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Originally published January 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2005 at 3:42 PM

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The ups and downs of Seattle's superfan

Lorin "Big Lo" Sandretzky's story includes losing a fortune, many loved ones and almost his life. Sports helps him find solace – and himself.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It is a snowy night at Boeing Field, and Big Lo stands in the parking lot with a shovel in his hand. Before him, under the icy drifts, sits a fleet of elegant automobiles belonging to the Seattle Sonics. In an hour the team plane will land and the players will all spill out, tired, ready to go home. By then he figures he can have their cars shoveled, their windshields cleaned.

He won't ask for money. He doesn't want money. This is his duty as a fan. At 6 feet 8 and 470 pounds, Lorin "Big Lo" Sandretzky is bigger than the players he's waiting for. If you ask him, he will produce a business card proclaiming himself "Seattle's Biggest Sports Fan."

Who would argue? Nobody else would be out there. The wind howls, the temperature is 29 degrees, and as usual, Big Lo has made it to the airport before the team plane. He has been waiting for the planes as long as any of the players can remember. He's there when they leave as well — a one-man farewell committee in green and gold, waving signs, wishing them well.

"Maybe people think it's cuckoo, but I want to support these guys," Big Lo says. "It's just something I do because I don't want them slipping on their butts and breaking an ankle. I guess it's because I care."

There isn't a major pro sports team in town that doesn't have Big Lo waiting for it at the gate. The Mariners grew so accustomed to seeing him at the end of trips that former manager Lou Piniella once used him in a speech after a disastrous loss in Cleveland, imploring them the next day, "Come on, we don't want to let down the Big Fella."

Big Lo goes to every Seahawks game, leaning over the front rail behind the goalpost, waving a piece of a picket fence in one hand and three-foot high letters "SEA" in the other.

"SEA" fence.

Big Lo is also at every Sonics game. He sits in the third row right behind the north basket, wearing the same green jersey with gold sleeves because he thinks it brings good luck.

"He doesn't ask for anything. He's there to support you and he's there to encourage you," Sonics coach Nate McMillan says. "He's one guy who's all about the Sonics. Then I saw him at a Seahawks game and I said 'Are you all about the Seahawks, too?' He's all about Seattle sports."

Big Lo is part of the show. He is the first fan the Sonics see as they emerge from their locker room, the first face the Mariners spot as they leave their dugout for batting practice and the last man out of stadiums all over Seattle.

"Lo, just go home. Everyone else is gone!" a Qwest Field security guard shouted after a Seahawks game this fall.

Halfway up the steps, Big Lo trudged slowly toward the gate, his "SEA" fence sign tucked under an arm.

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"I'm leaving," he sighed, "I'm leaving."

McMillan has bought his Sonics tickets for the last few seasons, which is good because Big Lo, 38, hasn't had a full-time job in nearly 10 years. But the lack of employment might have something to do with the fact he has been stabbed, beaten, won the lottery, had three people die in his arms and actually died three times himself in an emergency operation to save his life.


ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lorin Sandretzky is a regular for Seahawks games at Qwest Field, holding up his "Sea-Fence" sign in the south end zone.

A few years ago he became depressed. This is, of course, the kind of thing that happens when you've been stabbed, beaten, won the lottery, had three people die in your arms and died three times yourself. It's also what happens sometimes when you're 470 pounds and no one wants to hire you.

"If he had a dollar for every time he's been called 'fat,' he'd be a whopping millionaire," his sister, Marlee Garza, says.

Sports brought him back, let him remake himself into something larger than life. He became Seattle's superfan.

"That's why I go to ballgames," he says. "I go to let my frustrations loose."

Tragedy strikes

His mother died when he was 7. In his final memory of her, she is handing him a bag of Nestle Crunch bars on the day she went to the hospital for the last time. The cancer spread through Marilou Sandretzky's body for six years, starting as a few spots of melanoma that grew worse with each operation. When she finally died, she had endured 41 operations.

His father, Lee, went through a succession of wives while Big Lo was a child. There was Donna, then Irene and finally Joyce. None stayed more than a couple of years. This was fine. The lone mother figure in his life was his older cousin, Sherrie Warner, who lived across the street from their home in Burien. Then she disappeared. For almost nine months, no one knew what happened to her. Then a hunter found her skull. It was lying alongside a logging road near Interstate 90 in North Bend. She was 39. To this day, the murder remains unsolved.

Big Lo played football in high school but found he liked music even better, singing in the concert choir and the barbershop quartet. This helped him with his first job — a singing chef at a barbecue joint.

Elvis is dead and so is our meat.

So come on, Barbara,


A sign from the day that Lorin Sandretzky won part of the lottery sits in his crowded basement.

It's time to eat.

"They used to call me the Muhammad Ali of the barbecue biz," Big Lo says.

One night Big Lo went to meet some friends at a bachelor party at a strip club. It turned out he knew the DJ.

"Hey, do you want a job here?" the DJ said.

"What does it pay?" Big Lo asked.

