Making good on his promise

Kyle Melnick

THE WASHINGTON POST – University of Connecticut fan Bryan Jackson was feeling tortured as he watched his beloved basketball team losing to Marquette University, a squad he said the Huskies could beat if they stepped up their game.

He was resigned to the loss, but he sent out a tweet anyway – a kind of desperate plea to the universe – that if UConn pulled out a win, he’d gulp hot sauce.

He did not think he’d actually have to do it, which was good because the hot sauce on his table was rated as a scorcher.

Jackson watched from his living room couch in Melrose, Mass., as Connecticut was down 18 points with about 16 minutes remaining in the January 5 game. Connecticut’s star player, James Bouknight, was out with an elbow injury.

But Connecticut rallied an amazing comeback, and as Jackson celebrated the victory almost in disbelief, he decided to make good on his promise. He posted a video on Twitter of him drinking a spoonful of Angry Goat Pepper Co Black Bison Hot Sauce while wearing a blue Connecticut jacket.

Bryan Jackson started a hot sauce challenge among University of Connecticut fans that has raised money for the Husky Ticket Project. PHOTO: TIFFANY CHAN
Jeremy Longobardi, Kevin Kortsep, and Kevin Solomon, founded the Husky Ticket Project in April 2018 to send children to Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball and football games. PHOTO: KEVIN SOLOMON

Then, as he was feeling the heat, he took an extra shot of the hot sauce – infused with ghost peppers and scorpion peppers – straight from the bottle while chanting “U-C-O-N-N, UConn, UConn, UConn.”

“It was literally just a spur of the moment thing,” said Jackson, 36, who works in marketing for an insurance company. “I was just trying to think of something, that if it actually happened, I could actually do. I wanted to have a little bit of a punishment-type deal to it.”

It was just weird enough to catch on. In the hours and days after Jackson’s spontaneous stunt, Connecticut fans followed his lead and posting videos of themselves taking shots of hot sauce as the men’s basketball team jumped into the national rankings.

That’s when the Husky Ticket Project, a non-profit that sends underprivileged children to Connecticut football and basketball games, raised the stakes.

Kevin Solomon, the project’s social media manager, tweeted on January 12 a request to up the ante: He asked that each person who takes a shot of hot sauce also donate at least USD5 to his project.

Solomon’s goal was to raise USD5,000 before basketball season ended in April. Within the first day, the organisation raised USD6,000. The challenge has grown among Connecticut graduates and celebrities. Solomon said 675 people have raised more than USD60,000 for the Husky Ticket Project.

“Every time we were ready to think this was going to stall out, it just kept getting bigger,” said Solomon, 29, who volunteers for the Husky Ticket Project.

Solomon, along with two friends, started the Husky Ticket Project in April 2018. After graduating from Connecticut, they moved into a New York City apartment, where they watched Connecticut basketball games. They noticed that attendance at games was down while the team struggled.

They thought about how Connecticut sports had provided Solomon and his friends with so much joy as they watched the men’s basketball team win four national championships and the women’s basketball team clinch 11. They wanted children who may not have the resources to attend games to experience what they had.

So they founded the Husky Ticket Project and partnered with several Connecticut organisations that support underprivileged children. They have sent about 2,000 children to games, Solomon said.

After the Husky Ticket Project sent out the tweet asking for donations earlier this month, Jackson, who graduated from Connecticut in 2006 with a degree in communication, kept the challenge he started alive in stomach-turning ways.

Once, he poured hot sauce into his coffee and took a sip. Another time, he doused a banana with hot sauce and took a bite. As the Husky Ticket Project raised more money, Jackson said he’d drink spicier hot sauces.

Jackson realised that he and his friends had long been challenging each other to eat gross and bizarre food combinations. So he thought: “We’re all just being crazy idiots for no reason. Can we make ourselves into crazy idiots for a good cause?”

He added that anyone participating should be responsible, drink small amounts of hot sauce and know their limits.

Soon, Dan Hurley and Geno Auriemma, Connecticut’s men’s and women’s basketball coaches, respectively, joined the challenge by taking shots and donating money. Coach Randy Edsall of Connecticut’s football team donated USD10,000. Last week, ESPN anchors took shots of hot sauce on live TV.

Marc D’Amelio, the father of TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, posted a video of himself taking a shot of Frank’s RedHot sauce with Dixie D’Amelio. The elder D’Amelio, a 1991 Connecticut graduate who has more than 9.5 million TikTok followers, said he donated USD5,000.

“At my age, my stomach isn’t what it used to be where I can eat wings endlessly,” said D’Amelio, 52. “I actually held out pretty well. I thought my stomach would be in pretty bad shape the next day.”

Solomon said that with the USD60,000 the project has raised, it can send at least 6,000 students eighth grade and lower to Connecticut games. Connecticut is not allowing fans to attend games now, but Solomon said the organisation will send the students as soon as fans are permitted.

Ryan Matthews, who is the director of programmes for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters in Hartford, Conn., works with underprivileged children living in single or no-parent homes. He’s seen how meaningful it is for them to attend the games.

“I know firsthand just how much fun they have and how much they get out of it,” said Matthews, 33. “I don’t know if they comprehend how much those experiences really mean to the kids. It might be the only chance the kid has to go see their favorite team or go see their favorite player live in-person.”

Jackson plans to keep the hot sauce challenge going as long as possible. When fans are permitted to return to Harry A Gampel Pavilion, Jackson hopes to slurp hot sauce at a game. If that happens, there probably will be a large group of children watching from the bleachers.

“I can’t believe that this joke I was doing essentially led to this point,” Jackson said, later adding: “Every single day is blowing my mind.”