August 17, 2013 Updated: August 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm
The initial outlook wasn't pretty for Air Force on Saturday morning. The first fan in line showed up an hour-and-a-half early and sported a Notre Dame jersey.
It picked up from there.
The Falcons combined their annual Kids Day at Falcon Stadium on Saturday with a sneak peek chance to buy tickets to the Oct. 26 game against Notre Dame before they go on sale to the general public.
The events sold roughly 2,500 tickets - a figure that includes both season-ticket packages and single-game seats for Notre Dame - and drew an estimated crowd of 3,000 to watch Air Force scrimmage and meet the players in an on-field autograph session.
"When the helmet comes off they get to see the type of people we are," safety Christian Spears said. "You know, we're not the mean people we are with the helmet on."
This was the sixth edition of Kids Day and drew the largest crowd yet. The Notre Dame tickets played a role, though several showed up to purchase tickets and didn't bother sticking around for the festivities. Those who did enjoyed a performance from the cheerleaders, talked with the players and collected autographs on everything from T-shirts and posters to giant foam fingers.
"I enjoy talking to the kids," said quarterback Kale Pearson, who consistently drew the largest line of autograph seekers. "I have a little brother who is 12, so I know a lot of those kids look up to all these guys in the blue shirts. I was in their shoes one day, trying to be the next big football player."
The idea for the event sprang from an after-church luncheon between coach Troy Calhoun, his wife, Amanda, and Falcons sports information director Troy Garnhart and his wife, Kimberly. Kimberly had seen the benefits of her young daughters getting to know several Air Force players and suggested that Calhoun try to encourage more of such interaction. Few college football programs boast the caliber of personalities that Air Force does, Kimberly reasoned, and the Falcons would be wise to utilize one of their top assets.
Calhoun immediately agreed and a new tradition was born.
"To interact with our players I think is quite meaningful," Calhoun said. "You just never know when you've got a 6-year-old or 7-year-old who may one day want to go to the school at the Air Force Academy and maybe fly a jet or whatever it may be to be an officer or go enlist."
The event is tailored toward the kids, with the Bird mascot also signing and the cheerleading staff taking youngsters up into stunts, but the players enjoyed it as well.
"They're so innocent and just loving life with a big smile on their face and they really appreciate what we do," Spears said. "But we appreciate their support as well.
"It warms my heart a little bit."