Die-hard fans and casual observers alike get caught up in the merriment days and hours before the “big game.”
By Dan and Gini McKain
The “suckling elephant” emerged from the portable Cajun microwave as crispy-brown and juicy as though it had spent the day roasting in the kitchen of a five-star gourmet restaurant. Instead it was cooked in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, parking lot. Why? Simply, tradition and experience.
Insurance executive Tommy Duhon, F237773, and his close friend and associate, Chris Whipple, F335632, are both avid Louisiana State University (LSU) aficionados. They have seldom missed an at-home tailgate party experience or an LSU football game. From September through December you can find them with their families, friends, barbecue grills, Cajun microwaves, and motorhomes. They’ll set up in the main RV parking lot at LSU Tiger Stadium, tailgating with friends and acquaintances. The fun normally starts well in advance of the weekend’s gridiron contest.
Chris has a slight lead on Tommy when it comes to the number of LSU game turnouts. He “attended” his first game when his mother was several months pregnant with him.
On every modern football weekend, in almost every nook and cranny in America, wherever you see two or more motorhomes gathered together, you’ll likely find a tailgate party. It’s almost become a national obsession. What began more than a hundred years ago in New England as a small, informal weekend picnic, according to some reports, has evolved into a 21st-century formal social event. These modern-day affairs include casual sandwiches and other items prepared at home beforehand or on-site; hotdog or hamburger grilling; hors d’oeuvres galore; even the barbecue of a full-grown hog, or a professionally catered tailgate buffet.
As might have been anticipated in the case of Chris and Tommy and an LSU-Alabama game where we caught up with them, the on-site feast began with the roasting of the porker in an unusual Cajun microwave. For the uninitiated, the “suckling elephant” was named after “Big Al,” the popular mascot for the University of Alabama, LSU’s rival for the day.
According to one tailgate theory, the first college football game was played by Ivy League schools Rutgers and Princeton in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1869. Spectators traveled to the game via carriage and buckboard, and they grilled sausages and hamburgers at the “tail end” of their horses. As dyed-in-the-wool fans know, rivalries run deep; this past year marked the 143rd recorded renewal of college football’s most-played competition in eastern Pennsylvania “” Lehigh University versus Lafayette College. Some football historians note that the first collegiate football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line was waged in 1881 on Old Stoll Field at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. Professional football arrived on the American sporting scene not long after: Pudge Heffelfinger, former Yale All-America guard, earned a whopping $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association in 1892, making him the first pro football player. And in 1899 the Morgan Athletic Club was formed on the south side of Chicago, the forerunner of today’s Arizona Cardinals, the oldest continuously operating pro football team.
FMCA members Richard and Pam Turner, F359015, of Portsmouth, Virginia, along with Blackie and Betty Sims of Newport News, Virginia, have enjoyed going to Washington Redskins home games together for decades. In fact, at the time we met, Blackie had missed only one home game in 42 years “” and that was to attend his mother-in-law’s retirement party.
Blackie began taking his Winnebago motorhome to Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium about 35 years ago. His ride of choice progressed to a Gulf Stream Friendship diesel pusher, and then he decided it was time to quit. That’s when Richard, his friend and traveling cohort of many years, decided to carry on the tradition. Richard owns a 42-foot Country Coach and takes Blackie and other friends along to the Redskins games, now played at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
Richard and his friends use the coach for other events as well, such as golf trips, but the most popular activity seems to be parking up front by the stadium and tailgating just before the game, where they have and share about 22 season tickets. Eight of those tickets are in the premium Joe Gibbs section. These tickets have been acquired over the past 20 years, dating back to the RFK Stadium days.
When you see Blackie, an octogenarian, in all his Redskin regalia, along with his many friends and traveling companions, ask him about the most memorable plays he’s witnessed in all those years in the stands for Redskins games. He will tell you about the time he sat in the end zone and saw John Riggins make the winning touchdown, or watched Darrell Green chase down Tony Dorsett on the 10-yard line. But the best part of all, he’ll likely admit, is the camaraderie with his friends, including the Turners, over simple food brought to the game, with a chance to see the Redskins win.
Perhaps no American individual can better explain the fascinating sociology of tailgating than the self-proclaimed “Commissioner of Tailgating,” Joe Cahn, F202477. Now in his 11th season on the road, Joe has steered his motorhome, affectionately dubbed the “JoeMobile,” more than 500,000 miles.
Like a nomad with a purpose, Joe has burned more than 83,000 gallons of fuel during his journey to more than 123 college stadiums and all 31 NFL stadiums across the nation (the New York Jets and New York Giants both play at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey). Along the way he’s visited hundreds of venues and tailgated with thousands of hungry football fans.
