If you have been to a high school football or baseball game in Columbia County during the past 20 years, odds are you know Tom Cely.
Cely has been a fixture at games for as long as I can remember. Columbia County is fortunate to have great support from its fans, but Cely is among a special group that continues to support the local high schools even though their kids graduated years ago.
Cely not only attends the games, he also lends financial support. This is something that hundreds of families in Columbia County do, and there are many who contribute despite having no kids still attending high school.
Cely, though, is one of the few who spreads his support. He is a member of not one but three different high school booster clubs -- Lakeside, Evans and Greenbrier. He has been in the county for a long time, so like many baseball fans, he followed all the great Evans teams from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His kids -- Tom, Elizabeth and Jim -- attended Lakeside, and he was there for all the great Lakeside teams in the early -- to mid-1990s. When coaches such as Terry Holder and Mickey Derrick made the move to Greenbrier in 1996, he became an instant 'Pack fan, too.
Cely says it is fun to be able to follow each team.
"Now that our kids are done, we can go see everyone play," he said. "While your kids are in school, you have to support that one school."
Cely's local sports ties go beyond the high school level. He was a longtime board member of Martinez-Evans Little League. Both of his sons came through that system, and Cely stayed on the board even after they moved on to middle and high school.
"I just love amateur sports. I love to watch those kids hit a soft ground ball and hustle down the baseline," Cely said. "The pros don't always get after it like that."
Last summer, it was his love for amateur baseball and his past ties to Little League that led Cely and his wife, Jane, to make the trek to Williamsport, Penn., for the Little League World Series.
"It is something I had always wanted to do, so we just decided to do it," Cely said. "It was incredible."
Not only did he and his wife get to go to the World Series, but they also got to see a team from Warner Robins, Ga., take the crown.
It was that trip that made Cely begin to consider another one of his desires: a stop in Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
"There is something special about Omaha. They have been hosting that thing pretty much my entire life, and I have always wanted to go," Cely said.
He was able to go a little sooner than he expected, when Jane surprised him on Christmas with the baseball trip of a lifetime: eight days in Omaha for the College World Series.
So the couple, who have been married for 41 years, made the trip in June, and they were not alone. Longtime friends Don and Ginny North went, too. Ginny had given Don the same gift for Christmas. North had also been a MELL board member and, like Cely, can be seen most Friday nights at one of our county stadiums rooting on a local team.
So the couples traveled to Omaha to catch one of the truly special events in all of sports. As a bonus for Cely, a lifelong University of Georgia fan, he would be able to cheer on his team, as the Bulldogs battled their way to Omaha by knocking off Georgia Tech in the regional and North Carolina State in the super regional.
"Well, when Rich (Greenbrier product Rich Poythress) got hurt before the SEC Tournament, and they went two and out, we figured they were in trouble, but they played great in the regionals," Cely said.
Once in Omaha (and the neighboring city of Council Bluffs, Iowa), the Celys and Norths were blown away by the treatment they received.
"When we got there, we were trying to find out where to go for parking, and the folks at the hotel told us that they had vans and would shuttle us wherever we needed to go," Cely said. "They drove us right up to the stadium, dropped us off, and then we got back on the vans to head back after the games."
Cely got a chance to see firsthand what I have heard for years: The people of Omaha and the surrounding areas support this event with a passion not seen anyplace else. Cely said it was kind of like how our area is with the Masters Tournament.
I offered the theory that it was even more impressive in Omaha when you consider that many locals in Augusta either work at the tournament or go out of town for Masters Week, while in Omaha, it seems like the people there open their arms and welcome everyone. They treat the event like it is their baby.
Cely quickly agreed.
The Columbia County group also got a chance to see UGA make an incredible run at the national title. However, it was the Georgia team's behavior off the field that impressed Cely.
"That group did the University of Georgia proud, and I bet all the fans in Omaha would agree," Cely said. "I did not see one Georgia player turn down an autograph. After every game, they stayed and signed balls and talked to the kids. They were really great."
Cely saved some of his highest praise for Poythress.
"Rich did all of Columbia County proud. He played great, but he was a class act off the field, too. He represented us very well," he said.
Unfortunately, UGA came up one win short of the title. However, this trip was about much more than just Georgia.
"We went to all the games while we were there, whether Georgia was playing or not," said Cely. "The fans were great. It was just a lot of fun."
The Celys and the Norths don't claim to be world travelers, and they don't have another adventure planned at this point. But I for one am certainly jealous. What a great way to spend a few summer vacations.
Bratton continues to chase his dream north of the border
Former Lakeside High School standout Brian Bratton is back for a second season with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
The former Furman University standout and collegiate All-American caught 20 passes for 199 yards for Montreal last season.
Bratton also was among the league leaders in punt returns, with 511 yards on 52 returns, including a thrilling 79-yard touchdown to seal a win against the Toronto Argonauts.
That play earned Bratton a spot on ESPN as the Play of the Day last summer. He also was among the best kick returners, averaging 23 yards per return.
This season, Montreal is off to a great start at 2-0 after going 0-1-1 in the preseason. The Alouettes are averaging more than 24,000 fans per game.
Bratton hauled in a 20-yard touchdown reception in the preseason opener and returned two kickoffs for 39 yards in the opener for Montreal, a 33-10 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Aside from football, Bratton is one of the classiest young men whom I have had the pleasure of dealing with as a columnist for The News-Times. It is always fun to see a good person do well.
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