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Streak of Purple

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A proud Jim Gardner stands beside Elder memorabilia in his Elder-themed basement.

A proud Jim Gardner stands beside Elder memorabilia in his Elder-themed basement.

provided by Ellie Gardner

provided by Ellie Gardner

A proud Jim Gardner stands beside Elder memorabilia in his Elder-themed basement.

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Elder’s defining trait has long been its “panther pride.” As a result, some may mock those of us that bleed purple, but their comments stem from a lack of understanding. What makes Elder unique is the multigenerational brotherhood between its students: a brotherhood that cannot be found at just any high school.

One perfect display of Elder pride comes in the form of 1981 alum Jim Gardner and his family. From 1987 through 2016, Gardner attended 341 consecutive Elder football games including all home, away, regular season, and playoff games. “I feel lost if I’m not at the game on a Friday night,” Gardner said.

What began as a happy accident it was not initially his intention to attend every game quickly developed into a well-recognized tradition. “[Former principal] Tom Otten and [former athletic director] Dave Dabbelt knew about the streak,” Gardner shared. “[My wife] Teresa used to call the school when I would hit a milestone like 100 or 250 and they would make announcements at the football games.”

He recalls his favorite game having been the snowy 2002 state championship against Warren G Harding High School. When his youngest daughter, Seton junior Ellie Gardner, asked what the score was, he instantly responded, “21-19.” When asked what time she was born, he gave the correct answer after considerable hesitation. “This has been a running joke that he can tell you every score of the memorable games, but he cannot tell you what times we were born,” laughed Ellie.

Jim has not traveled to every game alone. He and Teresa have had three children together: Emily, Erin, and Ellie (believe it or not, the ‘E’-scheme was unrelated to Elder). In fact, many of his fondest memories include weekend trips with his family to the games in Cleveland.

“I thought it was normal to go to the games,” Ellie said. “I didn’t think anything of it. Friday nights were Elder games.”

Jim’s love for Elder was incorporated so strongly into his daughters’ upbringings that Ellie actually developed a love of her own. She familiarized herself with all of the team members’ names and often dreamed of meeting her favorite athletes. For her ninth birthday, that dream came true when her parents contacted Principal Otten, who arranged a special surprise for Ellie. The Elder football team, consisting of such athletes as Mark Miller, Tony Miliano, and Ben Coffaro, met with Ellie before one game in 2009.

Ellie received a signed photograph from some of Elder’s football athletes of 2009.

With the Elder community having gone out of their way to make her birthday unforgettable, Ellie cannot help but look back with a smile. Teresa recalled, “They all came over and shook her hand and stood with her, and she was in heaven. She thought they were like celebrities.”

When asked her opinion on her husband’s streak, Teresa Gardner replied, “I remember early on in our marriage when everybody would ask if I was mad my husband was gone every Friday night, and I would say, ‘no, he is doing something he loves, and that makes me happy.’”

Having been raised two hours north of Cincinnati in Coldwater, Ohio, Teresa had never heard of Elder before she met Jim. Today, she admits that Elder has become a significant part of her own identity as well. “It would be weird to think if Elder was not a part of our family or our life. Did I know what Elder was 35 years ago? Absolutely not, but I have learned, and I have appreciated it.” So what exactly is it about the Elder community that she has become so fond of? “No matter who you sit with at any game, it doesn’t seem like you are sitting by a stranger.”

Indeed, by attending so many football games, the Gardners have gotten to know a number of new people in the Elder family. One such person would be class of 1999 alum Michael Ruprich, who did the calculations to discover that Jim has attended 37.21% of all Elder football games. Ruprich currently has a streak of his own spanning 138 games, or 203 out of the last 206, which he hopes may one day rival that of Jim Gardner’s. “The key to my streak has been an understanding wife,” shared Ruprich.

Regarding Ruprich and other newfound friends, Ellie noted, “It is cool that if [my dad] is not at a game early enough, some people will text him and ask, ‘Jim, are you coming? Are you okay? Where are you?’”

Jim and daughters Ellie and Erin, brother Ken, and wife Teresa enjoy a football game.

Principal Kurt Ruffing, Jim’s fellow class of 1981 graduate, spoke highly of Jim and his streak, viewing it as a representation of the Elder community as a whole. “I think what Jim has done and will continue to do is a true testimony to the spirit and pride our alums and ‘friends’ of Elder have in the best darn school in the U.S.A. I believe we take it for granted at Elder – the amount of spirit and pride in our school – because that is what we are used to. It is when I talk to people who have no connection to Elder that I am reminded that it is something special that most other high schools yearn to have.”

Teresa agreed that the pride her husband has in his alma mater is not unique to him. “He’s not the only one,” Teresa said assuredly. “I have a feeling there are a lot of Elder die-hards like this.”

Though his streak unfortunately came to an end following a back surgery in 2016, his streak for regular season games continues to hold strong at 307. More importantly, the Elder tradition that has inspired such a devotion by Jim and others like him continues to hold strong.

Principal Ruffing defines Elder as, “a school that was built on Catholic faith and embodies the characteristics of loyalty, service, tradition, and brotherhood. What does it mean to be an Elder Panther? Altiora: to strive for the higher things. An Elder Panther will live by the expression ‘what I had I gave, what I saved I lost.’”

As for Jim’s definition of what exactly it means to be an Elder Panther, and why he has continued to support his high school 36 years after graduation, he said, “Loyalty. Believing in something. Brotherhood. When they say you bleed purple, you really do. The minute you walk into the school the first day, you feel it. You belong to something special, and it is not just going to school among other people like it is at just about any other place.”

“Spirit and pride were not developed over night,” Ruffing added. “Several generations of grads have built and nurtured this love for Elder and many more generations for years to come will continue to do the same.”

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