JACKI LYDEN, Host:
Tomorrow is football's big day, of course, the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh Steelers fans are already cheering. Today, the day before the Steelers face-off against the upstart Arizona Cardinals, one of the beloved heroes of Pittsburgh entered the Hall of Fame. Rod Woodson is one of six inductees this year. He was a star defensive back with Pittsburgh for over a decade and later he got a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens. The other five new Hall of Famers are "Bullet" Bob Hayes, Randall McDaniel, long-time owner Ralph Wilson, the late Derrick Thomas, and the NFL's all-time sack leader, Bruce Smith. Dozens of Hall-of-Famers are in Tampa for the big game tomorrow and autograph seekers are in hot pursuit. But these aren't just kids hoping to get their heroes John Hancock. NPR's Mike Pesca has been tracking guys who make a career out of this. Call them the signature stalkers.
MIKE PESCA: On the edge of ESPN's outdoor set in Tampa, there's an all-out blitz of the passer underway.
(Soundbite of people talking)
PESCA: The q.b. in question is Steve Young, Hall of Fame quarterback who is now paid ESPN to offer commentary on the game he once won. Standing behind the barricade are about three of four dozen autograph seekers, who, knowing Young would be on set, have brought footballs, Steve Young jerseys, and mini 49er helmets awaiting the touch of his felt tip. Some of these fans have amateur autograph-seeking status - not Nick Novinski. He flew down from Milwaukee as part of a professional crew.
Mr. NICK NOVINKI (Autograph Hunter): I'm pretty tired right now. You get here at seven in the morning, and depending on if the players are out we'll stay out till three in morning.
PESCA: Novinski is a house painter whose business dries up in the cold Wisconsin winter. As a child, he and a friend hang out at Brewers games trying to get autographs. The friend turned his hobby into a full-time job and pays for Novinski to go to events like the Super Bowl -well not into the Super Bowl, but around the people who get into the Super Bowl. Novinski has been trudging around with his bag of footballs awaiting autographs.
Mr. NOVINSKI: They sell for about a 100. I'm on commission, I get a fully expense trip. My boss pays for me to be here, so I'll get $10 per ball.
PESCA: It works out to less than $10 an hour. Higher up on the professional autograph food chain is Mike McCaskall(ph).
Mr. MIKE MCCASKALL (Professional Autograph Seeker): It's pretty much paparazzi with pens instead of cameras.
PESCA: McCaskall lives near Tampa. This week, he's coordinating a crew of about 20. He says he makes $50,000 just during the six weeks of spring training baseball. McCaskall knows he's the hunter, but he doesn't see his prey as entirely vulnerable.
Mr. MCCASKALL: It's a dirty game, but the players, that's why they don't like to sign for the public, because they get paid to do it.
PESCA: Big collectible companies like Upper Deck and Mounted Memories do extend lucrative contracts to star athletes. McCaskall, himself, is not above extending semi-lucrative inducements.
Mr. MCCASKALL: Santonio Holmes, when he was a rookie with the Steelers two years ago, I called up his hotel room, I said, Santonio we want to pay you, he said, All right how much you want to pay? I said $10 each, he said come up here to the room. We came up to the room with 250 pieces, we paid him, you know, $2500, and he signed every single one of them.
PESCA: But on this day, McCaskall and all the other autograph seekers can only wait to see if Young will give his graph away for free. He has a little girl in his arms, which seems like a ready-made excuse not to, but no, he's coming over.
Unidentified Man #1: Thank you Steve so much.
Unidentified Man #2: You're the best Steve. That's a golden arm, don't touch his arm, guys.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Still holding his little girl, he signs and signs for just about everyone some two or three times. Afterwards, Young explains that he was a fan before he was a player and he always wanted Roger Staubach's autograph. Young says he's paying it forward, and it's fine if sometimes his autograph literally is payment.
Mr. STEVE YOUNG (NFL Player): If I can take 20 seconds to help them make their rent, if I knew that story, then I'd do it everyday, right? I mean that's easy.
PESCA: It must be an odd thing to know that with a flick of a pen you can make someone a $100, unless, once upon a time with the toss of a ball, you made someone millions. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Tampa, Florida.
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