As a member of the media, Chris Fowler isn't allowed to have favorites - or, at least, to let it show - but you could see it on the ESPN announcer's face that he enjoyed it whenever his show, College Football Gameday, is in for a Penn State home game.
"The fans always make me feel welcome,'' Fowler said. "Maybe it's because they see me as a Penn State guy, next to Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback.''
Fowler's admiration for central Pennsylvania and its love of sports runs deeper than the hospitality to him personally, though. Some of the pivotal moments that started off Fowler on a career that has made him one of the more popular personalities in sports broadcasting have happened right around here.
Fowler spent his junior high years growing up in State College, running track against Altoona's Keith and Logan schools while his father taught theater arts at Penn State. He said it was a visit to Beaver Stadium for a Nittany Lion football game with Stanford in the fall of 1974 and the passion he saw from the fans that day that planted the seeds for choosing sportscasting as his career.
Thirteen years later, just a couple of years removed from graduation from the University of Colorado, that blossoming career brought him to Altoona to cover the Rotary Basketball Tournament for ESPN's Scholastic Sports America.
"I was just starting out on TV, and that show was my break on ESPN,'' Fowler said. "We worked hard then. We squeezed two features out of our visit to that tournament, one on boys and one on girls basketball. Those are good memories.''
Fowler was back in Altoona for the first time in 23 years on Saturday night to be the guest speaker at the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame's 14th induction dinner at the Blair County Convention Center. The ESPN sports personality engaged the crowd, moving seamlessly from one-liners to anecdotes to more serious subjects about the passion and good sports can inspire.
"Chris Fowler has been one of the best, if not the best, speakers we've had here as far as being able to be receptive to people, gracious to people, being able to spend time with the people here,'' Hall president Dave Andrews said. "We already had many good comments [before the actual induction ceremony] about how good Chris has been to everybody.''
Maybe that's because sports has been so good to Fowler.
"If you find something you love and are lucky enough to be able to do for a living,'' Fowler said, "you are truly blessed.''
Fowler has been. It's produced notoriety and, in a field known for its instability, Fowler remarked how fortunate he felt to have been at the same network for nearly a quarter- century.
Fowler's union with ESPN even led to his 10-year union in marriage - he and fitness show personality Jennifer Dempster met at the network's Christmas party. They got engaged in Paris on the final day of the Tour de France.
Of course, the sport that Fowler is best known for is football. He found himself fielding a plethora of questions - mostly about Penn State - before the induction dinner.
"A lot of things are going to have to come together,'' Fowler said about the Nittany Lions' prospects for this fall. "The quarterback is not a polished thrower - I think [Kevin] Newsome will win the starting job. Defensively, they have to replace all three linebackers. When they get into the Big Ten, which will be improved, there'll be a lot in the way of tough competition. I really hope the quarterback situation works itself out.''
Fowler had strong words of praise for Lion coach Joe Paterno.
"He's a freak of nature in a good way,'' Fowler said. "He's an inspiration. I don't use that term lightly.''
Fowler related a funny story of how, despite his admiration for Paterno, he would have to still ask the Nittany Lions' legendary coach tough questions about off-the-field incidents or injuries.
"After about the fifth time, he'd say, 'Fowler, you can ask all day. You're not getting anything,''' Fowler said, impersonating Paterno's voice. "So, we'd move on.''
Paterno and Fowler also shared a more serious and heart-felt exchange while preparing for the 2009 Rose Bowl. Fowler was telling Paterno about his father, who had passed away from cancer, and a newspaper article in which the one-time Penn State faculty member talked of his regard for the Lion coach.
Paterno asked if he could have the article, and Fowler gave him his only copy.
"For him to care about a guy he barely met 35 years ago,'' Fowler said, "really touched me.''
Like he and Paterno, Fowler and his Gameday co-hosts have connected with college football fans. Their appearances on college campuses for big games routinely draw huge crowds of raucous fans.
"I think it has a lot to do with the sport. It works with us for lots of reasons,'' Fowler said. "What we try to get across is a genuine enthusiasm for the sport. You can't create that. There's no place I'd rather be.''
While indentified most closely with football, Fowler has also been able to cover a number of other big sporting events, like all four tennis majors.
This summer, Fowler will add another to his resume: He's heading to South Africa for the World Cup. It's obviously something to which he's looking forward.
"Sports can unify cities - we've seen that in Pittsburgh with the Steelers and Penguins. The World Cup is a great event. To have this country and its people showcased with 1.3 billion people watching ... think about the power of that,'' Fowler said.
Amid the ribs at the expense of Saturday's inductees like Jill Brumbaugh and Steve Taneyhill or his thoughts on the need for college football to go to a playoff and scrap the BCS, Fowler's larger message was one of just getting people to think. He told the audience how he couldn't believe finding himself crying after watching a Sarah Hughes ice dancing performance, just as he had when Curt Warner and future colleague Todd Blackledge brought Penn State its first national football title in 1982.
"I encourage people to open their minds,'' Fowler said. "Look for the essence of sports wherever you can find it.''