On Valentine’s Day, Kat Steward sat in a booth at Johnny’s Tavern in Overland Park and gushed about the love of her life — KU basketball.
Steward, 32, wore black leggings and an off-the-shoulder white T-shirt that revealed only a sliver of the tattoo that has made her one of KU’s most famous fans.
The mural of ink spanning Steward’s shoulder blades shows Allen Fieldhouse rising above a bed of crimson and blue lilies. A Jayhawk and a basketball flank the golden fieldhouse, and at the base of it all, a curled ribbon proclaims “Rock Chalk Jayhawk.”
At the nape of Steward’s neck, another banner sits halo-style atop the whole scene: “2008 National Champions.”
Since Steward started the tattoo in 2007, it has been featured on ESPN and Deadspin. Google “KU tattoo” and hers is the first that pops up.
When Nick Wright was a host at 610 Sports Radio, he nicknamed her KU Tatt Kat and encouraged Steward to join Twitter. Pat Forde, then a sports writer for ESPN, was one of her first followers. Ben McLemore is one of her latest.
“I mean, like … Bill Self knows who I am,” Steward said. “If he sees me, he says hi.”
So KU Tatt Kat is a bit of a celebrity in the hyper-competitive world of college sports fandom. But the tattoo that made Steward famous started as a personal expression of pride.
“It’s for the team that I love ,” Steward says, emphasizing that last word like it’s not big enough. “That I am so passionate about. It’s also a tribute to KU’s history and the rich tradition of (James) Naismith and Phog Allen. All that history that gives you goosebumps.”
She holds a pale, tattooed arm above the wooden table. Through the blue forget-me-nots on her bicep and Monarch butterfly on her forearm, there are indeed tiny bumps.
Some of Steward’s first words were “Kansas” and “Jayhawks.” So it’s obvious her Wichita parents lived and breathed KU sports.
In the fall the family would drive through the Flint Hills to Lawrence, spread a blanket on the rolling green lawn overlooking Memorial Stadium and watch KU’s football team lose.
In winter the family would make the drive again so they could cheer and wave the wheat at seemingly inevitable victories at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” says David Steward, Kat’s dad. “We struggled like a lot of young families, so it was a big deal when we could go.”
In her elementary school years, she was inconsolable on senior nights when KU’s graduating basketball players took the court for their last game.
“I would be crying, bawling,” she says. “I was so distraught that these players weren’t going to play at KU anymore.”
Honey , her folks would console her, Every year, there are going to be seniors. And every year, they’re going to get new players you’re going to love just as much.
David Steward was also known for his deep devotion to the team. Once he had back surgery on a game day. He focused on waking up in time to see KU play Pepperdine. It calmed his nerves.
“He wanted to make sure he came to in time,” Kat says. “Sure enough, he did. We watched the game in his hospital room.”
A couple of weeks later, he called Roy Williams’ office and left a message with a secretary. Tell the coach that sometimes these games mean more than a win or a loss . He later received an autographed photo of Williams with a handwritten note.
As Kat grew up, her love of KU basketball started rivaling her father’s. She went to Wichita State for the criminal justice program, so she became a Shocker. But she remained a Jayhawk at heart.
After school, she managed a bar in Wichita called the Pumphouse. She started getting into tattoos — mostly girly stuff like flowers, birds, butterflies and fairies — and decided she wanted a KU tattoo, too. But she didn’t want the same Jayhawk that everyone else had.
So she started working with Kris Harness at Elektrik Chair Salon to come up with a more elaborate design that covered the upper part of her back. The tattoo took several sessions over three months in the spring of 2007.
When Steward’s family found out how big the tattoo was going to be, they told her she was crazy. Kat’s little sister, Alana, said the family grew to appreciate it as art when they saw how beautiful it was.
The tattoo didn’t go over too well with some people in Wichita, where KU, K-State and Wichita State fans bicker over which school is supreme.
“Cover up that dirty bird,” Wildcats would say.
That fall, Steward showed off her tattoo at Late Night in the Phog. Word of the eye-popping ink spread quickly through the pews at the church of KU basketball.
