February 20, 2014 6:42 AM
True fans aren't easy to find these days, even for a title contender.
The silence of an empty student section at the Thunderdome on Saturday spoke volumes to the fact that UCSB can't even get its own to talk the talk.
But Judy Contreras walked the walk for the Gauchos for the last three decades, even when multiple sclerosis made each step painfully difficult.
She'd been making the trek with husband Danny to nearly every game since the early 1980s, home or away, winning season or losing season, bringing the same cheery smile each time.
"She'd sit right behind our bench and you'd never hear a negative word," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "Everything coming from her was positive. She'd always tell me what nice boys we had."
Those were the last words that she left with all the Gaucho coaches in the Founder's Room on Saturday night as they were mourning their upset, overtime defeat to Cal State Northridge.
"It'll be OK, you'll see," Judy told them. "The boys will be better next game."
But that next game will come tonight without one of their biggest fans. Judy Contreras, 62, passed away just a few hours after Saturday's game.
"This is a tragedy for our Gaucho family and especially, of course, for Danny and his family," coach Williams said. "Personally, it's a huge loss."
Judy's husband had become fast friends with Brian Escalera after they met in the business world. Escalera was a plumber while Danny Contreras managed Smardan-Hatcher, a plumbing supplies store. A mutual friend, Gino Filippin, got them interested in Gaucho athletics, and they soon became the most loyal of boosters.
"My wife Jan and I, and Judy and Danny, would travel to all the games together, from Las Vegas to Fresno State," Escalera said. "We'd go to New Mexico State and to the NCAA Tournament games, too, even the one back in Milwaukee.
"When we'd go to the road games, Jan would drive with Judy up front, and Danny and I would go to sleep in the back seat."
Their involvement with the Gauchos quickly became personal. Each year, the two families would hold a barbecue for the team and coaches in Escalera's back yard.
"It'd give us the chance to tell the team how much the four of us appreciate their hard work and what they do for the university and the town," Escalera said.
A few years ago, the two couples and fellow booster Fred Best started holding a dinner for UCSB's athletic staff, as well.
"Jan and Judy would get all these little gifts of under $15 for everybody - about 15 or 20 of them - as prizes for this game we'd play," Escalera said. "Judy would stand up there with Jan the whole time, even though that was very difficult for her because of her MS.
"As small as that may sound, to me it was amazing. It showed her true spirit."
Danny and Judy got married a quarter-century ago. She got diagnosed with MS - a disease which attacks the central nervous system - just six months after their wedding, but she never let it thwart her. They raised three loving daughters who are now having children of their own.
Judy worked and never asked for help.
"She was a really sweet lady, but also so tough and resilient," coach Williams said. "She never let it get her down. A lot of times it was tough and a challenge, but Judy was a very brave and proud woman.
"I really admired her courage and her independence."
She always wanted to help. Whenever Williams' mother Billie or sister Earlene would come to Santa Barbara to watch the Gauchos, it was Judy who'd take them under her wing.
"She reached out to them whenever they were here," Williams said. "She'd tell them, 'Hey, let's go to lunch!' She had plans to go out with them this very Friday."
The MS got tougher as the years passed but she fought it the entire way.
"She tried a lot of different treatments, trying to beat it," Escalera said. "I think she was a pioneer with some of the medication they'd try.
"She never complained about any of it."
Judy liked to get to her fourth-row seat on her own, no matter how difficult it became.
"You'd ask to give her a hand and she'd say, 'No thanks, I've got it,'" Escalera said. "But finally, when it got to be too hard, she'd allow us to help her. She was always so proud but the trust between us was so strong."
UCSB is planning to honor her at halftime of its final regular-season game against Hawaii on March 6. Coach Williams has asked the Big West Conference for permission to put her initials, J.C., on their uniforms that night.
"They absolutely gave them the green light on that," Escalera said.
Most, if not all, of the players didn't know of her disease. They just thought she had a bum leg.
"I never felt it my place to share that with them, but we had a long conversation about it on Monday," coach Williams said. "I told them about the battle she'd waged for so many years, and about how courageous she was.
"Here was a model of someone who handled adversity."
The weakest among us, they could see, often turn out to be the strongest.