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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012

More than 500 volunteers aid Chick-fil-A Bowl

By David Purdum

A heavy rain put a damper on pregame plans for the 1985 Peach Bowl between Army and Illinois.

Band chairman Ellis Mills had arranged for the Commandant of West Point to read the Preamble to the Constitution before the game.

With the winter rain falling, Mills offered to stand on a wet field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and hold an umbrella for the Commandant.

“He told me, ‘Sir, that won’t be necessary. I’ll stand in the rain,’” Mills recalled. “Then, he went out there and spoke the Preamble; he didn’t just read it.”

That’s just one of hundreds of memories for Mills, a volunteer at the first Peach Bowl in 1968 and one of two inaugural inductees into the Chick-fil-A Bowl’s new Volunteer Hall of Fame.

Albert Tarica, another 40-year veteran volunteer, will be honored with Mills before Monday night’s game between LSU and Clemson. Tarica began his volunteer service in 1969. He has held several high-level positions, including a two-year stint as chairman of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

He’s traveled around the country as part of the bowl’s selection committee, but one of his more memorable moments occurred in the end zone with Lou Holtz at halftime of the 1977 Peach Bowl between North Carolina State and Iowa State. Holtz was the coach of the Wolfpack at the time.

“We had three bands scheduled to play at halftime, and the TV networks had given us a pretty strict schedule,” Tarica said. “We were trying to keep the teams off the field for the bands, and Lou Holtz wanted to let his players into the end zone to warm up. We kept asking them to hang on. He finally got fed up and went back into the locker room. We had to have the officials go back into the locker room to get the team back out. Halftime went over by 10 to 15 minutes. The TV folks were not pleased.”

Bowl officials estimate there were approximately 20 volunteers at the first Peach Bowl between LSU and FSU.

This year, 567 volunteers helped organize a week of bowl festivities, leading to Monday night’s game between LSU and Clemson. Among them is a core group of 42 volunteers, who have each put in more than 20 years of service. They have seen the Peach Bowl evolve into the Chick-fil-A Bowl and become one of the more prestigious non-BCS bowls.

Mills is retiring this year after 41 years of service to Atlanta’s bowl. Tarica, 71, looks forward to another season and hopes to see the Chick-fil-A Bowl take another step forward.

“I’m sort of at that age when it’s time to retire,” Tarica said. “But I would like to see us get to the next level and host one of the access bowls (in college football’s new playoff format). That would be the top; we kind of started at the bottom.”

The total payout for the New Year’s Eve bowl has grown from $460,000 in 1968 to $6.9 million last season. President and CEO Gary Stokan estimates $35 million will be injected into the local economy from the bowl game this year. Add in the two Kickoff Classic games hosted by the Chick-fil-A Bowl committee in September, and Stokan says $100 million will be added to local economy this year.

It wouldn’t happen without the volunteer, who Stokan calls the lifeblood of the bowl. Stokan began his career with the bowl in 1980 as a volunteer banner hanger. He took over as CEO and president in 1998 and has cultivated a family experience that keeps volunteers from across the country returning to Atlanta annually in late December.

Tommy Bisanz travels from Arizona to join his father, Buzz, in the bowl’s hospitality department, and team band coordinator Lou Darby makes the haul down from New Hampshire.

Volunteering at the Chick-fil-A Bowl even jump-started one family. Frank and Debbie Nash made the drive from South Carolina this year. The husband and wife met while volunteering at the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

So how does Stokan get hundreds of unpaid volunteers to keep coming back for decades?

“I give them annual raises, which amount to nothing,” he joked.

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