NEW ORLEANS – Today Terrance Donnels is making Les Miles dance.
Over the years he's done a lot of things to LSU's football coach: Dropping Miles on motorboats, fleeing exploding buildings or using a machine gun to obliterate a Webster's Dictionary all in doctored videos called GIFs that he posts on the internet above the jagged signature of "LSUFreek." Wonderful is the symmetry when a satirist finds his perfect foil. LSUFreek mocks all the SEC coaches and much of college football, but nobody has proven a better fit for him than goofy old, grass-eating, syntax-mangling Les Miles in his LSU baseball cap.
This time Freek is altering an image of Miles at a press conference to make the coach look like a fat Elvis clad in a garish bejeweled jumpsuit. The image moves in the slightly jerky style of a GIF but if you watch it long enough, allowing yourself to be entranced by the gyrating coach in baubles and beads, you can almost feel Elvis even if you don't see it in Miles' face.
Freek is quite proud of this Miles as Elvis, which took four hours to complete. Soon he will send it to his friend Spencer Hall, who will post it on the blog Every Day Should Be Saturday. Hall will write a few words about Miles as Elvis and then the GIF will spread like a digital virus through the vast underground community of SEC message boards to whom LSUFreek has become something Terrance Donnels never imagined he could be himself: a sensation.
But now comes the anxiety that claws at Terrance's stomach and feeds every doubt that festers in the mind of an artist.
Is it funny?
Does it work?
Will anybody laugh?
Donnels (pronounced Don-ells) is one of the most popular characters on SEC message boards. The mention of his name alone brings giggles of anticipation from followers who have chuckled at Auburn Coach Gene Chizik's Cash Cab or Lane Kiffin the Chippendale dancer or Tim Tebow as David slaying the giant Alabama elephant. They have come to expect a discomforting kind of excellence. He has been described on the web as: "hilarious," "brilliant" and "a genius."
Yet Donnels is unsure of his immense talent even as everybody else can recognize it. Ask him and he will say he has no idea what funny is. Aside from Hall and responses on his twitter feed @LSUFreek, his only barometer is his father, John Denson Donnels, whose computer isn't working. But on those occasions when folks find LSUFreek to be especially funny they call John. Then John calls his son to say people have been phoning about his latest effort. Some of those friends live as far away as Hawaii so Terrance figures if his GIF made it to Hawaii, then it must have been really good.
When John doesn't call, Terrance sometimes feels the sting of humiliation.
What went wrong?
Occasionally he will yank it off the Internet and hope that no one noticed.
"If people don't like it, I don't want to say he takes it hard, but it bothers him," Hall says. "It starts off as a joke but it becomes something he wants to do well. I think he worries about the details."
There is a pause.
"He has no clue how gifted he is."
The advantage of being an Internet sensation is you can hide in plain sight. It's a Saturday afternoon, early in football season, and Donnels is in a restaurant near the French Quarter where he is watching college football and talking about being LSUFreek. Nobody knows him as a star of their favorite team's message boards. He's just a guying in jeans and a black button-up shirt; a pleasant man in his early 40s with soft eyes, an easy smile and a good nature. He asks questions. He laughs a lot.
Donnels likes to joke that he is short and fat. In reality he is more average in height and far from being obese. He works as an acute care nurse at East Jefferson Hospital, where he's roughly on duty two nights a week taking care of patients who will probably be in the hospital for some time. He says his girlfriend – also a nurse at East Jefferson – has no interest in football and has no idea what it is he does for all those hours online.
The other day she told him something to the effect of: "Your girlfriend would like you to spend more time with her and less on your computer."
He says he comes up with his ideas by watching lots of sports highlight shows and reading the internet. His target audience is an SEC fan who lives on the league's message boards. Making his GIFs is a laborious process that requires slightly moving the images in each frame to create movement. He says he laughs as he works.
Terrance glances at the television and spots Nick Saban the Alabama coach, a man who once won the national title as the coach at LSU, which made Saban something of a hero to LSU fans at the time. Now because Saban is coaching Alabama, the LSU people despise him. Donnels normally depicts him as a dwarf or a Napoleon, which delights the residents of the SEC message boards to no end.
Now as he watches Saban hike the sidelines, Donnels thinks of how much he actually deals with the man's head.
"I see these coaches' faces every day and I've never met them and yet I know their faces better than their spouses," he says. "Google image search is my friend."
So many afternoons are spent staring at heads on a computer screen, studying them, assessing them, looking for their most unflattering angle, anything he can seize upon to exploit. He needs faces that are immediately recognizable. Saban is good in this regard. So was Charlie Weis when he was at Notre Dame or Pete Carroll at USC.
