'A pretty good compromise': OU football fan honors late father with cardboard cutout instead of spreading ashes at Sooners' stadium
NORMAN — Lee Mitchell grew up loving the Sooners.
Raised in Norman, Mitchell’s family taught him to be an OU football fan from his earliest days.
He coached his kids, Clayton and Hannah, to do the same.
“He loved OU football dang more than anything,” Clayton said.
Lee Mitchell and his wife, Kari, were season-ticket holders from 1999 until 2013. They spent that first season in the nosebleed seats, watching as the team transformed from the struggles of the previous decade back into contenders.
The next season, they moved to the first few rows of the south end zone, which would become their tickets until declining health caused Lee to make the difficult decision not to renew their tickets.
Saturday when the Sooners begin their season against Missouri State (6 p.m., pay-per-view), Lee Mitchell will be there, not in his customary spot in the south end zone but close nevertheless, a crimson hat with the interlocking OU logo on the front.
He’ll be among the 400-or-so cutouts that will mostly fill the first six rows behind both benches, areas that will be completely closed off to fans due to their proximity to the players as attendance is sharply limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee Mitchell, 57, died Aug. 3. Before his death, he told his family he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread on Owen Field.
“Then when he did die, I thought putting his ashes on Owen Field was probably not possible or legal or whatever, so I figured that the cardboard cutout was a pretty good compromise,” Clayton said.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, several teams across multiple sports have allowed fans to purchase cutouts of themselves or other fans to put in the stadiums.
And when OU announced earlier this month that they were offering cutouts for $50, with proceeds going to the Sooner Relief Fund to benefit student-athlete experiences, Clayton didn’t think twice.
His only concerns were what his mom and sister would think of the idea and if they could find the right photo that met OU’s criteria.
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“He wasn’t one to have a ton of pictures taken of him,” Clayton said.
Kari and Hannah were on board, though, and they finally found a photo that worked — of Lee with his OU hat proudly on his head, sitting in the front with a couple of his friends beside him. Clayton cut out his father, paid the $50 and submitted the photo.
Mike Rich will be there too.
The Sooners fan who now lives in Alabama hasn’t been to an OU home game since the Sooners’ win over Nebraska during their 2000 national-championship season.
“I figured that I’m never going to go to another home game that tops that one,” Rich said.
He tries to make it to road games or bowl games when he can, but it’s been a few years since he’s been able to do that.
Several other members of the OU Club of Huntsville bought cutouts to be placed together in the stadium. When Rich signed up, he was given an option to create a group and sent out the link to other members of the group so they could be placed together in the stadium.
He’ll watch Saturday’s game to see the Sooners but will keep a keen eye on the background to see if he can see himself.
“I think the last time I got on TV at an OU game I was a sophomore in ’93,” Rich said. “A bunch of us had ‘Oklahoma’ across our chests.”
He’ll have a shirt on this time, though, with a white OU shirt and a Sooners mask.
The cutouts are 3-feet wide by 4-feet tall, attached at the base of the seat so the view of fans sitting in the rows immediately behind the cutouts remain unobstructed. They’re made of plastic material to withstand the weather they’re sure to face this season.
“We’re still trying to create an atmosphere and create an experience for our student-athletes and fans that is still fun and entertaining and engaging,” said Drew Gaschler, OU’s director or marketing for fan experience.
“This is an opportunity to give our fans some creativity to be in the stadium if they can’t physically be there. We want them to be able to show their support for the Sooners in other ways.”
Gaschler said there may be opportunities in other areas of the stadium for more cutouts to be added in the coming weeks.
Clayton Mitchell isn’t sure if he’ll make it to an OU game this season, but is glad his dad will be there cheering on his favorite team.
“If he’d have been around, I think he would’ve been happy with it,” Clayton said.