Patrick Harrell of New Market had to decide between going to a high school football game or to Swagfest presented by Stephen A. Burroughs, but for the 14-year-old, the choice was obvious.
The freshman at Christian Academy of Knoxville was among several thousand people who attended the free party held by the Knoxville lawyer at the Sunsphere and Convention Center on Friday night.
“It’s the place to be in Knoxville,” said Harrell’s father, John. “It’s really cool of him to do this.”
Burroughs, who advertises his law practice on more than 40 billboards and buses, promised to host a party if a Facebook page that allows users to alter his image to create humorous memes reached 10,000 “likes.”
An estimated 12,000 people RSVP’d to the event. Within 48 hours, 3,000 people had preregistered at various sites and another 3,400 had registered by 8:30 p.m. Friday.
As Burroughs, dressed in a tuxedo, arrived in a black Hummer stretch limousine, a line of people waiting to enter the Sunsphere began cheering and chanting “swag.”
“I really appreciate all the love you’ve given me,” Burroughs later told the crowd in the Convention Center.
The party attracted people of all ages whose definition of swag was broad. People were dressed in everything from T-shirts and shorts to leopard prints and cocktail dresses.
Lt. Commander John Houser, who retired from the Navy after 27 years on July 4, arrived in his dress white uniform.
“(Burroughs) said to dress swag and we did,” Houser’s wife, Tracy, said. The couple were on a date night with their son and his girlfriend.
“I recognized him from the billboards, but I didn’t know who he was. Now, I can’t forget,” said Joshua Houser, a freshman at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
Ryan Clarke, who created the Facebook page that now has more than 20,155 likes, admitted he was overwhelmed by the experience.
“It’s inspiring to see how much a little Facebook page can do,” said the 18-year-old University of Tennessee freshman, who arrived with his girlfriend, Lindsey Morrell.
The event gave Clarke the opportunity to wear his first tuxedo and take his first limousine ride.
For UT freshman Matthew Johnson, it was his first visit to the Sunsphere.
The 19-year-old Oak Ridge native decided to come after discovering the Facebook page. He was impressed by Burrough’s own comments.
“It was the most ridiculous thing, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “He seems like a funny guy.”
Jimi Groce and Bonnie Mellott, who arrived wearing their own custom Stephen Burroughs T-shirts, were fans before the Facebook page, playfully punching each other in the arm every time they saw one of his ads.
“We were already fans. Then we saw him on Facebook and realized it’s not just us,” Groce said.
Burroughs said he initially expected to rent the Sunsphere for 300 to 400 people but that quickly grew to include the amphitheater.
As the number of people who said they were coming reached upward into the thousands, Burroughs decided to rent the adjacent Convention Center. He upgraded the space twice and ended up renting a room that held 9,000 people. He also hired three bands and a DJ.
During the party, Burroughs gave away T-shirts and $17,000 in free vacations.
He encouraged those who had a good time to donate $5 or more to United Way, which had set up a booth.
Kasey Bolt brought her 3-year-old son, Ethan Ferguson, who she had taught to say “Burroughs.”
“(Ethan) asked for him. He knows who he is,” Bolt said. “Most lawyers are not this cool. To do this for the community is awesome. He’s awesome.”