But no head might be better than that of former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino following the motorcycle accident the married coach had while riding with a woman who was not his wife. Petrino's face was such a pulpy, bloody mess, almost too grotesque to look at, especially when framed by a giant, white neckbrace. The look was a gift to a humorist and Donnels, who was on a sabbatical while still trying to absorb LSU's lethargic play in the national title game, came off his leave just to illustrate Petrino's downfall.
Freek's GIF of the Petrino accident is still cherished on SEC message boards. In it, Petrino, clad in a neck brace, rides a motorcycle past an approving Bill Clinton when the bike loses control, a woman falls off, Petrino and the motorcycle careen across the road breaking into pieces. In a final, brilliant touch, Les Miles laughs wildly as he rides past the wreck in a car.
"As long as you recognize the face that's all I need," Donnels says. "If you see a visor on the ground you know Steve Spurrier was there or a white cap and a purple jacket, you know it's Les Miles.
"I miss Pete Carroll. I miss Lane Kiffin at Tennessee," he says.
He gives a wistful smile.
"Kiffin brought me so much joy," he adds.
"Each day is a chapter," Terrance says considering his life. So many scenes are flying by now.
There he is on New Year's Day in 1980, not yet a teenager and never much of a sports fan, but watching the Sugar Bowl on television because his older brother Denny has told him he must see this running back from Georgia named Herschel Walker. And young Terrance is indeed amazed. He's never been so dazzled by an athlete. He decides, then, that he likes football.
Now he is a young man with a job. It's not lucrative – he is working as a bellman at the Maison Dupuy hotel in the French Quarter. It's an interesting job though and there's a pride in doing it right. He realizes he loves people. He loves helping people. It's important to him that the hotel's guests have a good time so he goes out of his way to give suggestions: Where are the best restaurants? Places to drink? Somewhere to get cigars? Any need he can fill.
To kill time standing in front of hotel, Terrance doodles on Etch A Sketches. Soon the doodles become elaborate sketches of Albert Einstein and Alfred Hitchcock and Spiderman. He makes them with one continual line, deliberately moving across the screen. He shows his first great piece, a drawing of a street car with buildings and an ornate balcony, to a guest who turns out to be Jeff Blauser, the Atlanta Braves second baseman. Blauser accidentally moves a knob and suddenly a line appears on the side of the picture. There's no way to erase it. The blemish is permanent.
Not to worry, Donnels turns the line into a telephone pole.
After 13 years, so many of Terrance's fellow bellmen have gone to school or moved on in some other fashion. One becomes a doctor. One becomes a dentist. Three others are nurses. He knows he can't stay a bellman forever, earning whatever little money there is and spending it on Bourbon Street. He goes to Charity Nursing School. He gets his license. Then he finds himself at East Jefferson.
Here, Terrance is saving a life. It comes at the end of a long, overnight shift. He checks on a patient who is clearly dying, the man's vital signs are deteriorating. He hits the alarm and begins to resuscitate. Doctors rush in. Machines hooked up. Moves are made. The patient lives. Later, as Terrance leaves the hospital in the morning light, he sees the man's daughter hurrying in from the parking lot. She doesn't recognize him and has no idea he's the one who saved her father's life. In the gauzy dawn he decides he likes it this way.
But there is the darkness too.
Here is Terrance's father John one morning in 1981 and he is helping a woman from church paint her house. John has already dropped paint shavings in his coffee and has climbed down the ladder to fish them out when he notices a man stepping out of a bar across the street. The man walks across the road, pulls out a gun and without saying a word, shoots John in the stomach.
It's a random act, one that comes without explanation. And the wound is serious. John won't be able to work his office job at a shipping company for two years while he recovers. Money is tight. Money is always tight.
Now it's July 7, 1997, and Denny and younger brother Daniel are driving home from a dinner run to Subway. Something happens, the car swerves, it goes off the side of the road. A trailer is parked on the shoulder. The car hits the trailer. Denny and Daniel die. Terrance is home when word comes in. He calls his father frantically, telling John to come home.
"It's Denny and Daniel," John will remember Terrance saying.
"Don't tell me they're dead," John replies.
Years go by and now Terrance is working at the hospital after Hurricane Katrina. He has been at the hospital for 21days without leaving. He decides he wants to see the broken city for himself. He climbs to the top of the hospital's parking garage, puts a pair of binoculars to his eyes and looks toward downtown. There, in his viewfinder, he sees clearly the holes torn in the Superdome's roof. And this makes him weep. He cries for the ruined city. He cries for the history gone. He cries for life lost. He cries because somehow he thinks nothing will ever be the same.
When, at last, Terrance goes home, he knows he must do something to rid himself of the gloom. He returns to his passions: football and art. He takes photographs of college football coaches and starts sticking them on the bodies of others. The photographs become little movies. He posts a few of them on an LSU message board called Tigerdroppings.com. And something amazing happens. People laugh. They ask for more.
He invents a handle for himself, a nom de plume that will identify the work as his.
