and over a fence. Like Knight, Gardner also snuck into Bryant-Denny Stadium, but he made his entry through a gate that was open due to a recruiting visit going on in the stadium.
There were no air conditioning units involved, but Herrera and Shirley also had to search for a way into Sanford Stadium. They had been told of a manhole entrance that led into the stadium, but neither wanted to use it.
After surveying the exterior of the stadium, the group found a fence by the main gate that was about seven or eight feet high. By using a wall adjacent to the fence for leverage, they scaled the fence and came down on the stadium side.
Entering the stadium is only part of the tradition. In order to truly fulfill the unspoken rules of the ‘“Trifecta,” Herrera and Shirley had to make their time count.
So much room for activities
The first time Herrera and Shirley snuck into Sanford Stadium, they just wanted to see if it could be done. Shirley returned with a different friend a second time just to take a picture on the field. By the time they snuck onto the field as a group the second time, they were ready to get the most out of their trespassing experience.
“That’s why we bring the football, that’s why we feel like we can do more because we didn’t get caught before,” Shirley said. “I guess we were kind of cocky with it at that point.”
Although they weren’t Division I athletes, Herrera, Shirley and company were Georgia football players for that night. They threw passes on the field, just like they had watched Aaron Murray do on Saturdays. Instead of comparing their speed in a dorm hallway or grassy area on campus, they ran 40-yard dashes on the field with the actual yardages marked off.
While Shirley got to experience what it was like to play on the Sanford Stadium turf for a night, he also gained a new appreciation for the players who do it on a regular basis.
“So much respect for [current Georgia kicker] Rodrigo [Blankenship] and all the other kickers we have because that was the hardest thing I’ve done was try to kick a field goal through that post, even from like 10, 15 yards away,” Shirley said.
Herrera and Shirley waited until they were comfortable with sneaking into the stadium before living it up. However, that doesn’t mean other students trespassing for the first time got short-changed.
After climbing through the broken glass door, Knight happened upon a storage closet full of Crimson Tide gear. He grabbed some items meaningful to a longtime Alabama fan, including several souvenir stadium cups and a life-size cutout of Big Al, Alabama’s mascot.
Knight then made his way through a tunnel and out into the cavernous Bryant-Denny Stadium. Instead of going down on the field, he took a lap around the inside of the stadium and stopped by a special place: his family’s season ticket seats, located in the west upper deck.
Knight’s father, Mike, attended Alabama while the upper deck was being built in 1987. He’s had four season tickets there for a couple decades.
The younger Knight’s first game in Tuscaloosa was during the 2000 season when he was 3 years old. He attended countless games with his dad over the next 15 years before enrolling at Alabama himself.
“My dad,” Knight said of spending time at the family’s seats when he snuck into the stadium, “thought it was pretty cool.”
For Morton, the snowball fight that started on campus continued inside Neyland Stadium. Just like on fall Saturdays, Tennessee students came together as one group inside the stadium on the banks of the Tennessee River.
Instead of cheering on the football players, the students were heaving snowballs at them.
“That day was just everything you could picture about the University of Tennessee wrapped into one,” Morton said. “You’re in Neyland Stadium, you’ve got the quarterback of the Tennessee Volunteers with you, you don’t have class because there’s snow on the ground and you just get to have fun and be a college kid.”
Similar to Herrera and Shirley’s experience at Sanford Stadium, not long after they arrived, the fun ended.
When Herrera heard the shout, the group ran back to the fence by the main gate. Herrera made it over. Shirley was perched on top of the fence when a police officer approached.
Shirley joined the rest of the group sitting on the curb. The officer asked if they were attempting to complete the “Trifecta.” They admitted to it. The officer told them he was taking all of their names and if they were caught again, they risked losing football ticket privileges or even expulsion, Shirley said.
Despite the Georgia student handbook specifying that trespassing in an athletic facility is subject to a loss of ticket privileges for a year, neither Herrera or Shirley received any punishment other than a warning from the officer.
While Herrera and Shirley didn’t make it out of Sanford Stadium without a police encounter, it’s not unusual for students to get away with the trespass.
Knight was in and out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with no trouble in about 30 minutes, exiting the same way he entered. When the officers showed up at Neyland Stadium to get everyone out during the snowball fight, Morton and his friends escaped through a section of seats, back to the open gate.
One brave student at Kentucky in the late 1980s got away from what seemed to be an impossible situation. The campus police patrolman on duty, Kevin Franklin, said he saw the student rappelling down from the upper deck.
When he yelled at the student, the rappeler swung inside the stadium, detached from his harness and ran. Franklin gave chase, but he ended up with nothing but a pile of climbing gear.
More than two decades later, Franklin was chatting with another Kentucky student. The student talked about the time her uncle snuck into Commonwealth Stadium. Franklin soon realized she was talking about the same person who got away from him that night in the 1980s.
The student introduced Franklin to her uncle a couple weeks later, and Franklin told him there was still a warrant out for his arrest.
“This guy’s face goes white,” Franklin said. “His mouth is looking like a fish you threw up on the bank.”
Of course, Franklin was not there to arrest the man. He eventually let on that he was joking, and he’s become good friends with him.
Other campus police stations have to pick and choose when to increase non-gameday security at football stadiums. Bobby Richardson, the public information officer at the Texas A&M police department, said security efforts were ramped up before the Texas game when both schools were in the Big 12.
“We knew the incidents increased,” Richardson said. “We would put security in there 24 hours a day leading up to it.”
Knight originally made his way out of Bryant-Denny undetected. But he didn’t escape completely unknown, as his friend left a digital record that they were there by scanning her student ID.
The campus police initially thought they broke the glass on the door. Tape from a security camera proved otherwise. Knight, though, still received a student non-academic misconduct violation. He had to complete 10 hours of community service and take a “character class.” He also had to return the items he took from the stadium.
While they all escaped any serious punishment, students who sneak into these stadiums risk fines, community service or other consequences from their school.
But they are likely to continue trying. It’s about fulfilling a rite of passage of sorts — gaining access to the most hallowed ground at most SEC schools.
“It makes [football games] seem cooler,” Shirley said. “I see everyone freaking out, like just cheering on the guys on the field. Of course we’re no football athletes, but we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been down there.’ ”
Jed May is a senior and writes for The Grady Sports Bureau. The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.