He’s number one

By RYAN PAPASERGE

OBSERVER Sports Reporter

For the vast majority of his 20 years as a season-ticket holder, Kurt Wolnik has had a penchant for wearing colorful, outrageous costumes during Buffalo Bandits games.

One special night, however, was all it took to make the leap from just another avid fan to the team’s 2013 Fan of the Year.

“They had called (the night’s game) Black Out Cancer, so I figured I would wear a pink suit,” Wolnik said. “Around halftime, a girl came up and said ‘You’ve been nominated for Fan of the Year, will you mind?’ and I said ‘I’m cool with it.’ She took my name and told me to get back in my seat and they would call my name in the fourth quarter.”

After he donned what the team’s website touted as the “Pink Tuxedo” throughout the March 23 game against the Edmonton Rush at First Niagara Center, Wolnik became one of three nominees for the team’s Fan of the Year award. Fans voted on bandits.com and it wasn’t much of a contest after that.

Wolnik was announced as the winner with over 60 percent of the vote April 20 during the Bandits’ home finale against the Rochester Knighthawks. He won a trophy, a jersey autographed by this season’s team and a pair of season tickets for the 2014 campaign.

“It feels pretty good,” Wolnik said. “A lot of people said I should have had it a long time ago, but I got it. I’m happy. I enjoyed it. It was a honor.”

A crane operator for Fieldbrook Farms by day, Wolnik has been a proud supporter of the team since Jan. 4, 1992 – the team’ s inaugural game at the old Memorial Auditorium against the New York Saints.

“I went to the first game they ever played with about eight guys that I used to work with,” Wolnik said. “My wife made shirts and we got on TV. I said to Jerry (Kozlowski, Wolnik’s friend), ‘You have to check this out. You have to see this game.’ So we went to Game Two (Jan. 25, 1992 against the Detroit Turbos) and said ‘Man, that’s it. We’re getting season tickets.’

“Our first experiences were at the Aud and we used to have blue seats right against the wall. We were sitting there clapping and hollering. This guy comes down, looking at us, and asks, ‘Did you see a watch fall?’ We didn’t think anything of it. I said to my buddy, ‘It’s in his beer,’ and that’s where it was. They use the slogan ‘We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the front end.’ Well, before you know it we’ve been going straight for 20 years.”

Wolnik and his friends used to find their way to the locker room and entertain players following wins. They also snagged one of current coach Darris Kilgour’s jerseys after traveling to Buffalo with the then-player. Another one of Wolnik’s fondest memories as a fan also involves Kilgour – he donned the coach’s old jersey when the Bandits won the 2008 NLL (National Lacrosse League) title and brought Buffalo a third indoor lacrosse championship.

“We picked up his jersey and when we won the championship we wore his jersey,” Wolnik said. “His mother walked by, saw us and said ‘Well, I wondered where Darris’s jersey had gone. I couldn’t find it’ … To win a championship like that, it was a good thing. You go out sneaking down in the locker room area after games and they’ll say ‘nice outfit,’ laugh and have a big smile after games.”

Wolnik also works to bring up the next generation of Bandit fans.

“I’d bring sunglasses and hats to the games,” Wolnik said. “Of course, I’d pass them off to the kids. The kids’ faces would light up and look at you and the way you’re dressed.”

As for his outrageous outfits, the process of putting them together is a pain-staking one Wolnik goes through every year. It involves many different varieties of unique fan apparel.

“I try and figure out what I’m going to do,” Wolnik said. “I’ve worn multi-colored suits, I’ve worn face paint, I do all this stuff. It’s hard to figure out what I’m going to do each year. Years back, I had worn an army helmet and there was a guy from Philadelphia who came to their games. I got pictures of us both and they put us in the program. I was kind of shocked.”

He’ll have to figure out what he’s going to do for the 2014 season, one with presumably a little more room in the wardrobe budget since his season ticket is on the Bandits. And while this season was a struggle – the Bandits lost seven of their final eight games and finished last in the NLL Eastern Division – Wolnik’s enthusiasm remains undeterred.

“You’ve got your up years, you’ve got your down years,” Wolnik said. “You’ve got to take your good with the bad. This year was bad. They lost six in a row and it’s been the first time that’s happened. You get a little down but it’s been memorable and enjoyable and we’ll be there until … who knows?”