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Inside the beautiful — and sometimes seedy — world of Super Bowl autograph hunting

Every year, autograph collectors and dealers flock to the Super Bowl to battle each other for the big score.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- You may look down at autograph collectors, but please don’t denigrate the artform. The best are savants. They have a deep and fast recall for faces, a master angler’s intuition of the environment, Zen-like patience, snap-quick reflexes, and, finally, a touch of gentility.

And even then, sometimes you whiff. An example:

Sonny Kirscher is standing outside Radio Row at the Mall of America in Minneapolis on the Tuesday morning before Super Bowl LII, and he notices a stately gentleman in a black felt cap. To that point, Kirscher has been hunting for an autograph for about an hour and a half without any success, though he has been keeping close tabs on Orlando Pace and Ryan Leaf, both of whom are bouncing from radio interview to radio interview within Radio Row’s tightly cordoned perimeter and, frustratingly, aren’t showing any sign of wrapping up.

The stately gentleman is maybe 10 feet from entering Radio Row himself, at which point he will be off limits for an autograph — the purple and teal “NO AUTOGRAPHS” signs make that clear. Kirscher says to Tom Rydel, “Is that Page?”

Absentmindedly, Rydel asks, “Where did Page go to college?”

“I think that’s Page,” Kirscher says, more certain.

“Shit,” Rydel snaps to attention. “That is Page.”

Kirscher strides forward but keeps a personable distance, and as Alan Page — ‘70s Vikings great, NFL Hall of Famer, and former Minnesota supreme court justice — is maybe a step away from becoming off limits, Kirscher says, “Mr. Page, can I get your autograph? You can personalize it.”

Page waves and shakes his head no. Kirscher says, “Thank you.” And that is that: Kirscher remains 0-fer for the morning. And if you go “graphing” (what autograph collectors call their hobby for short) the right way, that’s OK.

“If I can get them signed, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world,” Rydel says. “But you’ll see that or hear of others just being real brutal with them and expecting them to sign for them, which is not really cool in my eyes.”

Kirscher and Rydel are autograph collectors. More importantly, they’re not autograph dealers. A dealer is someone who chases signatures solely to sell them. They often exploit the goodwill of the celebrities they’re after, as well as the pure collectors hoping only to complete their collections.

They have been known to push and shove to get to the front of crowds, use children for personal gain, foist multiple items on signers, and occasionally become irate when a celebrity points out their schemes. To collectors, they are a blight — moochers, leeches, scum lower than scum, giving their hobby a bad name. (From personal, purely anecdotal evidence, dealers smell a little like fast food.)

Louis Bien, SB Nation

And they descend upon the Super Bowl like locusts.

“That whole thing is like dealer’s paradise,” Steve Grad tells me. Grad works for Beckett as an authenticator, someone who can spot things like forgeries and certify signed memorabilia. He regularly appears on Pawn Stars to appraise items.

“For the price of a football, which is in that low 6-to-8-dollar range, they’re able to get good players on them, and even Hall of Famers, and take them, get them certified, and make a lot of money on ‘em,” Grad says. “If they’re selling Jerry Rice for 60-80 dollars, their profit margins are pretty high on this stuff. So it’s become a huge business for that. And I know huge groups of guys, they go to [the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl] every year.”

Collectors like Kirscher are chasing authenticity. He gives athletes only original items to sign — like programs, magazines, and cards — and he has never gotten an autograph that wasn’t in-person. A lot of his stuff ends up stashed in drawers, truth be told. His most prized possession is a signature from former “First Lady of Drag Racing” Shirley Muldowney, who his father liked, on a little card.

“I’ve got Jordan, I’ve got Gretzky, and that’s probably my favorite one.”

As Grad notes, though, “We live in America. We’re free to go wherever we want and do what we want.” Kirscher points out a stubby young man staring intently at his phone who stands a few feet from us — a supposedly sloppy, pushy dealer who he often sees at events around the Twin Cities. The man consults with two other young men, both wearing silver jackets, who brought duffle bags. He examines the contents — as many fully deflated footballs as they can hold — takes out two of the balls, zips up the rest, and gets to work.

Your favorite athlete probably understands the constantly raging battle between dealer and collector quite well.