Joe has treated his taste buds with the likes of bratwurst and mustard in Green Bay, smooth cheese grits in Atlanta, spiced barbecue in the Carolinas, cheese steaks in Philly, smoked salmon with fresh horseradish root sauce in Seattle, boiled lobsters in New England, wild duck and oyster gumbo in Cajun country, and traditional Polish pierogi in Pittsburgh. At all these events, the motorhome remains the centerpiece of the tailgating activities.
The urge to tailgate at all college games normally begins long before anyone enters the hallowed halls of advanced learning. By the time a young man or woman enters a college or university, the die has long been cast. It generally begins, depending upon how early in life one is exposed to family picnics, in childhood. Perhaps it progresses to camping: a tent, a cabin, a popup camper, a trailer, a motorhome. Then might come the frequent use of a motorhome at sporting events. The more fanatic, rabid, loyal, or dedicated the fan “” and a school’s current restrictions regarding tailgating “” on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday night, or early Saturday morning, the tailgate party habit begins. And, having attended the college in question is certainly not a requirement.
The timing of tailgating also could depend on whether the game is home or away. The greater the distance to be traveled, the earlier you pack the motorhome! One thing to consider is how well your favorite team is doing in the standings. The higher its national ranking, the more difficult tickets are to come by and, as a result, the more scarce the tailgating space becomes. Take the much-ballyhooed Ohio State-University of Michigan game in November 2006. As the meeting of these arch-rivals traditionally takes place at season’s end, available tickets for this matchup were nonexistent, and nary a vacant space remained to tailgate outside Ohio Stadium before, during, or after OSU’s 42-to-39 victory. The stakes were especially high, as the teams ranked first and second in the BCS “” Bowl Championship Series “” that year, and the winner would go on to play for the BCS title.
The real shocker to many BCS fans came on January 8, 2007, in Glendale, Arizona, where Ohio State played the University of Florida for the national championship. Heavily favored Ohio State, after a spectacular first play, fell apart and came up short, ultimately losing to the Gators 41 to 14. But whether their favorite team won or lost, the thousands of Florida Gator and OSU Buckeye fans who gathered and tailgated at the event came up winners.
Each year, for the true football-tailgating fan, the tradition continues.
Editor’s note. Many readers may be familiar with the articles that Dan and Gini McKain have written for Family Motor Coaching over the years. We were saddened to learn that Dan McKain passed away on May 17, 2008.
By Joe Cahn, “Commissioner Of Tailgating,” www.tailgating.com
- Dress in team colors!!! Wear a team jersey or sweatshirt! You are the 12th man on the team . . . the first player on the Tailgating Team. Show your team spirit. Tailgaters are the best fans!
- Plan your menu and do prep work a day or two before the game. Keep the menu simple and pack prepared food in disposable containers.
- Make a list of the items you want to take along. Check off items as you pack. Pack paper products (plates, napkins, towels, forks, spoons, etc.) the night before. Remember such items as a small first-aid kit, trash bags, water, and damp towels in zippered plastic bags to clean hands and face.
- Plan to arrive three to four hours early and stay one to two hours after the game.
- Find a good spot to park. Not all parking spaces are created equal! Park next to a grassy area or at the end of the parking row “” this gives you more room for serious tailgating!
- Fly a flag on a very high pole so friends can find you.
- Decorate your tailgate site with team pennants and other team stuff.
- Meet your tailgate neighbors, throw the football with friends, read the Sunday paper, and have a good time! Note: If attending a Thursday or Saturday game, substitute appropriate newspaper.
- Food should be ready 1½ hours before the game starts. This is plenty of time for those going to the game to eat, clean up, and extinguish fires. (Those not going to the game can pull out the generator and TV.) Share food with neighbors. Swap recipes.
- Leave the area clean. Begin thinking about food and friends for the next game.
The Commissioner’s Top Ten Must-Haves At A Tailgate
Jumper cables. After a great tailgate party, some would love to stay in the parking lot forever . . . but not everyone will share that thought.
Toilet paper. The MVP (most valuable product) of the parking lot. Don’t get caught with your pants down in a portable potty with no TP.
Plastic trash bags for cleanup. Dedicated tailgaters always respect their surroundings and leave them clean.
Extra ice. There is no excuse to ever run out of ice. Just bring a full extra ice chest and enjoy.
Rain gear. When everybody else is inside their vehicle, you’ll be cookin’!
First-aid kit. Just in case that football hits you in the head.
Sunblock. Even if you burn the food, there is no reason for you to burn.
A friend. Change the life of a loved one. Bring them to their first tailgate party.
Comfortable shoes. Sometimes we forget how much we visit, and with the right shoes you can walk to your stomach’s content.
Antacid. With all the foods consumed at the tailgate, we need some help. Remember, defense wins championships.