He becomes LSUFreek.
Comedy dulled the pain.
"If you live in stress you need to have a way to deal with stress," Terrance says. "Sometimes the only way to deal with stress is to take nothing seriously."
The more spoofs he made, the more people demanded. Becoming LSUFreek kept him busy. It prohibited his mind from wondering. While he made GIFs he didn't have time to think about his dead brothers or the ruined city. The GIFs became his escape.
"I think most comedians would say the same thing," Donnels says. "When you are dealing with funny, if you can come from a dark place and see the dark side, then you can see where the light side is. Even Shakespeare called them 'tragedies.' "
John Donnels was relieved. Ever since the accident, he had worried about his remaining son. How would Terrance survive? John never much liked the fact Terrance became an acute care nurse.
"Working with all those old people, you get tied to them and then they will die in three days," John says.
No, to John, Terrance's future is in art. John's father, also named John, was a brilliant artist – a man who used to make beautiful paintings in the French Quarter until one day he bought a camera and discarded his brushes and easels for photographs. He opened a gallery in the Quarter. By the late 1960s, Johnny Donnels was so famous, stars like Dustin Hoffman and Angie Dickenson came to New Orleans just to be profiled by him.
In Terrance, John sees his father. He sees Terrance as someone who can take the most mundane things and make them into something beautiful. He talks of the time someone saw Terrance's Etch A Sketches and invited him to a party hosted by Bill Gates at the Superdome. Terrance sat at a table and etch-a-sketched guests as his work was beamed onto the stadium's wall by an overhead projector.
John wants Terrance to give up nursing and the stress and the uncertainty of shifts and embrace his art instead. He wants Terrance to open a shop in the French Quarter just like his father did. He is sure his son will be a huge success and he wonders what it will take to convince him of this.
"I think Terrance knows people are enjoying his work," John says. "He knows he's creating. But I don't think he has the confidence in his creativity that he can quit his nursing job and go out into the world. He gets a little afraid to let go."
John exhales for a moment.
"People come up to me and say: 'Have you talked to the Freek yet?'" John says.
There's another pause.
"I don't think he knows how special he is," John adds.
Humor is harsh. Often the funniest things are those that tiptoe on the border of good taste. And Freek has planted himself right on the line. There's only so much you can do with the head of a football coach. Commemorating the NCAA's exoneration of Cam Newton by planting the quarterback's face on O.J. Simpson's body while he stands beside a celebrating Johnnie Cochran can only go so far. Coaches in headsets can't throw money to players in every GIF. To push the limits and draw the real laughs you have to go farther. You have to be daring. You have to be willing to offend.
Part of Donnel's genius is that he lures football fans into the darkest corners he can imagine. There is certain fearlessness in his work that makes people uncomfortable. Maybe this comes from not having a gauge for what other people think is funny. How far do you step? Where is the edge?
Once, when it was revealed that Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino told police he had paid for a girlfriend's abortion, Terrance made a picture of a baby sitting on a cloud reading a paper with the Pitino news on the front and shouting "Go [Kentucky] Wildcats!" The national news organization he was contributing to at the time, refused to post it.
But other images like Pete Carroll's head on the naked, rose-petal draped body of Mena Suvari in the iconic American Beauty scene or an unclothed Charlie Weis in bed have made it onto the Internet and have produced the desired, disconcerting effect.
"If I see two dudes kissing on a GIF, I know it will be him," Hall says.
At times Hall suggests scenes and Donnels obliges. Which can be a mistake.
"I'll say to him: 'you can tweet this out but we can't use it on Everyday Should be Saturday and we can use anything on Everyday Should be Saturday," Hall says. "Believe it or not he's even too blue for us."
The day the Les Miles as Elvis GIF went online, Terrance did not get a call from his father. He figured the Internet must not have found him that funny that day. It was probably too regional a reference for the rest of the college football boards. But humor is complicated. Who's to say what's funny or not? Adulation comes in many forms. Here's a headline the Georgia fan blog Sports and Grits wrote above its link to the Les Miles as Elvis GIF:
"LSUFreek's birthday should be a national holiday. Someone needs to start that petition because well, just see for yourself."
Terrance says he never saw the reference. Maybe it doesn't matter. The fun is in making the art. "I'll spend three hours giggling to myself," he says of the process of producing a GIF. "The payout is better, it feeds the narcissism. Just to see some people laugh it makes me feel good."
He is an artist. A real artist. He knows this. He would love to be LSUFreek full-time. He would love to be able to create his own images and not have to use clips from old movies or TV shows. He would love to do sculpture, molding images of these coaches out of clay. He thinks he could have fun with that. But all this takes money.
"And blogging don't pay," he says.
So he remains something organic and perhaps something more sincere in this digital world:
An invisible sensation dancing in the shadows of the Internet.
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