“You know. We all know. They know too,” Eagles receiver Torrey Smith says. “Some of them lie. The ones who are up front, I actually sign for them, but the ones who lie — and again I respect it. It’s a hustle, some of them are paying for school, some of them have kids, like, if they tell the truth I’m perfectly fine.”

Smith then demonstrates what that lying looks: “‘Man I’m a collector! I’m a collector; that’s all I do is collect! That’s all I do!’ You’re not coming into Minnesota from Texas or wherever you are just to collect autographs. Like come on, I wasn’t born last night.”

Famous athletes have developed a number of ways to tell whether an autographer is a “true” fan or not. Some are pretty easy to ascertain — asking for a dozen items to be signed or insisting that an athlete not put a personalization (like, “To Jessica”) are consistent giveaways. Other tells are a much more subtle, down to the color of ink in the pen.

“There’s this stigma if you sign in blue,” Kevin Fucile, a well-documented gonzo collector, says. “Like Lindsey Vonn — sweetheart, absolute sweetheart — she was doing a signing here in Colorado, I went to the book signing, I asked her to sign, handed her the blue sharpie, and she even made a comment, ‘They told me not to sign in blue. Do you have black?’”

Blue is the preferred ink color for dealers and collectors alike. It’s like a crude certificate of authenticity in itself — black ink would be easier to use in printing if one were to scan, copy, and paste a valuable autograph onto a photo for mass reproduction. Thus, buyers trust blue ink more, whereas ink color shouldn’t matter to a fan getting an autograph in person — they were there; they know the signature is real.

Louis Bien, SB Nation

More cunningly, many dealers will carry stacks of blank photographic paper with them known as “white sheets.” Dealers can run white sheet autographs through a printer so that it appears that a celebrity signed an original photo. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the practice, and in fact many collectors also use white sheets for their collections.

What is shady is the possibility that digitally printed photos are being billed and sold as black-room developed originals. According to Grad, a digital print can make the signature ink bleed, which “looks awful,” and the signatures fade quickly.

White sheets can also make it look like an athlete signed a photo he would have refused to sign in person. For example:

Many celebrities are selective about the types of images they will sign and this practice goes back decades. In the past, there were rumors that Joe DiMaggio refused to sign certain items that contained images of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. For example, he refused to sign the first issue of Playboy Magazine, which shows Marilyn on the cover, or similar risqué Monroe images.

As Kirscher and Rydel pace the Radio Row barrier, trying to see who is sitting down and wondering how, exactly, they keep losing track of someone as gargantuan as Orlando Pace, I notice that the stubby dealer has a crew. I count six associates who peel off in pairs to scout the barrier, sometimes returning to the stubby dealer, who seems to be running point on the operation.

Two of the men are large, both well over 6’0, and I see them chase after former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who had left Radio Row and wandered into the adjacent food court. Finley signs several white sheets for them.

One of the most frustrating parts about being a collector is being confused for a dealer, even if that confusion is only natural. Collectors like to use blue ink, for example, because it fades more slowly against UV light and is easier to see on most color photographs or jerseys. Josh Couch, an autograph collector in North Philly, says he carries both blue and black Sharpies with him, just in case an athlete won’t accept one. And yet, sometimes there’s nothing he feels he can do to convince athletes he isn’t dealing.

“That stuff kind of irked me because I always prided myself on being a purist and doing it for the love of it,” Couch says. “I had interactions with guys that used to sign things before they even made it into the [Arizona] Fall League, and they’d go, ‘Well how much does this go for on eBay?’”

I approach the two large men — one in a blue shirt, the other in gray — when they appear to be taking a break, and ask them if they’re here to collect autographs.

“I don’t know,” the gray-shirted says. “Probably not going to be here for very long.” He pauses, then says, “I gotta follow him,” and he hustles after his blue-shirted friend, who is quickly walking away.

There’s a lot of money to be made selling autographs, to be certain. Let’s take Odell Beckham Jr.: As of writing this, a signed, reflective football card can be had for $80 on eBay; a signed rookie card with a patch of jersey in it is being bid at $107.50 with four days left; and a third-party authenticated, full-size helmet signed in silver paint pen is $269.

“If you’re able to get 300 things signed in three days, and let’s just say you average 50 dollars an item, it’s 15 grand in three days,” Couch says. “Even staying at a downtown hotel where you have to pay big money, on Radio Row it’ll be worth it where you’re just out there at bat with them all the time.”

