Sitting at the corner of Bryant Drive and 10th Avenue, Millie Higdon was in awe.
There it was. Bryant-Denny Stadium in real life. For 57 years, she’s admired from a distance and now it’s real. The biggest Alabama fan from Central Missouri finally made her pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa for the win over Mississippi State and let’s just say it met expectations.
Known best as Millie from Rolla, this loyal Paul Finebaum caller had her dream granted thanks to the SEC Network’s Peter Burns. After he broke his promise to take her call one day as a fill-in host for Finebaum, he vowed to send Millie to an Alabama game.
A few months, a two-hour Greyhound bus ride, two flights and a new friend later, Millie made it. Burns picked another show listener, Jack Kennington from Tullahoma, Tennessee to be her chaperone for the weekend. He drives, she doesn’t and the two tickets were in her name, so it all worked out.
All that led her to that moment at the street corner looking at the stadium that lived only in her imagination and on her TV. She has an unassuming presence – one that could get lost in the crowd if not for her big personality.
Millie’s a talker and she has stories. She says she was once pen pals with the late King Hussein of Jordan and remembers going skydiving behind her parents’ backs.
The trip to Bryant-Denny, however, was a mountaintop she never thought she’d climb.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime for me,” Millie said. “And I’m 72-years old. I don’t know how many years I have left and there are certain things I want to accomplish in my life, so why not, right?”
Like so many callers in the Finebaum orbit, Millie’s become somewhat of a celebrity. There’s Phyllis, Jim, Charles and a few of them have gained fame outside the show. Millie is a little more low key.
The retired cook lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Rolla. It has a TV and landline.
“I recently had to get a punch phone because rotaries don’t work anymore,” Millie said.
Other than Alabama games on Saturday and the occasional news program, the Finebaum show is the extent of her television viewing. At one point she was a daily caller, but she added a Thursday prayer group and Friday game night to the routine. There isn’t as much time to talk football with a national audience.
Still, Millie’s known to the Finebaum listeners. She dressed for the game Saturday in the same clothing from the picture that appears on the SEC Network screen when they take her calls. Maybe someone would spot that and know it was her, Millie thought.
She’d never been recognized in public until they reached their seats at the 15-yard line behind the Mississippi State bench Saturday afternoon.
“When we sat down with this couple,” Millie recalled, “he said ‘You’re that Millie from the Paul Finebaum Show.’ I was flabbergasted by it.”
Later, a fan sitting in front of Millie and Kennington turned around after he recognized her voice from the show.
The whole thing was flattering for the widow. She never set out to be well-known. It just happened after three years of calls to Finebaum.
Countless listeners reached out to Burns offering to host her at their tailgate before kickoff. Former Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones helped line up a parking pass.
“I mean, she’s a rockstar to Finebaum fans,” Burns said.
And this was more about the icons she got to see for the first time in person. Walking out of the concourse, she locked in.
“If I was in better shape,” Millie said, “I would have walked straight through that tunnel because I saw Nick Saban and if I would have had my druthers, I would have walked through – probably would have got my ass into trouble – but I would have run up to him. But I got a chance to see him in person even if I missed the opportunity to say hello. But, maybe one of these days. Who knows?”
There was one other attendee in the stadium Saturday who has Millie’s interest, to put it mildly. Just hearing his name made her yelp at the corner of Bryant and 10th.
Millie’s love for Alabama is genuine. It wasn’t passed down through the family, in fact she had no real connection to the state until she saw Joe Namath’s photo in the newspaper.
There was something about that quarterback. Dad tried to dissuade her from the admiration calling Namath a “know it all” but it didn’t work. The teenaged Millie was smitten.
“I sort of fell for him back then,” Millie said, “and I haven’t stopped to this day.”
So, when she was told Namath was in town and would be at the game, Millie nearly tossed her walker (named Sam) to the side to begin the hunt.
