Football is not the only reason people go to football games.
This may seem counterintuitive, which is understandable enough.There are many of us, after all, who attend football games for the express purpose of, duh, actually watching football. I am one of these people. I am one of these people. Most of the time, I go to football games in order to watch two football teams play football against each other. I go to a restaurant to eat, I go to a drug store to buy medicine, and I go to a football game to watch football.
The thing is, football games have become so much more than just football, mostly by necessity — just from a pure logistical standpoint, it’s not easy getting 90,000 people in and out of a small town in a matter of hours. Believe me, I have done my time sitting in slow-moving traffic on Saturday morning on 29 in northeast Georgia, poking along through towns like Winder and Statham and Bogart on my way to Athens for a noon kickoff. Sometimes we may have pulled over at a gas station to get some Cokes and a newspaper and buy a bag of boiled peanuts, but for the most part, those darn logistics would balloon what was normally a 75-minute ride into two hours. (Shoutout to Highway 316 for eventually adding another lane and a few more rest stops along the way.)
The best way to defeat traffic, it turns out, is to get there early, and to flip down the tailgate on your vehicle and just hang out. When I was a student at the University of Georgia, people would start pulling in their RVs as early as Thursday for a Saturday kickoff, claiming several coveted parking spots in our dorm parking lot. Eventually, the much-maligned University of Georgia parking services department took a break from putting tickets on my roommate Mike’s car long enough to put a stop to the practice of camping out for days on end.
Eventually, entire areas around the campus were designated for tailgating, with priority given to those who have kicked in more money over the years. The general rule is that the bigger the tailgating space, the more elaborate the set-up. There are areas with flatscreen TVs, stacks of speakers, tents to provide shade, grills, premade food, full bars… basically, if you can think of it, someone’s probably done it. A few years ago at Notre Dame, we posted up next to a tailgate that had hired several people to come to the game and not actually attend the game, but instead work their grills and serve their party.
Because if you’re going to hang around and wait, why not enjoy yourself? Grab a plate of food. Catch up with people you haven’t talked to in a while. Pour yourself a drink or crack open a can of something. Sit back in a lawn chair and put your feet up and have a laugh while you talk about your team and all the problems you just can’t seem to solve and how bad your offensive coordinator has been lately.
What I described above is to me, at least at this point in my life, an age-appropriate tailgate. There are certainly tailgates that are more, well, aggressive, where everything is turned up to 11, but the best tailgates offer up a chance to relax and recharge, all while unwinding from a long week in the real world.
Last weekend I was scheduled to cover the Memphis/Tulane football game for Grind City Media, a pivotal game between two teams with 5-1 records hoping to move atop their division. And as much as I wanted to go watch a college football game between two great teams, I also wanted to experience some of the culture of the Memphis tailgate scene at Tiger Lane outside the Liberty Bowl stadium.
Kickoff was at 6, so we arrived about two hours before kickoff, where the tailgate scene was in full swing. Sam, a local Memphian who was with me, said he remembered two decades ago when there wasn’t a tailgate scene, or at least not anything comparable to what it’s like these days. We wandered row after row, where people were chilling in the cool of the afternoon, before we found my friend Ben’s tailgate. Ben hangs out each game with a group of friends, and when we arrived they quickly made sure we were no longer thirsty nor hungry, and fed us stuff like bacon-wrapped bar-be-que shrimp or fried chicken sliders, in which the chicken had been fried using ground Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as a crust. They were bright red and spicy and delicious.
For two hours, we hung out and caught up and met new friends and talked about everything from Tiger football to Grizzlies basketball to the recent mayoral election to food and everything in between, all while satiating our various hungers and thirsts. By the time 5:40 rolled around, we were ready for kickoff, as were the Tigers, who donned 901 helmets and rolled to a 47-17 win over the Green Wave.
Not everyone who goes to a football game gets to enjoy a tailgate, but it’s a singular sensation, a terrific way to prepare for a football game and enjoy terrific fall weather all while getting to watch a football game.
After all, football doesn’t have to be the only reason people go to football games.