Fred Key, 82, earned a letterman's jacket for being a faithful fan

Fred Key was North Cobb High School's "ultimate Warrior."

Not only did he set an extraordinary record of faithfulness -- attending 425 consecutive football games, home and away -- he also worked the "chain gang" on the sidelines of its games for 20 years.

And for 20 years thereafter, Mr. Key drove his 1977 pickup to games, carrying the team's practice footballs, kicking tees, first aid equipment and other essential gridiron paraphernalia.

His truck was painted in the team's colors, orange and blue, with "North Cobb" emblazoned on its sides and "Warriors" on the back.

Asked about his steadfast support of the Warriors, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006: "I just love high school football. I love being around those kids that age. You never know what's going to happen on any snap."

There was more to it than that. His three sons, Jerry, Larry and Tony Key, were all standout football players at North Cobb near the beginning of his 425-game streak. Still, his attachment to the team stayed firmly in place well after his sons went off to college.

Former North Cobb head football coach Bob Clark of White said he presented Mr. Key with a Warrior letterman's jacket in 2000.

"Fred wanted people to know how many games he attended," Mr. Clark said, "and so he stuck Velcro numbers on the back that he changed before each game. He was so proud of that jacket."

Mr. Key, 82, of Acworth died Monday at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital of complications from congestive heart failure. His funeral will be at 3 p.m. Saturday at Winkenhofer Pine Ridge Funeral Home in Kennesaw, with interment to follow at Cheatham Hill Memorial Park.

Born in Alabama, Mr. Key grew up in Fitzgerald. During World War II, Mr. Key got a doctor to alter his birth certificate, which enabled him to join the Merchant Marine at age 15, said son Larry Key of Dallas.

"Dad ‘celebrated' his 16th birthday having to push a peanut around the deck of his ship with his nose," his son said. It was a ritual, Mr. Key was told, when ships cross the equator.

After World War II, Mr. Key played a couple of seasons of pro baseball as a catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, starting out on a Class D league team in South Georgia. There he met and married Ruth Connell, and the two were together until her death in 2002.

Moving to Marietta in 1955, Mr. Key worked for a grocery store there as a butcher, though his son said he preferred to think of himself as a "meat artist."

Mr. Key was a joker. "For example," Larry Key said, "Dad named his pet Jack Russell terrier ‘Dammit' so he could order it when it got underfoot: ‘Dammit, get back in the truck!'

His father could tell gags for hours and never repeat the same ones, Larry Key said.

Over the years Mr. Key operated a grocery store and a produce market in Kennesaw, a meat processing company in Acworth and for the past 30 years a thriving pine-straw business in Acworth.

"Dad liked to be his own boss," said son Tony Key of Acworth. "That enabled him to make time for all his athletic activities."

In addition to his service to the North Cobb football team, Mr. Key helped found a baseball program at North Cobb High, coached boys baseball for years at Sewell Park and Oregon Park in Marietta and Adams Park in Kennesaw, and founded midget league football programs in Acworth and Due West.

Mr. Key bought five acres near Acworth and built a two-story log cabin for him and Mrs. Key from pine trees that he cut himself. "The house was way bigger than what the two of them needed," said Larry Key, "but Dad always did everything in a big way."

Survivors besides his three sons include nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.