Tradition abounds everywhere in KU’s famed Allen Fieldhouse. There are National Championship trophies on display and memorabilia everywhere. Fans fill the stands, great players take the court, home victory streaks break only the record streaks of earlier Jayhawk teams. Even the original rules of basketball will soon find an exclusive Allen Fieldhouse home worthy of their 4.3 million price tag.
How is it then that a round ball of candy can hold its own in the midst of all this rich tradition? Well, meet the Atomic Fireballs – Madi and Robbie Vannaman – a warm and friendly couple that have created a tradition just as important as the Rock Chalk Chant to me, Laura and about 50 other people.
Before every game, a parade of people stop at the scorer’s table to pick up an Atomic Fireball from the duo with the wonderful smiles, or Robbie delivers one of the popular treats to those that can not get to the court. Robbie is the scoreboard operator and Madi is the backup scorekeeper handling the substitution software and possession arrow – both very important duties on game day – though they probably are known more for their gift of the hard, cinnamon-coated candy that was created in 1954.
Neil Dougherty was a young assistant coach for Roy Williams at Kansas in 1995 when he met the Vannamans and picked up his first Atomic Fireball. It didn’t take long for the astute KU student sections to realize what was making one of Dougherty’s cheeks swell throughout games. Campers that line the north hallway of Allen Fieldhouse to gain the best student seating have long used creative and funny names on the required seeding list taped to the doors. Neil Dougherty’s Atomic Fireballs was always one of the earliest groups on that list during Dougherty’s seven years at KU.
Dougherty might have been the Vannaman’s most well-known consumer, but Robbie has been Allen Fieldhouse’s favorite candy man dating back to the early 80’s. He would sit in the Fieldhouse watching the Ted Owens-led Jayhawks with a Fireball in his mouth. By the late 80’s, Robbie had traded his seat in the stands for a chair along the scorer’s table back when the Jayhawks still had a junior varsity basketball team. The tradition of distributing the candy amongst game administrators and fans quickly took root and spread.
After Madi joined Robbie as a partner in both life and at the scorer’s table, the couple moved from JV games to women’s and men’s basketball games as well as football games at Memorial Stadium. Former football coach Terry Allen took a fireball before each game on the team’s walk down the hill into the stadium. After Dougherty and Allen took head coaching jobs elsewhere, each received a tub of Fireballs from the couple now nicknamed The Atomic Fireballs.
The nickname fits perfectly in the sometimes unreal world of big-time college athletics, while in reality, Robbie serves as a Tax Analyst in General Counsel’s Office for the University and Madi works as Assistant Director in the office of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity. However, neither have any intention of giving up their roles as the purveyors of sugary delight.
“For really big games we might give out 50 Fireballs,” Robbie said sitting at the officials table before the KU women took on Alabama. “We go through a tub of 200 in five games.” Those tubs are purchased at Sam’s Club in Kansas City where they are picked up by the pallet. Many dedicated Fireball fans freely help keep the Fireball supply replenished.
The Vannamans admit they love to watch the reaction people have to the Fireballs. While the candy starts off sweet, the coating of cinnamon soon kicks in with a true sense of fire.
“We often see people take them out of their mouth and put them back into the wrapper to let their mouth cool off,” said Robbie laughing. “Then we’ll see them pull the candy back out later to finish off the Fireball.”
Dougherty was joined by assistant coach Joe Holladay during the Roy Williams coaching era in requiring that any player that was injured or not dressed for a game had to have an Atomic Fireball in their mouth before the game and before the start of the second half. The reaction to the heat the candy emitted was mixed.
“For those that can’t stand the heat, we always have either a spearmint or wintergreen Life Saver,” Robbie said holding up the small bag. “We call them ‘the weenie mint’.”
No “weenies” amongst us. My wife and I always try to enjoy a Fireball during the first half of a KU game. Lawrence Journal-World photographer Nick Krug has become another devotee.
It is a simple pleasure in a world of KU basketball tradition to stop by the scoring table to pick up our Fireballs. As much as we enjoy the Fireball, the true pleasure comes from seeing the smiling faces of the Vannamans. That is the real treat.
As I left last Sunday with my Fireballs in hand, Madi reminded me to “Keep spreading the word about the Atomic Fireballs.”
So I will, but I’m not talking about the candy when I do.