It was half an hour before the start of the 2011 Yellow Jackets football season, and a steady crowd filed into gate nine on Bobby Dodd Stadium’s east side, ready to watch Tech take on Western Carolina.
A gold Jaguar pulled up along Techwood Drive, Yellow Jackets pennants flying from the rear windows. Out stepped two women, sisters Alae Risse Leitch and Jo Atchison, on their way to the game.
Leitch, who celebrated her 98th birthday in October, was continuing a tradition that stretches back to the early 1920s, when she and her parents would travel by train from Toccoa, Ga., to watch her uncle, the two-time All-American Tech fullback David “Red” Barron.
“We just love it. A habit formed,” Leitch said.
Over the ensuing nine decades, Leitch would be in the stands for many of the greatest moments in Tech’s legendary gridiron history. She watched three of the school’s four national championship teams and traveled to the 1991 Citrus Bowl for Tech’s win over Nebraska. She saw Tech’s famous 7-3 win over Alabama during the 1952 title season, the 7-6 upset of the Crimson Tide in 1962 and the 51-48 overtime win against Georgia in 1999.
She has seen Grant Field grow into Bobby Dodd Stadium, and she has outlasted 11 head coaches. Now in her 10th decade as a Tech fan, Leitch has only missed a couple of home games in that stretch.
“Oh, yeah. I missed one to have a baby,” Leitch said. “A daughter. She’s 64 now.”
She also missed a game when her father was seriously ill.
For years, Leitch, an Agnes Scott graduate, would go to games with her husband, James, Mgt 34. But since he died in 1996, Leitch has been joined in the stands by her sister, Jo Atchison, who is 84. The Jaguar is Atchison’s; she picked a gold one out of affinity for the Yellow Jackets.
“I’ve had it four years,” she said. “I’m loyal to Tech, but there’s a big parking lot where I live. Those Georgia Tech flags help me see it.”
As they walked toward the stadium, Leitch and Atchison showed off their Tech gear, which covered them head to toe. They both wore golden Yellow Jackets earrings and pendants. Leitch leaned on a black cane neatly covered with Georgia Tech stickers.
A Tech employee spotted the women and asked if they needed anything.
“We’ve been coming so long, they look after us,” Leitch said.
Their lengthy history has given the two sisters a unique perspective on the team. When asked about their favorite players, they reel off a list that includes Tech legends like George Brodnax and Leon Hardeman as well as contemporary stars like Joe Hamilton and Joshua Nesbitt.
One of Leitch’s favorite memories was a Thanksgiving Day game when Barron led the Jackets past Auburn. At halftime, Auburn gave Barron a silver set, because the star player was getting married that night. After the game, Leitch went to the Tabernacle for the wedding and remembers Tech fans celebrating in the streets outside.
Atchison recalled a 1940s victory over Notre Dame as her favorite.
“After the game, somebody on the street was giving out $100 bills,” she said.
“But we didn’t get one,” Leitch added.
Over the years, the sisters have seen numerous relatives play for Tech. They recalled one famous play when one relative scored a touchdown only to have it called back on a penalty committed by another family member.
Asked what their favorite part of the gameday experience is, Leitch reacted as if the answer is self-evident: “I like seeing them play.”
Their hopes for the team are similarly simple: “For them to win,” Atchison said.
On this evening, Leitch was looking forward to her 98th birthday. At past birthday celebrations, the Ramblin’ Wreck and Buzz have made appearances. Asked about her next birthday, Leitch glanced up at the stadium.
“If there is one, I’ll be here,” she said.
The two women then headed in through gate nine, toward their seats in section 124. The game was about to start.