- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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James Gandolfini’s credentials as a Jersey guy had been verified long before he made Tony Soprano one of television’s most memorable characters. Nothing illustrated Gandolfini’s love of his home state of New Jersey more than his passion for football at Rutgers, the state university and his alma mater.
“He was a real fan,” Rutgers senior associate athletic director Jason Baum said of Gandolfini, who died Wednesday in Italy at age 51. “He sat at the top of Section 102 or 103 [at High Point Solutions Stadium]. I thought he would have been down in front. He was in there with the fans at the top of the section.”
Former Rutgers All-American fullback Brian Leonard tweeted a photo Wednesday of Gandolfini with his parents on the stadium field. Former Scarlet Knights quarterback Mike Teel has similar memories.
“He used to sit right in front of my family,” Teel said. “I know they interacted with him a bunch. He loved Rutgers and he was just a neat guy. You would have never known, except for seeing him on TV, that he was a superstar.”
Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers with a degree in communications in 1983. The son of blue-collar parents who spoke Italian in the home, Gandolfini at first balked at his mother’s insistence that he go to college. But he immediately fell in love with Rutgers.
“The first night they had a five-keg party,” Gandolfini told James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio,” “and I said, ‘What was I fighting about?’”
Gandolfini immediately went to work as a nightclub manager in Manhattan. He began his acting career a few years later and after more than a decade, became an “overnight” success as the star of "The Sopranos," the HBO series about a New Jersey Mafioso that began airing in 1999.
Rutgers quickly capitalized on Gandofini’s celebrity, much to his delight. He agreed to promote the football team in commercials directed by his co-star in "The Sopranos," Michael Imperioli.
According to a news release, Gandolfini filmed a commercial with Greg Schiano, then the head coach. In 2002, Gandolfini filmed a commercial with three of his actual college buddies. In the commercial, the release said, Gandolfini promised his pals that they would have seats close to the action at a Rutgers game. They emerge from the stadium tunnel onto the sideline, much to their delight. However, the friends end up holding the reins of the program’s mascot horse and the costume of his rider.
“Close, real close,” one of them mutters.
"I am sad to hear of the passing of Jim Gandolfini," said Schiano. "He was a great supporter of Rutgers Football long before it was fashionable to be so. His generosity in helping us lent relevance to our football program at a time when it was desperately needed. In addition to his acting acclaim, he will be remembered by all Rutgers people as a compassionate alum and a great New Jerseyian."
The rise of Rutgers football in the middle of the last decade coincided with the peak of worldwide popularity of "The Sopranos." Gandolfini served as honorary captain for Rutgers at the 2005 Insight Bowl and appeared at midfield for the pregame coin toss. After his death, the university released a photo of him at that game, the credential around his neck and the enthusiasm plain on his face.
The next year would be a magical one for the Scarlet Knights, who began the 2006 season 9-0 and rose to No. 7 in the nation. Gandolfini attended two games that season as well as the spring game, a sight that Teel will not soon forget. After the game, the fans lined up to get the players’ autographs.
“I had my head down, signing,” Teel said. “I look up and said, ‘Oh, it’s Tony Soprano.’ It was kind of funny. He waited in line with his son. Everyone knew who he was. He’s standing in line with everyone else. He asked me for an autograph for his son. I wanted to ask him for his.”
Gandolfini became one of the leading members of a small coterie of prominent entertainers who remain devoted to their alma mater’s football team. That includes Will Ferrell and USC, Matthew McConaghey and Texas, Regis Philbin and Notre Dame, and Toby Keith and Oklahoma. "The Sopranos" came and "The Sopranos" went, but Gandolfini and Rutgers football stayed together until the premature end of his life Wednesday.