Toby Keith was the best kind of superfan

Toby Keith was the best kind of superfan

Toby Keith, who died Monday at the age of 62, was an international country music phenomenon, as a singer and songwriter and even talent scout (he helped launch the career of Travis Kelce’s girlfriend; you could look it up). In the sporting world, he was known as OU’s superfan.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 6, 2024, 6:17pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 6, 2024, 6:17pm CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

NORMAN — Toby Keith was late to his own induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame back in 2007. And he didn’t apologize.

Toby barely made it to the Cox Convention Center that November night. The inductions included Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon, Clara Luper(!), Jane Jayroe Gamble and Choctaw chief Greg Pyle. A stellar class.

But Toby dang near missed the ceremony. He was coaching his son Stelen’s fifth-grade Roosevelt Mud Dogs in the Norman Optimist Club football playoffs, and the Mud Dogs took precedence over the Hall of Fame.

And a five-overtime playoff game didn’t help. Toby did his best to get there. He had rented a helicopter to fly from Reaves Park in south Norman to downtown Oklahoma City, where his tour bus sat parked, complete with his tuxedo for a quick change.

Toby hurried into the banquet hall, having missed most of the Hall of Fame speeches, but he arrived in time for his induction.

Then, without a teleprompter or notes, Toby delivered a rousing speech off the cuff. Here’s how I described it 17 years ago:

“If you’ve never heard Keith talk, he’s excellent. No prepared remarks. (He) just talks. And it’s big-time good stuff. He talked of being an OU fan and writing the song that became an OSU anthem (“Should’ve Been a Cowboy”).

“He talked of why he has constantly visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and why politics are beside the point, saying we’ve got soldiers over there doing their duty, and he’s not going to forget about them.

“He talked of how he wishes his dad could have been there, and how his dad would have been at the coffee shop the next morning, bragging on his son and saying, ‘He bought me that Ford truck out there.’

“He talked of the grandmother who got him interested in music and how he played bars and honky-tonks, trying to break into the music business, and he talked of how he never will be Nashville’s poster boy and move to Tennessee.”

And then Toby was finished.

“I hate to eat beets, and I hate boring speeches,” Toby said, “so I’m going to say good night.”

 

Toby Keith Covel said good night for good Monday. He died of stomach cancer at age 62.

Toby was an international country music phenomenon, as a singer and songwriter and even talent scout (he helped launch the career of Travis Kelce’s girlfriend; you could look it up).

In the sporting world, Toby was known as OU’s superfan, but after suffering a broken ankle in a silly appearance playing in the Sooners’ 1994 Varsity-Alumni Game, he never became a caricature. No Matthew McConaughey persona.

Toby loved Sooner football and basketball, softball and baseball. He would duck into Lloyd Noble Center just before tipoff, take a seat on the baseline and watch with little fanfare.

“Never did it in a highly visible way,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “It was just natural. Something he really, really enjoyed. He tried to support them the best that he could. He did it with his presence, he did it with contributions, he did it with events.

“Just a most amazing, wonderful person. For as huge of an international superstar that he was, he always remained grounded. That was part of what made him very relatable. I know our athletes felt very comfortable engaging with him.”

I don’t know about that. Some seemed in awe of Toby. Go back to last June. On the field after OU won its third straight Women’s College World Series, while the Sooners celebrated, I stood chatting with Toby. Then a young woman, accompanied by her parents, approached Toby, almost sheepishly, and asked if she could get a photo.

It was Jordy Bahl, who had just pitched the Sooners to the title and was the biggest star in the sport and was about to announce her transfer back home to Nebraska. She seemed amazed that Toby Keith had watched her pitch.

That night would end with the Sooners partying away in Bricktown, at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, with Toby leading the chorus, just as he had done after the 2013 title.

“It’s really just a true blessing to not only have his support, but to be able to share so many different moments with him over the years,” said Castiglione, whose son also was on that fifth-grade Mud Dogs team so long ago.

“He really makes it more about everybody else, not about him. He loves being able to be himself and do what he wants to do and the people he wants to enjoy life with.”

And yes, Joe C. spoke in present tense, as if the reality hadn’t yet settled in.

“Oh, man, this is tough,” Castiglione said Tuesday. “I’m struggling.”

So was Bob Stoops, who also spoke in present tense.

Oh my gosh, I mean, larger-than-life personality,” Stoops said. “Great to everybody. As big and rough as he looks, he’s a kind and sweet guy. Just an incredible person, did so much for so many.

“Big persona but lived up to it. Just an awesome guy. Great family man, great friend. Good to everybody.”

Stoops recalled the 2021 Alamo Bowl, when he served as interim coach in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s departure to Southern Cal. Those Sooners took a 30-3 halftime lead on Oregon.

As Stoops jogged towards the locker room, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the guy Stoops calls “Big T.”

“He grabs me, we’re going in the tunnel, and says, ‘Where the hell’s this team been all year?’” Stoops said, and they both laughed.

Stoops also recalled the 2023 XFL Championship Game, which his Arlington Renegades won 35-26 over the D.C. Defenders, also in San Antonio. 

Toby had a cancer treatment the day before, but there he came, with wife, Tricia, walking across the XFL field before the game.

“He wasn’t going to miss it,” Stoops said. “As much as he loved the Sooners and everything that was going on, he was always just supportive, never critical, no matter what. Some people aren’t that way. Some people want to put their two cents in. All he did was support everybody. That’s big. Incredibly loyal, incredible friend. Great friend, great family man.

“Hard day, man. It sucks.”

Toby’s sports passions ran deep. The kid who sold Cokes at OU games went on to play football at Moore High School and for the semi-pro Oklahoma City Drillers, jumped into a Varsity-Alumni Game and became the Sooners’ superfan.

Just like his country songs, Toby liked a good story. In 2007, I wrote about the 1956 Frederick Bombers, the first integrated state football champion in Oklahoma high school history. The next time I ran into Toby, he told me he had acquired the movie rights to the story. I’m sad he never got that project completed.

Toby, of course, helped finance the launch of Sellout Crowd. I was on vacation in Alabama in July, when Toby and Stelen and business partner Hunter Miller called to talk further about Sellout Crowd. Hunter and Stelen quizzed me about all kinds of business issues and media questions.

But Toby had only one question, and he asked me three times. “Are you all in?”

That was Toby Keith. He was all in.

Toby even brought in Stoops, who has found quite the side gig hosting his own show on our network.

At our gala in October, Toby said he was going to start a show, too. He planned to call on his connections in rock’n roll and country and sports.

“I’ll get everyone from Eric Dickerson to Sammy Hagar,” Toby said.

The show never launched, because Toby got too sick.  

The music crowd can tell us where he is on the Rushmore of Oklahoma country stars — and he most definitely is there with Garth and Reba, Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood — but the sports crowd can tell us where he is on the Rushmore of Sooner fans.

Toby is in the tunnel at the Alamo Bowl with a hand on the shoulder. He’s on the stage in Bricktown, singing with the softball team. He’s in the helicopter above Interstate 35, bridging the gap between family and football and fame.

 

(USA Today Sports)

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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