CINCINNATI -- Sports have been a part of Tom Grabo’s life since before he can even remember.
The 29-year-old Colerain Township native -- better known as the Cincy Super Fan -- attended his first Reds game at six weeks old and grew up listening to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall on the radio while catching fireflies in the backyard. He rarely missed a chance to watch Bengals games with his dad or to hand score a Bearcats basketball game on the self-printed cards they always kept at home.
Now Grabo is found right in the center of all the action in the stands at local sporting events, most recently becoming the face of the crowd at FC Cincinnati games through the club’s first two seasons. He is easy to find even among the most electric crowds at Nippert Stadium, decked out in orange and blue body paint with a cape and cowboy hat, as he helps lead the chants in The Bailey and encourages the players on the field.
He’ll be there Wednesday, as usual, supporting FC Cincinnati as it hosts Ottawa Fury FC in an attempt to bounce back from the two biggest losses in club history.
“I’ve always been a hometown fan, as well as a sports fan,” Grabo said. “You can always map out who I’m rooting for based on the distance from my house. FC Cincinnati has just made it that much easier to support with how well they run things and the unique atmosphere they provide at games.”
Grabo started his Super Fan getup in 2013 when he told some people he would paint his whole body in Reds colors if he got Opening Day tickets.
He had done it a few times before, the first one being as a senior in 2005 while supporting his Colerain High School football team during a 10-2 season, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence yet.
It turned out Grabo got the Opening Day tickets a few weeks ahead of the game, and as he regularly checked the forecast, the predicted temperature for Opening Day kept dropping. Figuring he needed at least a little something to cover up, as well as protect his car seat from turning red, he decided to add a cape to his look.
Fans were impressed, and one in particular helped give him his nickname.
“I gave a kid a high five and took a picture with him, and he turns to me and asks, ‘What are your super powers?’” Grabo recalled. “I said, ‘I’m really loud and can do fun cheers.’ So then he asks what my name is and I asked him what it should be and he comes up with Superman Reds Fan. So it started out as that, but then as I started going to other games, I figured I couldn’t just be Superman Reds Fan, so it became Cincy Super Fan.”
Grabo originally had planned to paint up just for that game, but the kids and other fans liked it so much, he decided to keep it going. He had also met the Power Stack Pack -- a group of similarly enthusiastic fans sitting behind the power stacks in the outfield at Great American Ball Park -- that day and found he fit in well with his new look. He and the other 20 or so fans in the Pack quickly became friends and attended about 50 games together, tailgating and doing little chants.
The group has since diminished and mostly just keeps in touch on Facebook, but Grabo has kept up his enthusiasm and taken it to other arenas, fields and stadiums around the region.
It’s not a show
Grabo doesn’t just dress up like a Super Fan for attention. He’s actually got a cause behind him, which brings together his biggest passions.
It’s become his mission in adulthood to spread his own enthusiasm for Cincinnati sports teams to others, particularly kids who might not otherwise get to experience sporting events live, and that’s where the non-profit Sports Games for Kids comes in.
Grabo and some of his friends from the Power Stack Pack decided to incorporate their love of Cincinnati sports and a desire to make a difference in kids’ lives by founding what started out as Reds Games for Kids in 2014.
“We got a lot of attention at games, people wanting to take pictures and give us high fives, and we started thinking about how we could use that to make a difference in our community,” Grabo said. “We realized how fortunate we were as kids to be able to go to sporting events and develop a passion for Cincinnati sports teams, and we wanted to help others experience that too.”
It began as just a one-time thing, but after raising some money and successfully bringing 85 kids and chaperones -- identified with help from the Cincinnati Children’s Home -- to a Reds game, the group decided to keep it going.
In 2015, they received their 501(c)3 charity status, branching out as Sports Games for Kids, and brought 215 kids and parents to five different sporting events with an average cost of $20 per person, which included ticket prices, souvenir shirt and food and drinks.
