Pull, Peel, Play: ‘Licorice Lady’ inspires Flashes football team

“Granny,” 77, hands out licorice sticks to members of the Kent football team as they leave the field after practice on Oct. 7, 2015.

Ian Flickinger

College football is teeming with traditions that supposedly add to a team’s good fortune.  Folkloric rituals like Clemson’s run down “The Hill”; Ohio State’s recently-axed Mirror Lake jump; visiting the tombstones of departed legends at the University of Michigan; or Virginia’s boozy “fourth-year fifth”— where seniors down an entire fifth of alcohol and hope to avoid law enforcement, or perhaps death— can be found at nearly every school.

Kent State has a tradition, too, although it’s unbeknownst to many. It’s the gift of a wise old sage: candy — more specifically licorice — from the hand of the “Licorice Lady.”

For the last three years, the 77-year-old Licorice Lady, who prefers to keep her name anonymous for this story but the team now refers to as “Granny,”  has distributed candy in the heat, rain or snow to players after practice.

“It was because my (great) grandson loving it (football) and we just thought, ‘Well we’ll go to practice,’ Granny said. “And that’s how it all started.”

Meet Kent State football’s “Granny” from KentWired.com on Vimeo.

In the summer of 2013, Granny said she read about one of then-rookie head coach Paul Haynes’ first practices and decided to take her 6-year-old great-grandson, Ryan, to watch.

“Someone before practice had told me that you aren’t allowed to go to practices, that they’re closed, that nobody can just go walk in (on a practice),’” she said. “Well, I said, ‘That’s too bad because we’re going.’”

A coach came up the stadium stairs afterwards— Granny initially thought to kick them out— but instead he asked Ryan come down onto the field and play. While the players headed for the locker room, Granny said she decided to hand out some of the candy she brought for Ryan to snack on. The next day, players were waiting for more.

She and Ryan quickly became a fixture at practices. So did her candy.

Eventually, passing out post-practice sweets became a full-fledged operation, with Granny doling out pieces to each player when they headed back into the locker room.

Her true identity remains anonymous to most members of the coaching staff, athletic department and each crop of new players and yet, she’s become a consistent fixture at Flashes’ practices.  

“You think it’s just someone who wants to come watch practice,” said senior punter Anthony Melchiori. “But, then periodically she started showing up more and more— with more licorice and more licorice— and it was kind of like, ‘What is Granny going to bring next?’”

She said she visits practice two or three times a week and estimates she’s missed only a few home games in her three-year career. Initially, Ryan joined her each time, but she said the times conflict with school this year, disappointing the now 8-year-old.

“He thought he was part of that team,” she said. “So when the bus came that morning (first day of school) he said to the bus driver, ‘Just drop me off at Kent State.’”

In the beginning, Granny made the trek to practice each day on foot— a little more than a mile walk each way— no easy feat for a woman whose illness recently confined her to a wheelchair.

“People really call me a miracle. They do. I was crippled,” she said. “I was in a wheelchair and my legs were completely twisted from rheumatoid arthritis… I had surgery and (now) I’m just really good.”

Granny originally lived with her husband, Richard, in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. Her daughter moved them to Kent when Richard became terminally ill. He passed away one year after their move, but Granny remained in Kent with her daughter’s family.

She said her brothers and son both played football, but she didn’t grow up supporting any team. Ryan’s interest in the sport is what drew her to the Flashes. She says following the team gives her something to look forward to each day and keeps her involved, even though her friends and family might think she’s a bit crazy in the process.

Members of her family, friends and church began driving her to practice when walking became too strenuous, but she always found a way to get there.

One time, when no one was able to take her to practice, she said she called the PARTA bus service at 9:30 a.m. and asked to be dropped off directly at Dix Stadium.

Another time her daughter, Ryan’s mother, refused to let her come to a game because it was cold out and raining. She said she told the team she was “grounded” at the next practice.

“If they didn’t see me, they would have wondered what happened to me,”  Granny said. “I wanted them to know I wasn’t in the hospital or something… When they came through the lines the next practice, they asked ‘What did you do so bad?’”

Now, Hank Dunckel and Larry Shaffer, who have both frequently attend practice, help her out: Larry or Hank picks her up for practice most days and Larry runs her to the supermarket for the treats.

College sports have become more business-like in recent years, and Granny realizes her circumstances are out of the ordinary. Despite her never officially being invited to practice, she said she never oversteps her role.

“This is your field, this is your team,” she said she tells Haynes. “At other schools people like me wouldn’t even be allowed to be there.”

While Granny may appear as nothing more than a “super-fan,” the team treats her like much more than, something that is becoming increasingly uncommon in college sports.

“I think a lot of it goes back to the head coach, truthfully,” Shaffer, who’s attended athletic events since 1972, said. “Paul encourages this sort of thing and he’s just a down-to-Earth type person and it’s worked out really well for everybody, you know? It’s a fun thing to do; it’s a win-win deal all around.”

Granny has done more than just hand out candy, too.

Last year, after lineman Jason Bitsko passed away, Granny said Haynes and two players carried her out onto the field where the team was huddled to present her with a sweatshirt she wears often and proudly with the word “Granny” embroidered across the front and new cleats for Ryan.

Granny said she decided to speak to the team about sticking together and playing for Jason.  

“I said, ‘Hey, you’ve had a difficult year… We’re all here for you, we’re behind you, come on, we’re all together in this,’” she said. “I just kept on talking and saying it’s going to get better; we’ll get through this together.”

They won the next game at Army.

Melchiori, who has “no idea” what her real name is, says it’s a testament to the team’s character and that they enjoy having who he calls “Granny Football” around.

“That’s kind of how we are. We’re a welcoming group. It’s just one of things we accept as a team and it doesn’t bother us at all. Like I said, we enjoy it,” Melchiori said. “It’s a pretty cool thing that she does for us.”

Melchiori says she helps keep things in perspective for players, especially freshman who are adjusting to the grind of college athletics, or out-of-state student-athletes who don’t see their own family often.

“All that stuff that comes with playing college football and everything that’s going on on the outside and as soon as you’re done with practice you can just see her and she’s handing you one, or if you’re lucky two, pieces of licorice,” Melchiori said. “It kind of makes you come back to reality a little bit.”

Granny said she has no plans to stop attending practices and games, she said she recognizes her age and its eventual limitations. In recent years she’s dealt with more health-related issues, her walk gradually getting slower.

And while her presence hasn’t paid dividends for the team in terms of wins and losses, the impact both sides have made on one another is sugary-sweet.

“I know I’m 77 and time is time and we don’t know. One day I was sitting in the bleachers watching him (Ryan) and  it was (former quarterback)  David Fisher. (Fisher) threw him a pass and Ryan ran for a touchdown,” Granny said. “I’m sitting in the stands and you know what I said? ‘Maybe I won’t be around when Ryan’s at Kent, but I just saw him score his first university touchdown. So what more do you want?”

Ian Flickinger is the sports editor for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].