Getting autographs at the Super Bowl isn’t necessarily about getting players on the competing Super Bowl teams. They rarely, if ever, appear in the wild long enough to sign anything. (Greg, a collector from Florida, says that he brought a helmet from every team in the NFL with him, “except the Patriots,” because “they never sign. They’re jerks.”) The Super Bowl provides access to everyone else associated with the sport, however — from current players to Hall of Famers — as well as ancillary celebrities.

Louis Bien, SB Nation

It should be noted: Being an autograph dealer isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many collectors say they have had good experiences chasing autographs in the same spaces as dealers. They’re often patient and courteous. Yeah, maybe they’re a little too exuberant with the number of items they try to have signed, but as Smith noted even famous people can appreciate a hustle as long as the hustler is honest about it.

“J.J. Abrams and Christian Bale are great,” Fucile says. “I saw a dealer go up to them and say, ‘You know I’m going to sell this stuff; why do you sign so much?’ And they both go, ‘Well I know it’s going to end up in the hands of one of my fans someplace.’”

The good dealers, Grad says, succeed not by strong-arming athletes and fans at places like Radio Row, but because they have the information necessary so that they don’t have to.

“The guys I’ve seen who do it well, they try to do other stuff that other collectors wouldn’t,” Grad says. “Information is typically king. And if you have the information, if you know where the good parties are at, or gatherings, that’s where you tend to do better because there’s also a group of collectors that will have no idea about that stuff.”

Fishing seems like the most apt analogy to what graphing is. You can put a lot of hooks in a crowded area or you can find the perfect fishing spot that no one knows and reel in. Collectors will tend to be more open about events and appearances they know are happening, using forums to discuss their successes and what they learned from them, like whether a specific athlete is OK with signing multiple items.

Everybody keeps their favorite spots a secret, however. And they all remember the time they landed a big one.

One of my favorites is Fucile’s Peyton Manning story. He was waiting with a crowd of people, some of them military, before a Broncos game during the regular season of their title year.

“I saw how the security, how he parked his car, was close to the railing,” Fucile says. “So you’re not going to have five people deep pushing on the barricades; sometimes it makes celebrities nervous. And I noticed that, and I saw some military guys standing, and I’m like, ‘Are you guys here to get Peyton Manning?’ And they go, ‘Yeah, this is our first time doing this.’

“I go, ‘I’m a grapher. I do this all the time, I’ll give you a tip. I’m walking over there, and I’m going to stand between the cop car and the railing, because nobody will be able to get behind us. I’m confident Peyton will sign there for the day.’”

Fucile was so confident in his position, he decided to pull out the game-used Broncos helmet he had always wanted to get the quarterback to sign in silver paint. “Peyton would avoid any game-used looking stuff, but I go, ‘You know what, I feel comfortable he’s going to come this way, there won’t be the bulging of the barricade, there’s military here. This is what Peyton’s going to go for.’”

Manning walked right over, signed for the military members, saw Fucile’s pen, said, “I can’t sign with that,” and walked away. Fucile thought he had missed a rare opportunity, but then one of the military members spoke up.

“He goes, ‘Mr. Manning, please sign for my friend. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have had anything today.’” And Manning did. “All my buddies were just shocked because Peyton has never walked back to anybody. So that was one of those cool times where reading the environment, increasing my odds by helping other people, it was a win-win.”

Rydel’s first signature of the day is former Washington, Cowboys, Bills, and Patriots offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who is now a SiriusXM radio host. When former pro wrestler Joe “Road Warrior Animal” James Laurinaitis pops out of Radio Row, Rydel gets him, too, and they have an exchange — “His phone started ringing. I said, ‘You got to take that?’ He was like, ‘No!’ and signed.”

Rydel and Kirscher have known each other since 2003 or 2004 when they met chasing hockey autographs together. They know several of the collectors jockeying around Radio Row, in fact — local graphers tend to see each other a lot — but they’re particularly tight. They work well off each other, particularly when it comes to identifying who is who. Kirscher has excellent facial recall for athletes who played before, say, the early 2000s. Rydel is also good at this, but he often mans the phone googling names to confirm that someone is, in fact, who they thought they were.

