Wilma Bovee, often referred to as the “No. 1 Panther Fan,” is shown with a signed football presented to her by the team at her husband Gene’s funeral visitation in 2012. Bovee, 90, attends nearly every McComb football game every season, and also makes her way to basketball games, volleyball matches and track meets. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN

LIFE EDITOR

McCOMB — Wilma Bovee is often referred to as the No. 1 Panther Fan, and a visit to her McComb residence reveals a woman who has earned the title well.

The first thing you’ll notice is the McComb football state championship flag, years 1983 and 2018, rippling beneath the American flag. Inside the house, there’s a thorough collection of sports programs — football, basketball, volleyball and track — and neatly folded spirit towels. There are team basketball and wrestling calendars and plaques, and stacks of newspaper clippings. There are albums of printed photos, many taken by Bovee herself through the years, of homecoming games and state championships.

But the football she keeps in a case, signed by the team and presented to Bovee at her husband Gene’s funeral visitation in 2012, is her prized possession.

So well known in the Panther community is Bovee that at the Oct. 25 home game against rival Leipsic, three days after her 90th birthday, the entire stadium paused to sing a round of “Happy Birthday.” From her seat at the top of the bleachers — a vantage point Bovee insists upon in order to capture the best pictures — the McComb High School alumna was humbled. (The same thing happened for Bovee’s 81st birthday.)

Bovee has been attending Panthers games since her own high school years, when she recalls that because there were no stadium lights, football games were played directly after school. Students looked forward to away games, because that meant early dismissal in order to allow for travel time. The marching band was introduced in her junior year, and Bovee played the cymbals in the band as a senior. Back then, she says, the band never dreamed of marching on the field, but practiced before the entire town on bleachers set up downtown.

Bovee and Gene both graduated from McComb High School, as did their three sons and a daughter. Her sister lived across the street from the school, and little by little, Bovee and her husband started committing their Friday nights to McComb football.

Her Panther fandom really ramped up, however, when a group of young athletes who lived on the couple’s street came over to the house one day and asked her to take a picture of them in their football uniforms. “And that was the start of really going,” she said.

Rarely, if ever, did they miss a game — home or away — until Gene’s declining health made it impossible for him to attend.

“We went for years together,” she says of the games. “We both liked football, I’m glad of that. Years and years and years we went.”

Those players from their neighborhood were Tony Fenstermaker, current McComb School District superintendent; Craig Aukerman, NFL coach for the Tennessee Titans; and Jason Clymer, who works locally in agribusiness. She and Gene cheered on those boys and about a dozen other kids from the neighborhood, and before they knew it, they were cheering on the athletes’ own children.

“We followed them through high school, college, marriages, children,” Bovee says. “So they just became my boys. Our boys.”

Fenstermaker says he still remembers that picture with Bovee and his young teammates, and says Bovee is a central part of the community Panther family. The entire coaching staff “knows who Wilma Bovee is,” he says, adding that she has tailgated alongside fellow fans, and has sat in the rain and the snow in support of the athletes. While she might miss a volleyball match here or a basketball game there, “she’s definitely put her foot in the ground” that her kids will take her to every football game, he says.

Looking back on his own athletic career, Fenstermaker says he was lucky to have a fan like Bovee.

“If you’re a kid growing up on a street and have that type of support, you realize you’re playing for something more than what’s happening on that field,” he says.

And that’s why Bovee insists on supporting her Panthers through thick and thin.

She always stands for the fight song, and has a closet full of red-and-black Panthers gear. Never would she consider budging from a blowout game early, and she’s been known to tell her companions that if they’re thinking of skipping out on the final quarter, she’ll gladly catch a ride home with someone else.

“If you’re losing, a lot of people start to leave. And I always said, ‘if you can’t support the team when they’re losing, you don’t need to support them when they’re winning.'”

That’s not to say that winning games isn’t a thrill. She’ll be in the stands on Saturday, as McComb takes on Edgerton in the Division VII, Region 26 quarterfinal.

Bovee remembers attending state volleyball championships in Dayton, and of course the thrill of last year’s state championship football win over Glouster Trimble.

Holding an extra special place in her heart, however, is the team’s 1983 state championship. Her nephew, Brian Dishong, was on the team, and Bovee recalls sitting proudly in the stands, watching the school’s small team and small band take up space in a large, professional stadium.

“It was something amazing. And I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and we thought, ‘never again’. But …,” she says, trailing off, nodding toward a newspaper clipping from the 2018 championship.

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