The most defining feature may be his signature fist pump.
It’s neither a pre-scandal Tiger Woods’ how-do-you-like-me-now celebratory motion, nor a Zac Efron “Bet On It” pump from “High School Musical 2.”
Instead, it can be best described as a distinct, unrelenting tomahawk fist pump, usually three or four at a time, separated by a few hard claps.
In a gym of back-flipping cheerleaders and shirtless Hellraisers, it may be hard to notice arguably the team’s biggest fan. But game-in and game-out for the greater part of the last three decades, Loel Graber has loyally stood on the west-side, floor-level stands with his horns up.
“I was playing [volleyball] with my friends and they said, ‘UT’s pretty good, let’s go down and watch them,’” Graber said. “I’ve been coming ever since.”
Graber, a computer scientist, moved to Austin from Ohio in 1978 fresh out of graduate school and took an interest in playing volleyball after his arrival. His friends dragged him to his first game in 1982, which was the year Texas joined the NCAA after former UT head coach Mick Haley led the team to an AIAW National Championship the previous season.
Back then, Gregory Gym was far from the well-ventilated, air-conditioned atmosphere it is now.
“They used to have to open the windows,” Graber said. “It was so cool though because they had these roll-out bleachers that would go right up to the court. It was just a wonderful place to watch volleyball.”
Through his tenure as a fan, the Longhorns won the NCAA National Championship in 1988 and lost in the championship match to Nebraska in 1995. Graber went to Texas’ finals heartbreaker last year in Tampa Bay, Fla.
“It still hurts,” Graber said. “I’ve been to Final Four like 10 times over the years, but this was the first time that I was there when Texas was there.”
Along with a patented fist pump, Graber also makes other hand motions. His passion appears to be setting — likely because of the fact that the Longhorns have produced seven All-American setters since he started watching — and he seeks out the team’s setting numbers after the game. Graber can often be seen standing and fist-pumping to rally the team during slumps or celebrating a big play long after others have sat back down.
Graber said although he attends almost every game, he does miss a few per year.
“I took a European vacation [this year] and had to miss a few,” Graber said, in a tone often reserved for babysitting, physics tests and root canals. “It wasn’t my choice.”
Graber said he has really enjoyed watching the progression of athletes in women’s sports, as well as the constant family atmosphere.
“When I first came, they had good athletes, but women’s sports weren’t the power sports that they are now,” Graber said. “It’s just so amazing how incredibly awesome the athletes are. Our players are real role models for the younger kids, and I think that’s great, I like to be part of that too. We have players with really good character and you can see it.”
Junior middle blocker Rachael Adams said Graber approached the team during the Longhorns’ preseason meet and greet.
“He’s awesome,” Adams said. “He says certain hand motions mean different things and he has a reason for every hand motion. That’s crazy. He must know what’s going on.”
Graber said the coaches over the years — and even some of the players — remember him.
“They know I’m that crazy guy in the stands,” he said.
Despite never attending UT, Graber’s unfailing commitment and loyalty all the time is what many leave-at-halftime Longhorns wish they could show half the time. He said although he loves the atmosphere, he wishes more fans came to volleyball games.
“It’s too bad because they [sell out] every week in Nebraska,” Graber said. “I’d love it if we could get enough people to fill up the room and have the energy with it.”
Head coach Jerritt Elliott said he has interacted with Graber during pregame Point Texas Club talks.
“It’s nice to have those kinds of fans who are very knowledgeable and that are passionate about our sport,” Elliott said. “We need more fans to come in and we hope we can get people like that to continue to grow our fan base, because when it’s crowded, it’s a fun place to play.”
Graber will more than likely be at today’s match against Kansas at Gregory Gym starting at 6:30 p.m., in his usual seat under the Chick-fil-A sign.
“It’s great athletics, great athletes, a family atmosphere, a fun place,” Graber said. “It’s just awesome.”