The teamwork aspect of graphing is oft-overlooked. Dealers even coordinate with walkie-talkies sometimes (though the crew of young men working Radio Row while I’m there aren’t that technologically advanced). Admittedly, sometimes tactics overlap, and it’s truly difficult to tell who’s collecting and who’s working. Couch claims to have seen kids being paid by dealers to cute their way up to athletes and get items signed.

This crosses my mind as what appear to be a father and son walk by with Trader Joe’s tote bags filled with mini-football helmets wearing camo Giants jerseys — the father in “Manning” and the son in “Beckham.” Kirscher and Rydel don’t pay them any mind as they watch Pace get up from one table and move to yet another. It’s 11:30 a.m., Kirscher and Rydel have been at this more than two-and-a-half hours, and Pace is still giving interviews. Kirscher notes that Kay Jewelers, Pace’s sponsor, “is getting their money’s worth.”

At some point as a collector, I think you come to accept the downsides of the hobby — the seediness, the fact that you will come up empty for your efforts from time to time and that famous people and casual fans alike will sometimes assume the worst of you.

There’s a certain amount of taking it on the chin when it comes to a hobby that places you in an aggressive environment vying for the attention of people who may not want to stop and talk to you even when they’re saying yes. It’s always precarious to approach a stranger, no matter how well you know his face.

“I was getting Shawn Marion’s autograph once, and I say, ‘Mr. Stoudemire,’” Kirscher says. “And I’m holding a Shawn Marion photo standing in front of Shawn Marion. He said, ‘Man, I don’t look like him; you think all black people look alike?’” Kirscher was taken aback. “I said, ‘No, not at all.’”

Then Marion chuckled, “and he signed anyway.”

Truthfully, no one is likely making a ton of money at this year’s Super Bowl. “I don’t know a lot of guys who are going to go this year,” Grad says, “just because of the weather conditions.”

Minneapolis is cold as hell, which limits the number of places one can comfortably stand for potentially hours on end while trying to get players to sign at places other than the Mall of America. Fewer celebrities will be attracted to the game, as well, simply because Minnesota isn’t typically where people want to be in February like, say, Houston and San Francisco might have been.

That makes Super Bowl LII relatively collector-friendly compared to most recent Super Bowls, certainly for the locals who have long reconciled their feelings toward the cold.

“Sometimes teams from the West and Florida and stuff like that come, and they’re like it’s too cold to sign right now; you’re crazy,” Rydel laughs. “But they’re cool about it, and that’s what keeps me going back.”

There was a time when graphing wasn’t so exhausting. Matt Raymond, who runs an autograph resource blog called Autograph U, remembers being one of the few who would show up to Patriots training camp.

“It was just a rope between you and the player and it was just 10 of us — 10 of us! — there,” Raymond says. “And granted the Patriots weren’t a very good team back then, but if you take a look at just who is getting the autographs, it totally changed the way that celebrities signed.”

Rydel has been to six Super Bowls. His dad, 75, has been to 14 and will have arrived in Minneapolis on the Wednesday before the game. He began collecting in the ‘70s and ‘80s before introducing his son to the art. The Super Bowl trips would be a family thing, with Rydel’s uncle and cousin joining in.

“I know that when I was younger, my uncle would be like, ‘There’s so-and-so,’ and I’d be like, ‘Who?’, and he’d be like, ‘Just go ask.’” Rydel laughs. “So I would go and have an index card or a piece of paper. One guy was Mel Blount. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he’s like, ‘How do you know who I am?’ And I was like, ‘Well, my uncle told me.’”

Rydel says he has never had a bad experience at the Super Bowl. He has no plans to stop collecting, though it seems like everyone has their limit. Grad stopped recently: “Thank God. I’m too old for it anyway. I’m 47, I’ve had enough of it.” Rydel’s father stopped shortly after Super Bowl XL in Detroit in 2006.

I hit my limit after nearly three hours and tell Kirscher and Rydel that I have to go. Apparently I’m a jinx because things pick up after I leave. When Rydel finally finishes up at 1 p.m., he will have gotten signatures from Ryan Leaf, Pete Koch, and Chris Simms in addition to Tucker and Laurinaitis.

The last signature I see him receive is Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, though it’s not in person. A man comes up to him and hands him a signed Rhodes football card, says, “here,” and walks away. Rydel had helped out the man earlier by giving him one of his extra Simms cards, and he was returning the favor.

Rydel looks at the card: “Signature’s smudged a little bit,” he laughs, “but that’s cool.”


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