LARGO — The first time Keith Kunzig painted his face for a football game was more to distract his brother from a bad breakup than it was about cheering on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This was in the late 1980s and the Largo resident, then in his early 20s, worked for Bally Fitness. Thanks to a partnership between the NFL team and his employer, Kunzig was given season tickets to Bucs games.

“They had a trade out with the Bucs organization,” he said. “We got season tickets and the players could work out in our gyms. Their gym was like a porch. It was like a mobile home. It was nowhere near the Taj Mahal it is today.”

That fateful day — Kunzig can’t recall the exact date — Tampa Bay played the Green Bay Packers.

“The two worst teams in the league,” he said.

Fans painting their faces for football games wasn’t commonplace back then, he added, so he and his brother, with their red and black war paint — Bucs colors — stood out. They took hundreds of photos that day with fans from both sides.

“I barely remember the game,” he said. “Interacting with other fans, that game day experience, it was awesome, so much fun.”

This was the birth of “Big Nasty,” Kunzig’s alter ego, and the start of his path toward becoming a nationally recognized NFL superfan that will join the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s new Ford Hall of Fans.

His look has evolved since that first time he painted up. He’s added a horned helmet, perfected his makeup and adopted his signature expression — mouth open, tongue sticking out, wild eyes — and props have come and gone over the years.

His Nasty Crew also expanded. Initially, it was just him and his brother, who recently passed away. Eventually, they were joined by two additional friends, and, later, his wife, Debbie, and 20-year-old daughter, Destiny.

The name Big Nasty didn’t come until his second year of painting up for games. An elderly woman in the stands, another regular at Buccaneers home games, told Kunzig, “You know, son, you need a nickname. Something big and something nasty.”

“That’s how it started,” he said. “I wasn’t Big Nasty until then.”

Today, his larger-than-life persona is such an integral part of the Buccaneers’ fan experience that he was recently selected to the Hall of Fame.

“It’s such an honor,” he said. “I really can’t believe it. I didn’t think this would happen.”

More than 150,000 entries were submitted to the Ford Hall of Fans, only in its second year, for the 2020 class of inductees. Just three were selected. Kunzig will be joined by Kansas City Chiefs fan Janel Renee Carbajo (known by many as “The Puppet Lady”) and Denver Broncos fan Rob “Rescue Rob” Garner at the induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, in August.

Last year, Buccaneers CEO Brian Ford suggested Kunzig nominate himself for the honor, assuring him that if he were selected as a finalist, he would have the team’s full support.

“I was honored just to hear that from the Bucs,” Kunzig said. “Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, if it happens, great. At least I have the Bucs backing me.”

He was reluctant to write the required essay about himself, though, so his daughter wrote one for him, detailing her football experiences with her father.

“It was really moving,” he said.

In October, he learned he was one of six finalists in the contest. Even then, he didn’t think he’d win. As a Tampa Bay fan, he was “at a disadvantage,” he said. The Buccaneers had only 720,000 Twitter followers while other finalists’ teams boasted social media followings in the millions.

Then, the support came pouring in, and not only from Bucs fans. Voting surges for Big Nasty were inspired by other teams’ superfans who had encountered him over the years. Many posted videos and pictures, encouraging their followers to vote for him.

“I don’t get paid to do this. My job is to make your game day experience better, even if you’re an opposing fan,” Kunzig said, “but I was blown away from all the love. It really touched me.”

The NFL brought the finalists to Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Feb. 2. For a football superfan like Kunzig, it was the trip of a lifetime. Not only was he a special guest at the sport’s biggest game of the year, he also met many of his NFL heroes and attended exclusive events, including a talk with football greats Warren and Jim Kelly.

It was during this trip that he also learned he would be inducted into the Ford Hall of Fans. David Baker, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s president and CEO, visited him in his hotel room to bring him the good news.

“Hearing it from him is a very huge compliment. I told myself that if he knocked on my door to tell me I was selected for the Hall of Fame I wouldn’t say anything, I would just listen to him,” he said. “Listening to him, it gave me chills.”

Kunzig had already achieved national recognition as a superfan when he was inducted into Visa’s Hall of Fans in 2001.

“But that was nowhere near this. I’m not knocking Visa, because that was a special moment, but this here, that’s like the Cadillac, man, it’s amazing,” he said.

He added, “The best part is to come in August.”

During the August induction ceremony, he’ll receive his Hall of Fame ring and blue jacket — the players are given yellow jackets, while fans get blue ones. A bronze plaque bearing his name will also be put on permanent display.

From Seminole to Canton

A Seminole native, Kunzig grew up following the Buccaneers. He went to his first game as an Atlanta Falcons fan though, simply because they shared the same name as his little league team.

This game was his first encounter with Bad Buc, a de facto Buccaneers mascot from the radio station WDAE.

“He was like an orange Yosemite Sam,” he said. “I was in awe of him. I became a Bucs fan that day because of him. I didn’t even watch the game. I just watched him. I loved the way he interacted with fans. Everybody was smiling and having fun. We were horrible. We weren’t any good, but it was a great game day experience.”

Kunzig played football at Osceola Fundamental High School, graduating in 1985. He went on to play at Bakersfield College in California.

He returned to Florida after college. Today, he lives in Largo and owns an Ameriprise Financial franchise in Seminole.

For more than 30 years, he’s been a Buccaneers season ticketholder, and as his Big Nasty persona evolved, so did his connection with the Tampa Bay community.

About 20 years ago, he fully realized the impact he could make.

In 2000, around the time “Who Let the Dogs Out” by the Baha Men first became popular, Kunzig brought a stuffed dog to home games. During one game, while walking around the stadium, he noticed a young boy, a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, and locked eyes with him. On a whim, he walked over to the boy and tied the stuffed animal to his wheelchair.

“Enjoy the game,” he told the child. “I want to hear you get loud.”

The boy’s mother later said her son hadn’t smiled that much in years.

“I was at an all-time high,” Kunzig said. “I didn’t care about the game.”

After that, he and his Nasty Crew handed out Tootsie Rolls and other treats before each home game, and it wasn’t long before he set his sights on making an even bigger community impact.

His two main programs are Nasty for a Day, where he auctions off a front-row, game-day experience as his personal guest. Money raised through this endeavor is donated to children’s hospitals and other charities.

For the past 15 years, he’s also regularly visited Tampa Bay area schools with his Drugs Are Nasty drug prevention program during Red Ribbon Week. His main message: “Say no, walk away and tell somebody,” he said.

He hopes that Big Nasty might inspire others to do good in the world.

“It could be as simple as helping a lady cross the street. Charity doesn’t mean you have to raise a ton of money. You don’t have to be a 501(c)(3) to do it. I’m not. The bottom line is be a good person,” he said. “Big Nasty has given me a platform to do good and I choose to do it.”

SOURCE: tbnweekly.com