The DJ laughed.

"Dude, you can make a lot of money here," he said.

Which is how Big Lo became the biggest bouncer at Déjà Vu, an establishment advertising "100s of beautiful girls and three ugly ones."

"I was the three ugly ones," he says.

Big Lo loved being a strip-club bouncer. One night Dennis Rodman, in town for an NBA game, walked in, and they talked for an hour. After a while, Rodman asked Big Lo if he wanted tickets. He said yes, then was stunned when the seats were nearly courtside.

Soon more athletes started coming around. Big Lo asked for tickets, they always said yes.


Lorin Sandretzky wipes a tear from his eye as he and nephew Steffan Garza watch the final game at the Kingdome.

Suddenly he was going to games all over town. He was the biggest fan in the best seats, so he thought he should be the loudest, too. The players loved him. He asked for autographs, and they signed everything — balls, bats, shoes, helmets. The biggest strip-club bouncer in town was also becoming the biggest sports fan in town.

The DJ was right, Big Lo made more money than ever at Déjà Vu. The strippers made so much in tips he'd easily pocket $100 a night. But he earned every cent. It turned out to be dangerous work.

Once a homeless man stabbed him in the armpit as he carried a box of soft drinks from the parking lot. Another time he watched helplessly as a man killed himself by slicing himself with a broken bottle. Big Lo tried to pick the man up, and he died in his arms. Then there was the night, his father remembers, when eight men jumped him in the parking lot, and Big Lo had to fight them off one-by-one while the cops stood by and cheered him on.

Then came the shooting. He was working the club by the airport when he heard gunshots from a nearby house. He ran around back and barged through the door to discover one of the dancers had been shot by her former boyfriend, who had also shot the club's bartender and a former manager before shooting himself.

Big Lo discovered the dancer first. She was bleeding from two holes in her head. He stuck his fingers in the holes to stop the bleeding, then yelled for help. Once help arrived, he walked inside where he found the bartender and boyfriend taking their last breaths. He cradled the bartender in his arms and held onto the arm of the boyfriend as each died.

"It was one of those moments that you realize life is precious," he says.

The dancer and the former manager lived, but Big Lo eventually left. The end came when the local communities started passing ordinances requiring the dancers to be four feet away from customers.

The tips stopped, and it wasn't worth being a strip-club bouncer anymore.

"This is serious business"

For years the Sandretzkys played the lottery, dreaming one day they would get rich. They had always made a pact — his father, Big Lo and his sisters Marlee and Bonnie — that if one of them won they would share the prize.


ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sandretzky got a football from Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson after Jackson scored a touchdown in 2003. Sandretzky calls it his favorite piece of memorabilia.

Then on Dec. 31, 1997, Big Lo bought a $5 Quinto ticket at a Puyallup grocery store.

He didn't even know he won. It wasn't until 12 days later when he saw on the news that the $800,000 Quinto jackpot hadn't been claimed and he looked at his ticket, at the numbers 982A6 and realized the fortune that was in his hands. After the $225,000 tax deduction and split with his family, Big Lo kept $176,000.

The first thing he did was buy a Jeep Cherokee, which he still has today. Then he paid off the bills he had ignored for years. That still left more than $150,000.

So busy was he with his new wealth that he never noticed the growth on his groin. It began, in late March 1998, as a small bulge that grew to the size of a lemon. When on the fifth day it got as big as a grapefruit, he went to the hospital.

When he arrived at Harborview Medical Center they put him in a room. A doctor walked in, took one look at the giant growth on Big Lo's groin and ran back out the door. He returned a moment later with a dozen doctors. The doctors looked at him and blanched.

"This is serious business. You should have come to us sooner," he remembers one of them saying. "I'm not sure we can help you or not."

They told him he had Necrotizing Fasciitis — better known as flesh-eating disease. As he was rolled into surgery, the last thing he remembers is the voice of his friend saying "You're going to make it. You are going to fight."

Then everything went dark.

Big Lo died that day. He actually died three times as doctors cut him open. Each time, though, he came back to life. When he awoke one of the doctors shook his head and said, "You are a fighter."

The operations left him with a 4-inch by 4-inch hole in his groin. They also left him with a $127,000 hospital bill and since Big Lo wasn't employed, he didn't have insurance. His newfound fortune was gone.

Already Big Lo had been depressed. He drank. He smoked a lot of pot. One night the cops beat on his door looking for drugs. Right about then Big Lo says he hit bottom.


ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lorin Sandretzky can be seen at almost any Seattle professional sports event. The self-proclaimed "Seattle's biggest sports fan," has a virtual shrine of Seattle sports memorabilia in his basement. After winning the lottery in 1997, a flesh-eating bacteria almost claimed his life — along with his money — in 1998.

But he had sports. The games made him better. He started going more than ever before, talking to more players, believing if he shouted louder the depression would go away. Finally, it did.

"It keeps you going," he says. "There were so many good things happening it got my mind off the depressed feeling. I guess that's where I became myself. Ballgames are the cure, man."

