San Diego State football’s unquestioned No. 1 fan completes a 70-year-old circle this weekend. Tom Ables’ lifeline includes serving aboard the USS Alabama and attending his 774th San Diego State football game.
Ables, 90, travels with his beloved No. 19-ranked Aztecs (3-0) to watch them play South Alabama (2-2) Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. The road trip includes revisiting the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile Bay.
Ables served aboard the Alabama until he returned home to San Diego in August 1946. His station was one of four engine rooms on the World War II ship that was commissioned in 1942 and retired in 1964.
“My emotions already are so high, I can’t imagine what it will be like Saturday,” Ables told me. “I did visit my old ship once when I was at a trade show in New Orleans and drove over. But this time, coupled with my Aztecs, wow. I just hope I don’t cry.”
Upon deboarding the Alabama in 1946, Ables enrolled at San Diego State that fall and has attended Aztecs games ever since – through the good times and the bad.
Included in the 773 SDSU games he has attended was a streak of 600 in a row that began in 1964. It was the longest active streak in the nation for a fan attending a school’s home and away games until it came to an end last year.
Ables suffered two serious ear infections that prevented him from traveling to Honolulu to see the Aztecs rout Cincinnati 42-7 in the Hawaii Bowl.
Now that he’s a nonagenarian, the South Alabama contest will be his second road game in a new streak of four in the 2016 season. The first road trip was two weeks ago when the Aztecs defeated Northern Illinois 42-28 in DeKalb, Ill.
Afterward, senior running back Donnel Pumphrey, who broke Marshall Faulk’s career rushing record in the Aztecs’ 45-40 win over Cal, presented Ables with the game ball.
“Obviously, I never dreamed of getting a game ball,” Ables said. “I haven’t made one tackle, ever. When he gave it to me, I was shocked, and asked him if he was serious.”
The 2016 season adds another chapter to Ables’ book, Go Aztecs. The history of San Diego State football through his eyes was first published in 2013.
There are only three holes in Ables’ run of games that otherwise would have his streak at 777 this weekend: The 2015 ear infection, an illness in 1964 that kept him home under doctor’s orders from a game at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and the expense of traveling to Hawaii for the 1952 Pineapple Bowl.
The all-time record is 797 set by the original college football super fan, USC’s Giles Pellerin. He died at age 91 in 1998 while attending the USC-UCLA game at the Rose Bowl.
Ever since then, Ables has joked, “That was scripted in heaven. That’s the way I want to go.”
Pellerin’s death handed the active title to Alabama super fan Dick Coffee, who died in 2013 at age 91 with 787.
As fate would have it, Alabama sought a game with San Diego State in 2013 that would have brought Coffee and Ables together, but the Aztecs didn’t accept the deal. Coffee died that June, before the season.
In 70 years, Ables has attended games at the venerable West Coast venues, from the Pacific Northwest’s Husky Stadium at Washington and Autzen Stadium at Oregon to the Bay Area’s Memorial Stadium at Cal and Stanford Stadium to Southern California’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl.
In recent years, San Diego State has visited Big Ten stadiums and North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium in 2014.
Ables rates Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium as the most intimidating crowd, Wisconsin and Camp Randall the most enjoyable environment and Michigan Stadium the most overrated.
“One year we were playing well at Michigan,” Ables said. “We only had about 1,000 fans, but I was down on the field and you could hear them. Something like that would never happen at Ohio State.”
Ables’ San Diego State love affair includes the depths: Paul Governali, the 1942 Maxwell Trophy winner as a Columbia quarterback who coached the Aztecs to an 11-27-4 record from 1956 to 1960. It also reached dizzying heights under passing game master Don Coryell (1961-72), before he moved on to innovate NFL offenses with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.
The Aztecs were mired in mediocrity throughout the late 1990s and 2000s until the current rejuvenation began in 2009 with Brady Hoke at the helm and Rocky Long as his defensive coordinator and continued once Long succeeded Hoke in 2011.
Ables’ support never wavered. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa once wrote, admirably, that Ables was “loyal to a fault.”
Now, at age 90, Ables revels in following a San Diego State team ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since in 1995. The Aztecs’ 13-game winning streak is second only to Alabama’s 16 in a row.
“Rocky has done it the solid way; no big flashy turn around but each year continued to build a program that has arrived,” Ables said. “Good for him. Even when, as recently as early last year, there were people calling for his head (after a 1-3 start). Now we have the second-longest winning streak in America.”
They also have college football’s most loyal fan, whether it’s his old streak of 600 or his upcoming 774th game.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055