Last year, with help from three different public fundraising events, a total of 412 kids and parents participated in Sports Games for Kids at seven sports events, including games for the University of Cincinnati basketball and football teams, Cincinnati Cyclones, Reds, FC Cincinnati, Dayton Dragons and Florence Freedom.
Groups usually include 60-70 kids and parents.
"The mission of Sports Games for Kids is to share the joy of professional and collegiate sporting events with children facing hardships in their young lives such as abuse, neglect, loss of, or separation from, their parents, poverty and physical or mental health conditions,” Grabo said. “We hope to bring these kids a day of fun at the ballpark or stadium, which they may otherwise never experience as a child."
Growing the charity
The organization has grown steadily every year as more sponsors have jumped on board.
Cincinnati Soccer Talk last year began what is becoming an annual Foot Golf Tournament to support Sports Games for Kids, and this weekend will be hosting its second event at 2 p.m. at Woodlands Golf Course on the West Side. Cost is $200 per team with spots still available and all proceeds benefit Sports Games for Kids. The event raised more than $1,800 last year.
“We were looking at how we could get the community involved in something and thought Foot Golf would be fun but didn’t want to profit off it, so we decided to help a charity,” Cincinnati Soccer Talk co-host Brad Weigel said. “We knew Tom just as a friend from FC Cincinnati games and went to him, and he hopped on board.”
Grabo said Sports Games for Kids does fundraisers every few months, but word of mouth has helped bring in donations as well. That’s where his cape, paint and hat help out.
“I take pictures with people all the time, and they ask why I do this so I hand them a card and show them the charity,” Grabo said. “You never know who you will meet, so I’ve used the attention to get the word out about the charity. We’ve got three or four companies sponsoring us now, which is great.”
Weigel said that is one thing he especially respects about Grabo.
“Tom has done a great job rallying the community around the charity,” Weigel said. “His heart is huge and wanting to help these kids, it’s a lot of cost and time on his part, and it’s cool to see it’s a labor of love for him.”
FC Cincinnati makes it easy
FC Cincinnati games are especially enjoyable for the kids, Grabo said, crediting the club for its family-friendly atmosphere.
Sports Games for Kids participants sit in the general admission section on the south side of the stadium, and Grabo said it’s perfect for the kids to be able to watch the rowdy fans in The Bailey without being too close. The evening begins with dinner out around campus -- Grabo said the organization wants to give its participants the “full experience” of attending a game – and the kids learn and practice the chants there before attending the game.
“I get calls or texts that kids are still doing the chants at home and they’ll be watching games on TV and go crazy when they see me in The Bailey,” Grabo said. “It’s something you definitely don’t get with other sports.”
Aramark, which operates the concessions stands at Nippert, has been helpful in scheduling orders in advance and providing large boxes to transport food and beverages to the group during games, and ticket prices have been affordable, too, Grabo said.
Sports Games for Kids also purchased five season tickets in The Bailey to allow families to experience a game there as well.
Great for the club
Weigel said Grabo is a role model fan for FC Cincinnati -- one the club can be proud to associate with and one that other fans can look to follow.
“He’s shown to be a good vehicle for the club and helping the crowd,” Weigel said. “He’s someone people can rally behind because they see it’s his love for the city. He’s not doing this for himself. He is doing it for love of the city and kids and marrying them through his organization. We’re happy to support him and what he’s doing with Sports Games for Kids.”
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said he shared a beer with Grabo after the 1-0 win over Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew in the U.S. Open Cup in June, and it was clear within five minutes how “awesome of a human being” Grabo is.
Koch noted how genuine Grabo is and said it is no surprise what he does for the community.
Even the players have noticed Grabo among the sea of orange and blue at games and other club events and are glad to have him representing them in the community.
“He’s pretty recognizable,” midfielder Corben Bone said. “He’s gone further than most to support us, and it’s great to see someone dive in like that to our team and culture. He’s a big-time supporter and people follow his lead. He’s not afraid to show his support and galvanize others around him. He sets a great example for FC Cincinnati support around the city, and we’re fortunate to have fans like that.”