“If he’s truly here, I’d do anything on this earth to meet him,” she said. “I’d even go on the field on the 50-yard line, even with Sam, to cause a little bit of a ruckus just to get the attention of whoever is in charge here and I’d tell them I’d go if I could talk to (Namath) for two seconds. They probably wouldn’t let me but at least I could get myself known.”
Millie means it.
And she’s no pushover, either. After off-roading her walking through mulch, up curbs and down curbs, Millie was ready if security wanted to deny her purse. Geared up to battle over the clear bag policy, the stadium staff waved her through without incident.
This also isn’t the first time she tried to attend an Alabama game. This first plan goes back to 1964, Namath’s senior season with the Tide.
“My parents caught me and I got grounded for two months because of it,” Millie said, sounding disappointed 54 years later.
The scheme involved two days of teachers’ meetings on Thursday and Friday of this fall weekend in the Lyndon Johnson administration. The four days without school was her window.
“I was going to take off on a bus and come here and spend a couple of days and go back home,” Millie remembers all these years later. “I wrote a note to my parents, unfortunately I hid the note in the wrong place and they found it before I even ended up getting on the bus and that’s what got me into trouble. That’s the way the world turned.”
There were also the letters she mailed to Shea Stadium when Namath was the New York Jets quarterback. She wanted to help in the legal battle over his Manhattan night club but Namath never wrote back.
“You can’t go back and change the past,” she said. “Unfortunately, you can’t but there’s the present and future. I’m 72 and probably don’t have too much longer to go anyway. I would just truly like to meet him even though I’m too old to do much of anything. I’d just like to be able to say hello. That’s all there is to it.”
Millie isn’t being dramatic when she references her age and mortality. She’s just realistic, yet resilient. Stomach cancer couldn’t kill her, though it took her belly button, she’ll tell you.
Life is fairly simple at 72. She has her church, Alabama football, the Finebaum Show and a few activities in Rolla. Millie’s happy — a throwback who is taking nothing for granted.
“She’s like the sweetest lady,” Burns said.
A few goals remain on the bucket list, too. She’s always wanted to see Bristol, Connecticut and the ESPN campus. There’re also the SEC Network studios in Charlotte where Finebaum and Burns work.
“If I ever get the cash together,” Millie said, “I’m going to surprise the hell out of them.”
What happened Saturday topped any wish list for her time left. She’s earnestly grateful for the experience she had watching Alabama win its 901st football game sharing the same air as Joe Namath.
Kennington also made the experience memorable for Millie. More than 100 listeners reached out to Burns offering to help and Kennington was his pick.
“I think I’ve made a friend for life,” she said.
It was an honor for Kennington, too. The certified grief counselor for a hospice in Tennessee grew up coming to Alabama games with his grandparents who helped raise him.
“I’ve always loved older people,” Kennington said, “so this is a really good fit with Millie.”
After the game, the two new friends dined at Dreamland before heading to the Midtown Village shopping center for souvenirs. She paid cash for the crimson ball cap that came to $21.80 with tax. There wasn’t much room for anything else in the carry-on luggage she brought to avoid the airport baggage carousels.
“You bet your life,” she said that hat will be on her next week in Rolla.
She left Birmingham on Sunday content. Millie’s not in it for the fame, though she’s flattered by the attention her phone calls receive. No doubt she’ll be on the line Monday afternoon when the Finebaum show goes live.
After 57 years, she finally saw her Crimson Tide play in Bryant-Denny Stadium. And she’ll be more than happy to tell you her story even if she never ran into her man Joe.
All this because she spent four hours on hold listening to a radio show.
“Oh my god, I was thrilled beyond belief,” Millie said. “I said I’m finally seeing you in person. I get tired of seeing you on newsreels and magazines and every week when I see the Crimson Tide playing here. It’s either see you guys some time or bust. It’s got to be one or the other.
“It’s truly the biggest joy that a person could ever have, at least me.”