They braved a torrential downpour to line the sidewalk of the Avenue of Champions a day early. They attacked the surrounding grounds of Memorial Coliseum at 7 a.m. Wednesday. They pitched their tents and set up their temporary three-day establishments. All of this in an effort to get free tickets to the Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams' first open practice of the season.
They... are the Big Blue Nation.
There is simply nothing like it in all of sports, and the Big Blue Nation has represented itself well once more through the first day of the Big Blue Madness campout. These fanatics have set records for the tent count around Memorial Coliseum and the Joe Craft Center the past two years. Kentucky fans have shown once again that they "truly are crazy," as head men's basketball coach John Calipari likes to describe them, by showing up this year at a record-breaking pace. They are coming off a national championship campaign, after all.
By Thursday morning at 9:30, the tent count had ballooned to 509. At the same point in last year's campout, there were just 445 tents on the premises. As the weekend draws nearer, that number is expected to get even bigger and break last year's record of 570 tents.
After spending some time around the campgrounds, a few traits of the Big Blue Nation stuck out: It is "big", it is diverse and the fans that comprise it travel far and wide to see their Cats. Even if it's just a departure from rival territory to gain a piece of sanity.
"You don't have to see the orange and you don't have to hear Rocky Top," said Monica Fradey. "That gets old if you're a Kentucky fan. It really does."
Fradey and her husband Jerry live in Madisonville, Tenn., and this year marks their second straight year of camping out. Monica, a Kentucky native and graduate, moved to Tennessee when she attended the University of Tennessee for graduate school. Jerry was born and raised a Tennessean, but just on the border of the Tennessee and Georgia line. Monica never traded her allegiance, however. In fact, there was a stipulation proposed in order for Monica to take Jerry's hand in marriage.
"I had to sign a pre-nup to marry her, can you believe that?" said Jerry.
If there's anything to learn about the Big Blue Nation, it's that its limits reach far and beyond the boundaries of the Bluegrass.
Teressa Steinbergen is camping out for the ninth consecutive year. Nine years. In a row. And where is she from? Jeffersonville, Ind. But it only took one trip to Lexington to reel her in.
"I went to my first Big Blue Madness nine years ago and I was set," said Steinbergen. "I saw the tradition and family atmosphere and I was set. I've been a fan ever since then."
The family atmosphere is one of the most unique qualities of the Madness campout as Kentucky fans of all sorts come together for one common passion. For Steinbergen, it's that experience that truly makes Big Blue Madness special.
"(I prefer) camping out. I do," said Steinbergen. "(My family) like(s) Madness better, but I like good people and the good atmosphere and the chants, 'Go Big Blue,' and it's just all awesome to me."
This year, she decided to bring her daughter, Kiera. The 11-year-old straight-A student finally earned her trip to Lexington. But unlike her mother, she's excited for the main event.
"(I'm excited for) whenever we actually get to go to the Madness," said Kiera. "It's just exciting. There's no word to explain it."
And maybe that's the best way to explain the passion of the Big Blue Nation. It's unexplainable. It's unexplainable how a small town just south of Dayton, Ohio is predominately full of Kentucky fans. Not the University of Dayton, not Ohio State, but UK. At least that's the case according to Brandon Collins.
"My whole town is just UK fans, and I just kind of fit in that way," said Collins. "I think it's just natural in that area."
Collins has recently transplanted himself into the heart of Kentucky at his new job at the Jif Peanut Butter plant in Lexington, and he's already taking advantage of his new hometown. He made sure to get an early start on the process, showing up on the Avenue of Champions the night before they could cross the street. He came by himself, while he waits for some other friends he's made since moving to Kentucky, and has been given the responsibility of holding down the fort in their stead. Literally.
But despite his physical absence from work, Collins isn't scot-free.
"Getting on my work emails and trying to get them back," said Collins of the dependence on his phone to stay in touch with his job.
That sort of thing is normal for Kentucky fans. It's almost expected. It's life. Outsiders often don't see it that way.
The week of the campout is truly a big deal for these loyal fans. For Steinbergen, it's the only vacation she gets all year. And nothing will stand in her way.
"This is my vacation," said Steinbergen. "I take it every year. People at work think I'm completely insane. I'll go to work with a 103 fever and the flu as long as I don't mess up my hours allotted up for my Big Blue Madness camping, I'm OK."
The event even drives people to do things that they've never done before.
"Last year was the first time I had ever slept in a tent," said Monica Fradey. "I do not camp. I do not camp in a tent, so last year was my first experience for even sleeping in a tent. Everyone tells me we've lost our mind down there, but up here, no one seems to think this is unusual at all."
And that's why they come from all over the country to convene in one central location. Even if it's for free tickets. Even if it's for a "glorified practice." Even if you can get the tickets online.
If they win it, they will come. Kentucky did, and its fans have. And being a Wildcat fan has never been so enjoyable.
"We bleed blue," said Steinbergen. "That's the best way to explain it. We're just passionate about our basketball and we like to win, and Coach Cal's got us winning. So, we're pretty happy."