By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - In the 45 years Johnny Lee Dowdell worked for Auburn University, as a groundskeeper and furniture mover, he knew every inch of every building on campus, inside and out.
But there’s one place Johnny never went during the nearly half-century he worked at Auburn: Jordan-Hare Stadium during a football game.
It’s not that he wasn’t into Auburn football. On the contrary.
“Always have been an Auburn fan,” Johnny said. “I hope to die an Auburn fan.”
From his hiring in 1956, the year before Auburn’s first national championship, to his retirement in 2001, there were children to raise and bills to pay. Football tickets were not in the budget.
Auburn football games, however, were still a big deal for the Dowdells, whose home is within walking distance of campus.
“I remember as a kid,” said Cortez Whatley, Johnny’s grandson. “Whenever I would be over there during a game, we always had family over and watched the game, cooked wings and all of this other stuff. Now, my grandparents aren’t as active. It’ll be my grandmother nodding off to the game. My grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, watching the game.”
Instilled with his grandfather’s values – family and hard work – Cortez, who was born in Opelika before moving to Florida, became the student body president at the University of Central Florida.
Now in his third year of law school at Washington University in St. Louis, Cortez wanted to make a memory with his grandfather, who’s 77.
“My grandfather has recently been fighting cancer, so he went through his first round of chemo, responded pretty well to it,” Cortez said. “He’s just now becoming active again, where he’s going out and gardening. So, I really wanted to do something kind of special, especially since he worked at the University for so long, they’re really close to there, and they’re huge fans.
“At one point, he told me he’d never been to an Auburn game before. I figured this was a better time than any to take him to a game,” Cortez said. “It’s a little bit more than just football to us and our family, and I think especially to my grandfather. A very special moment for him, just beyond the football aspect of it. Just the community aspect of it.”
Unbeknownst to his grandfather, Cortez bought tickets – an airline ticket from St. Louis, and two tickets to the Alabama A&M game.
When Auburn Athletics learned of the unique circumstances, a devoted grandson seeking to honor a longtime employee with an impressive record of service to Auburn University, Cortez and Johnny were invited to watch the pregame festivities from the sideline.
Wearing an Auburn sweatshirt and hat on a cool night, Johnny Dowdell took it all in. Warmups, the marching band, recognition of Auburn’s seniors. The eagle flight brought a wide smile.
“It’s just wonderful, let me tell you. Looking at the real thing,” Johnny said on the sideline. “I have wanted to come see it, but my little grandson, he made it all possible. And I appreciate everything he did for me.”
In a Facebook post the day after the game, Cortez described it as “one of the most special days of my life. My grandfather enjoyed every second of it.”
When asked if he had a favorite Auburn player over the years, Johnny answered quickly. “All of them.”
For 45 years, he made Auburn better, doing jobs that were important but not glamorous. The man who cut grass on campus for decades now stood on meticulously manicured Pat Dye Field, an honored guest.
“It’s just a pleasure, let me tell you. A pleasure of my life,” Johnny said. “I never would have thought this day would come, but I’m so happy to be here.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer