RALEIGH — Fans will tell you there’s nothing like N.C. State football.
Long before kickoff, a lone wolf’s howls echo across Carter-Finley Stadium, tailgating is a practiced art, and staff members are treated like family.
Usher Jim Brenner, 61, is the uncle who always has a good story to tell. He and eight or nine others have worn their yellow usher jackets for more than 30 years. Only Billy Jones, 77, has been there longer. He worked at Riddick Field for three years before Carter-Finley opened in 1966.
Brenner joined the Wolfpack family at 15 and stayed through college, earning degrees in economics and political science. He’s spent every home football game since 1966 in Section 30, whether he was living in Atlanta, Chicago or Europe on business for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Along the way, he lost a girlfriend who almost didn’t return his car in time for the game, but he gained many friends and a wife, Nancy Applebee, who also worked for FDIC.
Those first few years, he was paid to simply watch football, Brenner said. From the 20-yard line down, the upper decks were empty, he said.
Now, the stands are packed for big games against rivals such as East Carolina University. This year’s last-second win over Florida State was one of the best games ever, he said.
“It was a terrific finish and left everybody feeling pretty good,” he said.
Carter-Finley’s veteran ushers talk and poke fun like old friends. Sometimes, they grab coffee together before the games or pizza afterward. A few have worked at the same companies, and their families formed close friendships.
They also enjoy a tight bond with State fans. When an usher is out sick, fans ask how he’s doing and mail get-well cards. Occasionally, they’ll run into someone around town who recognizes them right away. Before outside food was banned, some fans would bring treats to the games for them.
Saturday’s game against Boston College wasn’t a big game, but it was the last home game and Senior Day for the players and cheerleaders. The entrance to Brenner’s section jammed at the last minute with folks waiting in line to shake his hand before sitting down. How are you today? one woman asked. Are you all wrapped up?
Greensboro resident Ken Overbey came out with his mother, father and son, Gray, an NCSU sophomore. Before taking their seats, they stopped to chat with Brenner.
Overbey, who graduated from the university in 1983, said the family has been Wolfpack fans for four generations. Visiting with Brenner is part of the experience, he said.
“It’s kind of a reunion,” he said. “We like knowing that he looks out for you at the games.”
People skills essential
The ushers play host to roughly 60,000 visitors, checking tickets, giving directions and answering questions. They can point a fan toward the best barbecue sandwiches – the Barbecue Lodge, Brenner said – or call security if there’s a problem.
A few get rowdy, they said. There was one young man who mooned the crowd before escaping when officers chased him, and students used to slide down the grassy hill to the field before the 2006 stadium renovation. In 1987, ECU fans stormed the field, felling a fence and goalpost. State didn’t play them again until the 1992 Peach Bowl.
Most calm down if you ask them, said Rex Foster, an usher since 1976.
“I tell them that’s not the image we want for N.C. State,” he said.
Brenner said they had roughly 45 ushers covering 30 sections in the beginning. Now more than 100 work 325 sections during busy home games. They’re not sure why, but there is no Section 16, they said.
He and other ushers also work women’s basketball at Reynolds Coliseum, baseball at Doak Field and women’s gymnastics. PNC Arena has its own staff for men’s basketball games.
In a year, the ushers work more than 75 events, each a four- to six-hour shift, in addition to their day jobs. Since the 1990s, administrators have tried to hire more dedicated, dependable people, especially women and minorities, they said. It’s important for an usher to enjoy being around people, Foster said.
Staff One, a Durham company that started managing ticket takers, suite hosts and security in 1994, also incorporated the usher staff in 2004. Prior to that, they worked for NCSU’s Athletic Department.
‘Heart and soul’
Staff One President Mel Black, a Connecticut native who played in 1986-87 for the New England Patriots, said the veteran ushers play an integral role. They are dedicated and dependable, showing up wherever the company needs them to be, he said.
“We don’t look at them as old-timers. They’re an asset and good with people,” he said. “They know the area and like working with people in the crowd.”
Brenner and other veteran ushers said they don’t know when or if they will retire. They lost one of their own, 85-year-old Charles Parrish, earlier this year.
“We’ll just take it year by year,” Brenner said.
Until then, Staff One is grateful to have the “heart and soul of NCSU Athletics” on their team, operations manager Joey Doster said.
“These guys bleed red and white,” he said.