In a small Pennsylvania town hundreds of miles away from Alabama, a decades-long love affair has been blossoming between a booster club and the Crimson Tide."
It started in the spring of 1969, when Johnny and Jerry Nicola came to Tuscaloosa from their home in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, to visit their friend, Larry "Dude" Hennessey. Johnny’s brother-in-law, Tony Chiccino, had known Hennessey through playing football together at the University of Kentucky in 1951 when Paul W. "Bear" Bryant was the coach. By 1969, Bryant had already been at the University of Alabama for 11 years and had hired Hennessey as an assistant coach.
More than anything, Johnny Nicola was curious to meet Bryant.
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"My brother-in-law always said ‘If you want to see good football, you have to go down South,’ " Johnny Nicola said.
The Nicolas came down to Tuscaloosa during the team’s spring training practice and met with Hennessey. From there, they were introduced to Bryant, an encounter Johnny Nicola has never forgotten.
"The first time meeting him, I was petrified," Johnny Nicola said. "I could barely understand him, but he probably couldn’t understand me either."
From there, Johnny Nicola became an ardent UA supporter, going to several games over the next couple of years. By 1971, he and his brother Jerry decided to start an Alabama booster club in Bridgeport, located just outside of Philadelphia.
Johnny Nicola, who has served as president of the Bridgeport Bama Booster Club since its founding, said it was more than football that solidified his love of the University of Alabama.
"The people were just the nicest people in the world," he said. "They could tell we were from the North because you could tell a Yankee, but they were so polite and friendly.
"We couldn’t get over it."
Sam Franzone, a member for the past 30 years, said Alabama football has served to bind the group together.
"Once you go to your first Alabama game, you get hooked," Franzone said.
At its peak, the club had between 40 to 50 members, but the number has dwindled to about 14 in the last few years. Some local newspapers at the time referred to the group as the "Italian Battalion" because most of the club members were of Italian descent.
One achievement by the club happened on Dec. 19, 1979, when they hosted a banquet in Bridgeport featuring Bryant as special guest speaker.
"There was a snowstorm that night, but over 500 people came out to see coach Bryant," Johnny Nicola said.
Before Bryant’s death in 1983, Nicola and other members visited Bryant and the team numerous times. The club has also visited subsequent UA football coaches: Gene Stallings, Mike Shula and Nick Saban.
In its existence, club members have attended many football games and hosted parties in Birmingham for Alabama fans back when the team played at Legion Field in Birmingham. This year, three of its members went to the College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta, where Alabama beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
"It was amazing," said Nick Chiccino, Johnny Nicola’s nephew, a 10-year club member who was at the championship game.
Following a long-held tradition, the club bought out a billboard in the neighboring city of Norristown following the game to celebrate the team’s championship. In bold letters, the sign reads "They Have A Name For The Winners Of The World," followed by "They Call Alabama The Crimson Tide," a line from the Steely Dan song "Deacon Blues."
However, the club has done more than just attend football games. Over the years, the club has created endowments to help send students from Pennsylvania to the University of Alabama. Johnny Nicola estimates more than 100 students have gone to the university thanks to money the club raised through its annual golf tournaments.
"I’m glad that when I see a lot of the kids, they have Bama shirts on," Johnny Nicola said.
Bob Ruggiano has been a member of the club since 1972 and has been to many Alabama games over the years. The highlight of his time in the club was getting to know Bryant.
"He was like a guy you would meet in your local store," Ruggiano said. "He was so down-to-earth."
What has bound the club together over the years has not been just a love for Alabama football, but a love for one another. Like Ruggiano, many people in the club grew up in Bridgeport together.
"I grew up with Johnny," Ruggiano said. "The camaraderie has always been great."
Franzone said that like Alabama football, the club is bound by tradition.
"Back in the day, everyone knew everyone in Bridgeport," he said. "We’re a family here."
George Lombardo, a member of the club since 1988, knew Johnny Nicola as a boy and came into the club from friends and family. However, the passion Lombardo has for the team has grown over the years.
"You hear all the time about how (Philadelphia) Eagles fans are crazy, but it’s really about passion," Lombardo said. "You get this passion in you that never goes away."
Members are optimistic about the future of the club, although it remains uncertain for how it can continue. Johnny Nicola is 75 years old, Jerry Nicola died in 2009 and many of the founding members have since passed away. Nicola hopes the younger generation, like Chiccino and Lombardo, taken the reins and continue the legacy.
"All they have to do is continue and support the university," he said. "All the guys want the best for the club."
Franzone said the love of the Crimson Tide will carry the club.
"We have no intention of stopping," he said.
Reach Drew Taylor at email@example.com or 205-722-0204.