In his element

Big Lo doesn't fit in his seat at KeyArena. Sitting next to him is like shoving onto a crowded bus and holding your breath for three hours. But Big Lo is so excited it's hard not to enjoy the ride. He clutches an orange shopping bag that contains all his essentials: his tickets, a Sharpie pen for autographs, a disposable camera and several packages of deflated ThunderStix.

He plants himself in a seat near the tunnel to the Sonics locker room, and one by one the players stop by to pay homage before disappearing down the hallway. Soon the fans start coming by. The woman from the booster club, the girls in Rashard Lewis T-shirts and the son of Sonics assistant Dean Demopoulos, who makes sure to bring Big Lo a halftime hot dog.

"The guys get a kick out of my loyalty," he says. "Some call it stalking, some call it puzzling, I call it fun."

He reaches into his bag, pulls out the package of ThunderStix and inflates two with a single breath. Then he starts to pound them together. It sounds like a pair of boxcars crashing against each other. A few fans turn around in their $75 seats and glower. He laughs.

After the game, he slides down to a section near where the teams leave. The buses run only a few feet away, and Big Lo begins to flag down players from the night's opponent, the Utah Jazz.

"Hey, Jarron Collins," he shouts. "Can I get a picture with you?"

Collins shrugs and walks over only to be surprised when Big Lo throws a giant arm around his shoulder and holds a disposable camera out in front of them and snaps the shutter.

He does this with half of the Jazz players. None seems to mind. Some even appear to remember him.

"C'mon on," he says. "How can you forget a guy who looks like me?"

Hall of Fame dreams

The four rooms of his father's house that constitute Big Lo's living quarters look like three halls of fame thrown into a super collider. He has shirts and hats and signs and balls strewn across the floor, on the bottom of closets and thrown across his bed. Many are autographed.

In one corner of a hallway lays a pile of signed, game-worn shoes from about half the players in the NBA. There are Desmond Mason's shoes and McMillan's from the final game of the 1996 NBA Finals as well. His most precious pair, worn and signed by Shaquille O'Neal, is hidden. But the others lie in an unkempt pile like junk for Goodwill.

His favorite day was the one when Darrell Jackson gave him a ball after scoring a touchdown. Big Lo had been begging the Seahawks receiver for a ball for weeks. Then suddenly the throw was in the air, Jackson was settling under the ball, letting it drop into his hands. Then he looked up, saw Big Lo and began running toward him.

Big Lo's hands went numb. "My hands were shaking," he says. "And I was sweating. 'Oh my God it's happening! It's happening!' "

Once, Big Lo and a friend went to California to attend a celebrity golf tournament. One of the players was O.J. Simpson. They started talking. After a while Big Lo wondered if he could get a couple of autographs. Simpson agreed.

He pulled out a football, and Simpson signed it. Then Big Lo pulled out a black glove. He smiled. Simpson laughed.

"Would you sign it?" Big Lo asked.

Simpson shook his head. Big Lo persisted. Finally Simpson gave in.

The black glove now sits in a small plastic case in the middle of his room.

Big Lo actually wants to get all this stuff out of his basement. He has been robbed and had to install a security system. He'd like to start a Seattle hall of fame. He figures he's got enough memorabilia to create the ultimate place to display it. If only he had money.

Of course his father, who lives behind the house in a mobile home, would love for Big Lo, who has occasional odd jobs, to find a job and move out. Lee Sandretzky used to rent out the rooms downstairs. Maybe he could clean them up and lease them again.

"He's got such a damn personality," Lee says. "I told him 'You should get a sales job.' "

Big Lo would like to start a foundation to help children from broken homes and children who can't afford sports equipment. He wants every child to be able to play sports regardless of the cost. He has even started coaching junior-high football and in a local league at Interbay. He is proud that he quit drinking and using drugs several years ago and wants to tell children his story. He thinks he can help them. He wants them to love sports.

But foundations don't pay the bills at his father's house, and so far the idea remains a dream.

A new chapter

The other day Big Lo called.

"I've got another chapter," he announced cheerfully. "I'm a finalist for the TV show 'The Biggest Loser.' It's a $250,000 prize, and I intend to win it."

On the show, overweight people live together on a ranch and try to see who can lose the most weight. Big Lo hadn't even seen the show when he walked into the open audition a few weeks ago. He looked around and found nirvana.

"There were fat people everywhere," he said. "They were my people."

He was asked to come back for a second audition. He arrived at the Hotel Monaco and was placed in a room with several other prospective cast members. One by one, they were called into a small room and interviewed by two women who work for the production company. Most were done in about five minutes. When Big Lo walked in, he sat down and began to tell his story.

Forty-five minutes later, he left with a sheet of paper asking for more information. As he left, he glanced behind him at the women who had interviewed him.

Their mouths were agape.

Just another day in the life of Seattle's Biggest Sports Fan.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or lcarpenter@seattletimes.com.

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