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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / (Clockwise from top left) Piggybacks members Billy Johnston, Matt Conkel, Mac Patton and Trent Walliser pose at Chamberlain Field on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

What started last month as a bit of innocent horseplay at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has evolved into a campus phenomenon.

Eight UTC men are offering piggyback rides across campus to other students — mostly women — in return for tips. The cash goes straight to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

Their motto is: "No slop, we don't drop." They have T-shirts with pigs on the front and back. They say their dream is to give a piggyback ride to UTC alum and NFL Hall of Fame member Terrell Owens to drum up interest in their charity.

"We just wanted to make school a little more fun," said Trent Walliser, a graphic design major from Chattanooga.

"College kids are so serious and stressed out, sometimes you just need a piggyback ride," added Mac Patton, a UTC junior from Chattanooga.

UTC's piggyback brigade started out as a business — the friends unsuccessfully tried to collect $10 per quarter-mile of piggyback transportation. It quickly morphed into a charity.

A month ago this week, the group of male friends was having lunch on campus when Walliser decided to give his pal, Matt Conkel, of Panama City, Florida, an extended piggyback ride through the University Center and beyond.

"We are just very goofy," said Walliser. "Anything to make a joke, we'll do it."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Piggybacks members Trent Walliser, left, Billy Johnston, Matt Conkel and Mac Patton pose at Chamberlain Field on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Seeing two college guys giving piggyback rides prompted other students to giggle and video the scene on their smartphones. In the moment, an idea was born: Why not turn a kids' activity into a business?

"We thought, 'What if we could actually bring in some money,'" said Billy Johnston, a UTC sophomore from Cumming, Georgia.

On a whim, the friends, who are all part of a Christian social fraternity called Beta Upsilon Chi (for Brothers Under Christ), decided to advertise their piggyback service on Instagram (@utc.piggybacks). They vowed to give piggyback rides on campus anywhere, any time.

The Instagram account quickly gathered tons of followers, but drew relatively few paying customers. The problem, the guys determined, was pricing. Ten dollars for a quarter of a mile was too rich for college kids.

So, one day they decided to offer piggyback rides for tips only, and to donate all the money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis. They raised $46. That's when it hit them that this should be a charity endeavor and that a rider should decide what, if anything, to give.

Now, the eight members of the UTC Piggybacks brotherhood have made a goal of raising $1,000 for the Chattanooga Food Bank.

There is hope the idea might spread. Walliser said he has already had inquiries from students wanting to start piggyback groups at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Chattanooga State Community College and East Tennessee State University.

The guys say about 95% of their customers are female. They have committed to several safety rules. For example, they won't carry a person into a dorm. And they try to have two male Piggyback members on each trip.

"It literally brightens their day," Patton says. "I had a girl tell me that it was the only reason she went to class one day. It's hilarious. The whole point is to make people laugh and put a smile on their face."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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