By Mary Kate Sheppard, Staff Writer—
What originally started as a joke between friends Trent Walliser and Matt Conkel has since evolved into a small business recognized by the wider Chattanooga community.
Last semester, before COVID-19 came to the United States, Piggybacks originated in the dorm room of then University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomores Trent Walliser and Billy Johnston.
Back in the spring, Walliser, Conkel, and Johnston would give piggyback rides to students for a small fee, and donate all proceeds to Chattanooga Food Bank. This was, of course, before they were abruptly shut down along the rest of campus.
Nonetheless, Piggybacks came back this semester boasting a more COVID-friendly transportation option.
Piggybacks has exchanged their previous mode of transport for a chariot made from a converted wheelchair. Equipped with an awning, lights, and handles that keep the seat a safe six feet away from the driver, the student-powered vehicle is comfortable and corona-free.
“We felt bad for incoming freshmen whose college experience was going to be taken away from them,” Walliser said. “We knew we wanted to continue piggybacks this semester, but of course, we had to follow campus guidelines. That idea transformed into what we now call our piggyback chariot.”
Walliser admitted business was slow with around half of the campus’s normal population gone or attending school from home.
“People don’t have two hours in between classes anymore which allows them to just hang around and do things like piggybacks,” he said.
But that’s not stopping the Piggybacks team from bringing joy to each student that does choose to participate. From the guys heading it up to the students they carry, Piggybacks is so much more than a ride across campus. A pandemic wasn’t going to stop Piggybacks from bringing a smile to people’s faces.
What started out as a joke has grown into a trademark for the UTC community.
“It has definitely grown into something much bigger than we had ever expected,” Walliser said. “We have now had around five to six interviews with real news outlets and each one is surreal. Not only the community of UTC enjoys this, but the whole community of Chattanooga. The love we have received for this idea is overwhelming.”
Welliser said that Piggybacks is not going anywhere, and that the team is very excited about the new chariot, even though they will miss the piggyback rides.
“If we’re being honest here, a piggyback ride is not extremely comfortable for the rider or piggyback giver, it might even be easier to walk,” Welliser said. “But that’s not why people would get one. People would get piggyback rides because it was funny,”
To the UTC community and to everyone involved, Piggybacks continue to bring the smiles, pandemic or not.