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Utah fans ride the ups and downs of fandom into Santa Clara for historic moment with the team they love

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The smile never leaves Steve Johnson’s face, but the emotion of seeing his beloved Utes play for the Pac-12 championship makes it impossible to talk.

“It’s the most important …” he pauses, struggling to find a way to put into words what it means to watch Utah play for the Pac-12 title in Levi’s Stadium. “The most important game, it really is.”

The 57-year-old Herriman man, who traveled to Santa Clara with several family members, fights to suppress the wave of hope, affection and anticipation that’s been building for a lifetime.

It’s just a game.

But then, it’s not.

“This is the biggest game in Utah history,” he said before the game, acknowledging that it’s deeply meaningful to those who’ve spent their lives traveling to every away game and every bowl game, cheering for Utah football no matter what’s on the line. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve supported them. We paid our dues. We’re overlooked a lot. Tonight, our dues are going to be paid. We’re going to win.” Johnson’s easy laughter returns as he adds that he’ll be buying tickets to whatever bowl game takes the Utes. He was hoping it would be the Rose Bowl, but after Washington defeated Utah 10-3 on Friday, it won’t be.

Not far from where Johnson and his family tailgate before the doors to Levi’s Stadium even open, Shad Mecham and his cousins reveled in the hope of possibilities.

“I moved from Idaho and went to a game in 2000,” the 42-year-old Magna man said. “That was it; I became a fan.” Friday night’s Pac-12 championship is only his third away game as a Ute fan, but it is no less meaningful to him.

“It means everything,” he said. “I’m a huge fan. Since they got into the Pac-12, I’ve been waiting for this day.”

He and his cousin Tracy Zufelt, also from Magna, said being a fan is a beautiful but brutal ride. “It’s rough,” he said. “There is disappointment. Honestly, I never thought this would happen. … But here we are.”

When asked if they have a favorite fan memory, Zufelt doesn’t hesitate. “Back in the day, the TCU blackout game in 2008,” he said. Mecham, who was saying something about every game with family being special, quickly concurs. “That was the funnest memory.”

Once the gates opened, two hours before the kickoff, Utah fans lined up to get a picture with the championship trophy. They swarmed into the stadium, a sea of red, enjoying a historic moment for their team.

Among them was Barry Luecker and his sons Jake, 23, and Chase, 15. They stopped to pose for a picture in front of the stadium decorated with a massive photo of Utah quarterback Jason Shelley.

“This is a guys’ weekend,” Barry laughed, noting they drove to Santa Clara in what turned out to be a caravan of Utah fans “We’ve done this before, and we love doing it.”

Jake Luecker said before the game that this is the kind of moment that carries a fan through the heartbreaks — like Friday’s result turned out to be — and there have been quite a few for Utah fans.

“Utah has a very terrible way of building your hopes up, creating this, you know they’re going to do it feeling, but then, they don’t. They fall apart, and it’s just, oh, the most heartbreaking feeling in the world.”

Barry summed it up in one sentence, before knowing how it would turn out: “Arizona State loses. When Utah loses, they lose well.”

But then there are the perfect seasons, the wins over BYU, and now this — a chance to see the Utes in the Pac-12 championship. The Lueckers braved the winter weather, stopping in Elko, Nevada, for gas. That’s when they found themselves among several carloads of Utah fans.

“There were two carloads of Ute fans behind us checking into the hotel,” he said. “We saw Ute fans everywhere. … We love the caravan. Immediately your friends, even if you’ve never seen them before.”

Added Jake, “It gives you a sense of community, and we’re all just here for the same cause.”