Keith Loneker seemed very much like a jolly blue giant Thursday night.
Clad in his blue 74 jersey and surrounded by about a dozen pint-sized Kansas University football fans, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive tackle smiled as he reached down for another item to autograph.
"I've signed footballs, shirts, hats, papers," Loneker said. "And it looks like the back of some homework assignments."
Many area youngsters took a break from their homework Thursday night to meet KU players and coach Glen Mason as part of "Kickoff '92" at the Anschutz Sports Pavilion at KU.
Complete with a rousing talk from the coach, a few musical numbers by the KU band and cheers by KU's Spirit Squad, the event had the flavor of an old-fashioned pep assembly.
"This is wonderful," said Kelley Emmett, a KU sophomore from Kansas City, Kan., who was getting autographs for her younger brother.
"THIS IS JUST incredible that all of these players are here and getting support," Emmett said. "I'm really surprised at the support and the turnout from the community. I didn't expect to see so many little children. I've got a 10-year-old brother who would really like to be here right now."
The event seemed to be most appreciated by the throng of young boys and girls, who darted from player to player to get autographs with some getting snapshots of team members.
"I think the two most popular guys that I got right now are Dana Stubblefield and Hassan Bailey," said Alan Peel, a fifth-grader from Leawood. "I think this is a great extravaganza."
Peel's father, Harry Peel, a 1971 KU graduate from Leawood, brought Alan and another son, Chris, into town for the festivities.
Matt Manda, a fourth-grader at St. John School, said he had collected an autograph from quarterback Chip Hilleary.
"AND I GOT cheerleaders. A lot," Manda said, showing they signed his Chicago Bulls cap. "And one of them is from Chicago. They're cute."
Kris Schmidt, a fifth-grader at Quail Run School, seemed especially pleased to get Hilleary's autograph.
"He's fast and he can throw the ball good," Schmidt said.
Adam Hathaway and Casey Rahmeier, two third-graders at Schwegler School, had been busily getting autographs all night.
"Of course, I hate it when my dad makes us get pictures with the cheerleaders," Hathaway said.
KU Crimson Girl Michelle Muscarello, a Chicago freshman, was standing with other members of the squad, giving out autographs.
"I think it's great to give the team all of this support," she said.
Eric Vail, an eighth-grader at Central Junior High, said he enjoyed seeing all the football players. His mother was getting photographs of him with many of the players.
MEANWHILE, CHRIS Smith, a fourth-grader at Centennial School, won one of the free posters given away during a drawing.
"I think it's neat. I like it because it's got all of the autographs on it," Schmidt said. He was confident of KU's abilities. "I think we're going to beat them ALL!"
Venessa Laing, an eighth-grader who is a cheerleader at West Junior High, said she thought the event was "really neat" and noted she met some of the cheerleaders along with the players.
Several of the players seemed inspired by all the attention.
"I think this is great because a few years ago, nobody would have even thought of something like this," said Dan Eichloff, junior kicker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I think the support we're getting is really great from the people."
Doug Bowen, a redshirt sophomore fullback from Parsons, said he enjoyed meeting the young fans.
"IT MAKES YOU stop and think about all the little kids who are out there you never really notice who watch you play," Bowen said.
Marlon Sanders, a sophomore wide receiver from St. Louis, said he was amazed at the turnout.
"I just think it's great this many people showed up in support," Sanders said. "And I just don't want to let anybody down."
Coach Mason received an omen that the team might make it to a bowl game this year. During the event, a small boy handed him a gift an orange, which Mason proudly showed the gathering.
Later, as he signed several autographs, Mason said he was impressed by the turnout.
"I think it's interesting for people to come out and meet and stand next to the people they see on the field," Mason said.
Bob Frederick, KU's athletic director, said he was "really excited" about the turnout.
"My only regret is that we haven't done it before this," Frederick said. "This is good for the young kids in the community. I think it definitely will be an annual event and will grow in interest."