“Darrell Arthur was the first player who saw it,” Steward says. “He was like, ‘Holy shit, let me take a picture.’ He started pointing it out to other players.”
That’s how Steward met Mario and Sasha and Sherron. Meeting the players made the games more personal for Steward. She became an even bigger fan. So the night that KU won the national championship was one of the best of her life.
She watched the game with friends at the Granada in Lawrence. As the minutes ticked down, she made more friends of the KU fans who saw her tattoo and wanted pictures with her.
“I had to be careful because people wanted to give me shots when they saw it,” Steward says. “I was definitely drunk by the end of the game. But I can’t forget the final moments. The Chalmers shot.
“As overtime progressed, we saw we were pulling away. When the clock ticked down, I dropped to the floor. I was holding onto the table, just crying. I couldn’t hear anything.”
When Steward got up, she looked around and saw that the packed bar had emptied. Everyone had gone out on the streets, forming a five-block love huddle, hugging and high-fiving like a war was over. It was mass euphoria.
“Is this happening?” Steward wondered.
A few weeks later, she added the championship banner to her back.
When you love someone or something this much, you enjoy the highs and accept the lows. And Steward has endured some tough lows over the past couple of years.
There was the heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in last year’s championship.
“Knowing it was T. Rob’s last game was the hardest for me,” Steward said, referencing the beloved forward Thomas Robinson.
There was the departure of assistant coach Danny Manning, who helped the Hawks win national championships in 1988 and 2008, first as a player, then as an assistant coach.
“Losing the best big man coach, it’s hard for me,” Steward says, lightly pounding her fist on the table at Johnny’s Tavern. “That is very, very hard for me. The other coaches, I trust them … but it’s not Danny.”
Losing games doesn’t bother Steward as much as losing people.
Last month, when the Jayhawks lost pathetically to the Horned Frogs, and Bill Self said it was the worst Kansas performance since James Naismith lost to the Topeka YMCA, Steward didn’t panic.
“I can’t remember watching a worse game,” she says. “In the past, that would have really affected me. But I think now, after watching so many seasons, I’m a KU fan no matter what.
“I take it all in stride knowing Bill Self will get them to where they need to be.”
Steward’s sports fandom has grown exponentially . She follows the Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens, the Miami Heat, Alabama college football … the list keeps growing. The only sport she can’t get into is baseball.
“Too boring,” she says.
KU Tatt Kat doesn’t like wearing makeup or jewelry. On weekends you’ll find her in sweat pants at home in Overland Park, where she moved five years ago, tweeting during the commercial breaks of football and basketball games.
She still gets attached to players like she did as a kid. She had tears in her eyes when Ray Lewis won the Super Bowl with his Baltimore Ravens. She cheers for Mario Chalmers during Miami Heat games, and respects Detroit Pistons player Kim English, the former Missouri guard most KU fans despise.
“No matter where you play,” she says, “you’re still a kid who has a dream.”
For Steward, being a sports fan goes beyond rooting for one team.
Alana said: “The thing about my sister is, it goes far beyond players. She cares about people in general.”
Kat’s tattoo has made strangers care about her, too: Alana says that when she’s with her sister at, say, Oak Park Mall, people often will try to discreetly snap photos of Kat’s back when they think she’s not looking. The brave ones ask permission first.
Once, a K-State fan asked if he could take a photo of himself flipping off the tattoo. Kat thought that was pretty funny, so she let him.
David Steward says he’ll never forget the time he and Kat met Milt Newton, one of his all-time favorite KU players. David asked Newton to sign his No. 21 jersey, then Newtown asked if he could get his picture taken with the famous KU Tatt Kat.
“It was a strange ‘Twilight Zone’ kind of feeling,” David says.
Steward’s tattoo attracts mostly positive attention. But it’s also a target for KU haters. When Steward was featured on ESPN in 2011, some of the nastier comments insinuated she’d slept with players. Mean tweets aren’t uncommon.
“I just read them and laugh,” she says.
It’s easy to be mean online. But in person the majority of people who approach her admire the design of her tattoo and respect her devotion, she says.
Because it’s easy to see her love for the Jayhawks is more than skin deep.