The outset of another college football season brings the onset of a request both touching and tricky. It comes to university athletic departments not in droves but in a reliable trickle: Bereaved relatives and friends aim to scatter, at stadiums, the ashes of departed souls who identified with football programs strongly enough to build autumn social lives around them.
Such eternal tributes are harder than they might seem. Universities don’t tend to allow the practice even on days when stadiums lie empty. For one thing, where living grass is involved, the ashes both kill the grass and mar the soil.
The grass succumbs to “the salt burn of the tissue because there’s so much calcium, calcium phosphate that you’re putting on that leaf tissue,” said Scott McElroy, professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences at Auburn. “It’ll burn the plant, any plant.” It’s akin to putting excessive fertilizer on the ground, he said, because it “draws all the water out of the plant, so a salt burn in effect.”
Then, with the soil, “it can prevent anything else from growing there for a while because it completely throws off the nutrient balance for a while.”
McElroy and fellow Auburn-minded souls know this well and lately. In the exhilarated aftermath of the 2013 Iron Bowl, which Auburn won over Alabama on a shocking return of a missed field goal on the final play, an unknown fan deposited ashes on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium. An ensuing tweet showed the discolored patch of land.
David Housel, Auburn’s longtime sports information director, then athletic director, who retired in 2005, said that was only the second such instance he could recall. The first had come in 2011, when Auburn played Samford and used the occasion to honor the Samford coach, the former Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, who won the 1971 Heisman Trophy. On that day, Housel said, some of Sullivan’s former teammates brought — and deposited — the ashes of Ronnie Ross, the tight end of the 1971 team.
“I wouldn’t say we ran across this [idea] a lot, but it did come up on occasion,” Housel said. “The university has a policy against spreading ashes. But as we know, people can walk through campus and through the gates of the stadium and there’s not really any way you can control it.”
In a testament to the concept, Housel once joked to Sullivan that he wanted his ashes scattered across the goal line, so that Alabama would score only “over my dead body,” he said. Sullivan, in turn, teased Housel about his largeness, saying that if Housel donated his ashes to the baseball program, “I would make a pretty good pitcher’s mound.”
Even as cremation has become more popular in the United States, and as soccer clubs abroad have guidelines or even a fan cemetery, and as the practice spreads across many sports, there are often forbidding rules or legal limits. At Ohio State, athletics communications representative Jerry Emig emailed, “We do get asked about this” — about two or three times per year — “but I am told we absolutely do not allow.” At Southern California, sports information director Tim Tessalone noted a state law that forbids scattering ashes in public places. At Virginia Tech, there’s no formal policy, according to associate athletics director Pete Moris, but “access to our field is pretty tightly controlled … so it would be more difficult to clandestinely achieve that feat here as opposed to other stadiums in the country.”
At Notre Dame, there’s a long history of requesting, and a university policy of (politely) declining. That’s necessary “especially with the artificial turf” installed in 2014, senior associate athletics director John Heisler wrote in an e-mail.
At Louisiana State, the concept is very familiar.
During a stadium addition in 2009, then-spokesman Herb Vincent told the Associated Press that a small stream of people showed up with urns. On Wednesday, Michael Bonnette, the associate athletic director and communications director, said: “We get asked that quite often, about spreading ashes on the Tiger Stadium field. It’s a popular request. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, we can’t allow it. We try to accommodate people in other ways.”
Before a game in the 2000s, Bonnette said, he and other LSU officials suddenly noticed a man with a field pass scattering his father’s ashes. “It was too late” to stop him, Bonnette said, soon adding, “It’s such an emotional thing for these families. In one respect, it’s really humbling to know how people feel about the place you work. … It’s a great thing when people think that much of your school and your football program, but it’s just not realistic, and it’s something we deal with routinely.”
A similar sentiment dawned on McElroy, the Auburn professor. “People do this everywhere,” he said. “Everywhere! Every major university, I guarantee you. Golf courses, like crazy, have this happen.”
He said he had talked to golf-course superintendents who bemoaned the scattering of ashes on putting greens, causing quite a botanical headache.
“People are so passionate about sports and it really speaks to our culture,” McElroy said. “And even though it’s a problem for so many people, we also have to remember it’s a tremendous honor, because this person, you wish you could allow them to do it, because they love this place so much, that even after they have gone, they want to be a part of it, still.”
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