Good Ol’ Garth

April 25, 2017 at 12:00 pm 1 comment

Photo by Mark Selders

Back in March, we spent a couple of very fun hours listening to Bernie Punt ’84 share his memories of 20-plus years of concerts at the Bryce Jordan Center. (Check out the cover story in the May/June issue of The Penn Stater, which Alumni Association members should be getting any day now.) And no one inspired more—or fonder—memories than country superstar Garth Brooks.

Brooks has played a record 11 shows at the BJC: a five-night stint in 1997, the arena’s second year in existence, and a six-night run in 2015. His popularity with concert-goers is hardly surprising: By at least one measure, he’s the second-best selling musical artist of all time, behind only The Beatles. But according to Punt, the BJC’s longtime sales and marketing director, Brooks’ success goes beyond the music. Despite his massive fame, Brooks might just be the most down-to-earth star in the biz.

We’ll let Punt tell it:

“When he came in ’97, he rented an apartment out in Toftrees. The band and the crew would drive in every day in these vans, but Garth didn’t want to come in a van. He wanted to ride a mountain bike. So he got a bike, and we hooked him up with a Penn State hoodie, and he’s riding in with his hoodie or a hat on.

“You know that big hill next to the arena parking lot? Well, there’d be all these people gathered on the hill, waiting to get a look at Garth getting out of the van. One day, Garth leaves ahead of the vans, and he rides up to where all the people are. He goes up behind them and says, ‘Is he here yet?’ And they say, ‘No, we’re waiting for him.’ Then the vans start pulling up, guys start getting out, but it’s not him. ‘Awwww.’ Then Garth gets back on his bike and rides down around to the parking lot, and the guard stops him at the gate. He takes off his hoodie, ‘Hey, I’m Garth Brooks.’

“Of course, all those people on the hill realize it and go nuts. But then, the best part: He waves at them to come down. Like a hundred people, waves them all in, and they come down and we put them in the practice gym. He goes, ‘I want to meet everybody.’ His tour manager is looking at him like, ‘Garth, we don’t have time for this.’ But he took an hour to meet with all those people.”

Brooks’ extended residence also gave him chances to interact with arena staff in a way that most artists probably never would. Punt remembers, “One day, he’s just walking around the building, and sees our physical plant people, the janitors and custodians. They have a break room, and they’re in there eating lunch. Garth pops his head in, says, ‘Hey guys, just wanted to let you now, this is one of the cleanest buildings I’ve ever been in. I just want to thank you guys for that.’ The ones who are still here, they still talk about that.”

There’s one other gem that reveals another side of Brooks: his competitiveness. “Those five shows in ’97, he just had so much energy,” Punt recalls. “Every day, five days straight, he would play pickup basketball every afternoon with the Lady Lions. And then late each night, after the performance, he would play hockey over at Greenberg.” Long before Pegula Ice Arena emerged on the east end of campus, Greenberg was home to the Icers club hockey team. They were happy to host the visiting country star for late-night skates.

Each night, Brooks would perform until nearly midnight, then hop into trucks with his band and road crew for the short drive over to Greenberg. Acknowledging the limits of his own skills, he asked some of the Icers for some coaching. “Garth’s a big dude,” Punt says, “and he’s like, ‘I want to learn how to check.'”

Apparently, Brooks is a quick study. Not long after, Punt heard from a colleague in Boston, where Brooks’ tour headed after leaving Happy Valley, and where the eager hockey enforcer had a chance to test his new skill against members of the NHL’s Boston Bruins—among them Ray Bourque, the future Hall of Famer. “They’re out there at two in the morning, skating with the Bruins, and all of a sudden, Garth just crushes Ray with a check,” Punt says. “Ray goes, ‘Where did you learn how to do that.’ And Garth says, ‘Penn State.'”

We’ll post more of Bernie’s backstage memories—including great stories about Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill—over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Ryan Jones, deputy editor

Entry filed under: The Penn Stater Magazine, University Park. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Inside Our May/June 2017 Issue | The Penn Stater Magazine  |  April 26, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    […] about what it took to land Paul McCartney, the parenting skills of Gene Simmons, and what makes Garth Brooks a favorite among BJC staff, among other behind-the-scenes stories. The retrospective begins on p. […]

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