When it comes to autographs, Ben Gillis is spearheading a Ute movement.
The University of Utah graduate is trying to collect autographs from every Ute who turned pro, including those who made it to the NFL, NBA and major-league baseball. Minor-league baseball players, too. If they don’t have a card, then a photograph will do. And if that doesn’t work, Gillis will manufacture a card for the player to sign, with a Utes logo included.
For his “University of Utah Utes Autograph Project,” the 40-year-old keeps track of players and autographs on a spreadsheet. Now living in Orlando, Florida, Gillis recently started a blog to document his experiences. So far, he has documented 202 players from the University of Utah. And he has collected 86 signatures so far, with 116 to go.
“I grew up collecting cards. We had the Jazz in Utah and some minor-league baseball,” Gillis said. “I didn’t get into autographing until I moved to Orlando.”
The list of players who “threw up a U” at Utah and later turned pro are diverse and interesting.
It spans the years from Aldo Richins, a wingback who played one game for the 1935 Detroit Lions; to Mitch Watrous, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2014.
In between, there are signatures from one Hall of Famer (Larry Wilson of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals); two members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect team (Marv Fleming and Manny Fernandez), one Stork (the nickname of New York Mets outfielder George Theodore), a pre-NBA player (Wat Misaka of the New York Knicks when the team played in the Basketball Association of America in 1947-48), a player who competed in an NCAA basketball title game (Hanno Möttölä in 1998), an pro football player-turned-announcer (Bob Trumpy) and a Super Bowl-winning coach (George Seifert).
Before the current season began, there were 33 former Utes on NFL rosters.
Gillis graduated from the University of Utah in 2001 with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism with an emphasis on hospitality. He has spent most of his career working in the hotel industry and currently works for the International Hotel Group in revenue management.
“I’m the guy who decides how much your room costs,” he said.
Never one to chase autographs, Gillis changed his mind after attending spring training and Florida State League games when he moved to Florida.
In 2014, Gillis began watching former Ute graduate Tyler Wagner, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization who was playing for the FSL’s Brevard Manatees. “We talked and I got his autograph, and when the Manatees were playing in Daytona I’d go. Every time he saw me, he’d recognize me.
“One time he messaged me on Twitter and said ‘I’ve got something for you.’ The next time I went to Daytona he was pitching so I didn’t want to bother him before the game. After it was over he saw me and said ‘wait a minute.’ He went into the dugout and then came back with a shoebox. There were game-used cleats in it and he gave them to me.”
Gillis was happy, but then Wagner made him an addict.
“Want me to sign them for you?” he asked.
An obsession was born on Aug. 30, 2014. Gillis got the lineup card that day from Manatees manager Joe Ayrault after Wagner pitched four innings of no-hit ball in a scheduled seven-inning game against the Dunedin Blue Jays. While it originally was announced that Wagner had won the 2-0 game for his 14th win of the season (that would have been an FSL record), the official scorer gave the victory to reliever Stephen Peterson, who pitched the final three innings, since Wagner had not pitched five innings.
Neither Gillis nor Wagner knew that at the time, so Willis had Tyler sign it and inscribe it with “Win 14.”
Wagner, who now plays in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, had a fabulous year in 2014, going 13-6 with a 1.86 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 150 innings.
At the major-league level, Gillis got the autograph of Angels first baseman C.J. Cron before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, Florida. While most of the autograph hounds were clamoring for outfielder Mike Trout, Gillis waited for Cron. He got his chance after batting practice. As Cron walked back to the dugout, several fans asked for his autograph.
“They didn’t know who he was,” Gillis said. “I called over to him and I threw up a ‘U’ and he stopped and signed.”
Gillis has had relatively good success writing to athletes through the mail. He says the best response came from former NFL receiver Roy Jefferson, who caught three passes in Super Bowl V for the Baltimore Colts.
“I sent him four cards to sign and he sent back six, including two I didn’t have,” Gillis said.
“The ones who are still playing sometimes don’t have the time to sign and send thing back. Old players and minor-leaguers tend to respond.”
One of Gillis’ through-the-mail requests went overseas. Möttölä was the first player from Finland to reach the NBA when the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in 2000.
“My sister knows Finnish, so I got her to write me something to open the letter,” Gillis said. “He wrote me back (via email on his telephone) and I noticed he closed it with a phrase in Finnish.”
It was slightly disappointing.
“Sent from my mobile device,” it read.
In addition to Wagner’s cleats, Gillis owns a football signed by last season’s Utes. Signed photos and newspaper clippings are in a binder, while any autographed cards are sleeved and placed in top loaders.
While Gillis has secured many autographs on his own, he’s had some help, too.
“I have had a couple of people send or give me photos or cards they have been able to get signed without expecting anything in return,” he said.
Through social media, Gillis was able to find a card of Phil Cullen, who played basketball at Utah but was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2000. Injuries ended Cullen’s career, but he was pictured on two different Everett Aquasox cards.
“I have been trying to track one down for two years, and a couple of months ago a guy from a Facebook group mentioned that he had one. He said he’d send it to me free of charge. I was planning to send him something as a thank you in return, but he intentionally did not put a return address on the envelope so I couldn’t.
It was a 2004 Grandstand card of the right-handed pitcher, and Gillis sent it to Cullen in San Antonio, where he began working this summer in the front office for the Spurs. Cullen returned a signed card, along with a note on the back of his business card.
Gillis said he was “most nervous” when he approached former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy for an autograph in Jacksonville. While Murphy did not attend Utah (he went to rival Brigham Young University), his son Jake played tight end at Utah. Although Jake was drafted by the Raiders in 2014, he never saw any action in a pro game. He also hooked on with Miami, Cincinnati and Denver but was cut by each team.
“I was a huge Dale Murphy fan and was excited to get his autograph,” Gillis said. “We both threw up a U.”
Gillis said the toughest autograph to obtain belongs to Manny Hendrix, who is currently in his second year as Utah’s associate athletics director for development. Hendrix played basketball for the Utes but was drafted and played as a defensive back for six seasons (1986-1991) in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys.
“I’ve mailed him cards. I sent one the first time and it never came back. Sent another one and no answer,” Gillis said. “Sent it a third time and nothing.”
There are other options, of course. Auctions could yield some signatures of players, too.
“If I can get them to sign in person, well then that’s ideal,” Gillis said. “The worst-case scenario is that I buy their signature online.”
Gillis has not let his autograph obsession get in the way of family life. He is married with four kids, ranging in age from 7 to 15. His wife went to Ute rival Brigham Young.
“Fortunately she’s not into athletics.’ Gillis said. “She could not care less about the Utah-BYU rivalry.”
That makes collecting easier.
Former minor-league pitcher Craig Sudbury wrote a letter to congratulate Gillis on his project and sent several autographed cards.
“Ute red runs through our veins,” Sudbury wrote. “Finding someone to use the blue piece while playing games at our house is near impossible.”
That’s the ultimate Ute movement.
You can reach Ben on Twitter at @UtahUtesAutos