Sure, it’s a little late in the season to reprint this, but I figure this week we’re all due for some lighter reading to come from the world of college football. I hope you enjoy Tales from the Gate. [If you don’t want to open the PDF, you can read it below, but I have to tell you it came from the September-October issue of “Midtown” Magazine.]
Feel that? It’s fall, and it’s headed our way! With it comes football, and with football comes one of the greatest American sports traditions – tailgating. But somehow, the tradition feels new again. Is it just me, or is it being taken to all-new levels?
Much has changed about tailgating since I was in college. For one thing, it exists. I’m not sure it did when I went to Virginia Tech; I don’t remember going to a single tailgate party while I was there. (That probably means I didn’t, but I wouldn’t rule out other reasons for not having those memories.)
Maybe I typically went to games with people who just weren’t interested in tailgating. We had pre-game parties, but those were always at someone’s dorm room or apartment. In the case of the dorm room parties, once it was game time, we simply walked across campus to the stadium – there was no tailgating, because there was no tailgate.
But during our off-campus years, I don’t know why we never tailgated properly. We partied at someone’s apartment, left at the last minute and drove to the stadium parking lot – which we used for nothing more than parking our car! That’s almost sacrilegious in the world of college football.
What’s worse, I did more post-graduate tailgating here in Raleigh than I did in Blacksburg. I started working here within six months of graduating, and eventually fell under the influence of an N.C. State coed. A buddy of mine found himself in the same boat, so we started double-dating and N.C. Stating with real tailgating. (Sounds like a Dr. Seuss book.)
State fans know how to tailgate, and I came to enjoy the tradition. State and Tech had a spectacular four-year series of home-and-away games during the 1989-1992 seasons (the right team prevailed, 2-1-1), and I had my fill of Bojangles’ and beer out of the backs of various vehicles during that time.
Another memorable opportunity came when the mutually hated Virginia Yahoos came to Raleigh on a cold, rainy, miserably fun Saturday in November 1991. That’s when we learned that the bigger the tailgate, the better – we were glad to have one large enough to accommodate not only the food and drinks, but four frozen people. I almost hated leaving the warm, dry haven of my buddy’s red 4Runner to go watch the game in the bleachers and the elements.
Fortunately, it was a blowout, so we didn’t feel bad about leaving at halftime. And during that short, slippery walk back to our heated vehicle, I’d never been more grateful for the ability to park within 500 yards of Carter-Finley – something no fan should take for granted.
Try finding a way to do that as an away fan in Chapel Hill, and you’re likely to be as disappointed as I was in September 2006, when the Hokies came to town – along with a couple of my college roommates. We thought it would be fun to get together with our families and relive the glory days, but shockingly, our wives begged out. I suppose they still remembered our idea of “glory.”
It stayed pretty tame, though, since we were now either pushing or past 40, and had young children with us. We met up in Chapel Hill, where I still wonder if there’s a local ordinance against having fun within a few miles of Kenan Memorial. We had to tailgate at some sort of satellite lot, surrounded by powder blue meanies who glared at us in our resplendent Chicago maroon and burnt orange (those are football colors, by God).
We were forced to board busses with these people, suffering the indignity of being shuttled from the lot to the stadium. Christopher and I were separated from the other Hokie fans and found ourselves standing on a moving bus, surrounded by openly hostile Carolina fans. Five at the time, he spent the ride hugging my leg in fear and hiding his face from a drunken fan who kept slurring insults at us. I ignored the guy until he said, “You Hokies think you’re so good, but you’re not coming into some small, no-name school that doesn’t know how to play – this is Carolina you’re playing today!”
I gave him a puzzled look and asked, “You know we’re going to a football game, right?” Smack talk between opposing fans is an acceptable part of the tailgating experience, provided it doesn’t result in escalating hostility or violence. There was no chance of that happening, as I’m pretty sure this guy didn’t get the joke until the middle of the third quarter – and by that time, he was part of the long lines of blue fans hastily exiting the stadium in shame.
We didn’t tailgate again until last season, when Kim and I took both boys to the Western Carolina game. I’m telling you – things have changed. I thought tailgating was invented as a way to eat without paying stadium prices, to drink without worrying about getting thrown out of the game, and to maybe do a little socializing along the way. But it’s turned into a far more extravagant affair.
Palatial canopies, multi-tiered grills, allegedly portable picnic tables, party decorations – people bring a lot more than they can fit into their allotted amount of space, which should be no more than the width of their car. Fans pull up in RVs and pile out with every convenience but the kitchen sink (they keep it inside). I swear, I saw some fans with caterers.
Pick-up games of catch have given way to organized football battles between family members, complete with gear, refs, and actual bench depth. If you don’t want to play football, there are other games – ladder toss, sholf, ping-pong (yes, I’ve seen it), and the most shockingly popular one, cornhole. I don’t get that – when did the beanbag toss become a collegiate pursuit? I sorta left that one behind when I went off to elementary school.
If you want a good laugh, Google “Tailgate party ideas” and just try to absorb all the suggestions. One article mentioned holding a scavenger hunt after you arrive at the parking lot. A scavenger hunt! Who does that? The only scavenging I did last year was in the 12-piece box, trying my best to find a drumstick.
While it seems fun, I wouldn’t want to organize something so elaborate. We’re not properly supplied for such an undertaking; we couldn’t even scrounge up four lawn chairs, telling the boys they’d have more fun if they sat in the car. And you should have seen the looks we got from other fans when we started packing up five minutes before game time, so we could walk to the stadium to actually watch the game. Somehow, it seems tailgating is no longer about football; rather, football has become about tailgating.
Not in my car, Mister.