By Jim Biery
Take a deep breath. A really long deep breath. What do you smell? Maybe bratwurst? How about hamburgers and hot dogs? Maybe even lobster and shrimp. Has anyone ever had couscous at a tailgate? Thank goodness football season is here, and one of the best parts about this time of year is the tradition of tailgating.
Friends and family come together in fall to renew friendships and traditions that can only be described as the best fall festival anywhere. Tailgating involves everything that is great about American football. Food, fun, family activities and the sharing of some great food and your favorite beverages.
Recently I was privileged to attend and cover the Louisville versus Purdue season opener football game in Indianapolis. Before the game, I decided to hang out in the tailgate section to ask a few questions of both school’s fans to understand why tailgating is so important to the experience of watching their favorite teams competing against each other.
Jeff Salsbery, a 1981 graduate of Purdue, talked about how tailgating has grown in scale for him since he started by parking a van and packing a small grill, then inviting a few friends over to his spot in the stadium parking lot. He now proudly attends games in his refurbished 1983 school bus, painted in the school’s black and gold colors. “It’s about getting your friends and family together to celebrate and watch the game together.”
Although it has been a tough stretch for the Boilers the past few years, Jeff points out that the food and beverages are the cohesion that binds everyone together during the game, win or lose. Of course, winning helps make everything taste better and Jeff believes winning more games is just around the corner. When asked how new head coach Jeff Brohm is working to get fans out of the tailgating area and into the games, Jeff Salsbery was quick to point out “Coach Brohm has already gained support and confidence with the intensity and enthusiasm he brings to the team.”
He firmly believes change is on the way. Before, fans would go into the stadium then leave at halftime. Now Salsbery sees a vision of people tailgating before the game, watching the entire game, and then tailgating more to celebrate a victory.
Victories for the University of Louisville Cardinals has been celebrated quite frequently in the past several years. Of course, many reading this column will remember when the Cardinals were the team that was trying to change a bad habit of losing into a winning tradition. Ironically, as I pointed out in my September column, Jeff Brohm played for UofL when they began changing the culture of the program into a winning program.
Former UofL students and longtime tailgating buddies J.P. DeLaney and Justin O’Brien said their tailgating habits have changed through the years. J.P. pointed out “that for me, going to a fraternity and partying with your buddies to now when you’re actually bringing out your kids, enjoying tailgating.”
Of course, no tailgating would be complete without the back and forth banter about how your favorite team is doing and who will do what. When asked about the famous “collision course to a national championship” phrase that came from former Coach Howard Schnellenberger, “Petrino is on the right track, guys like Lamar will bring recruits in, the expansion of the stadium, it’s amazing to see what the progression has been,” Justin O’Brien said.
Because of the success, Louisville has enjoyed on the gridiron, Justin and his buddies have gone in together on a purchase of RV and go to home and away games in it. “It’s become really exciting to see how it as grown and become a testament to it. It’s exciting to be a Cards fan, and I appreciate being able to be a part of it.”
I think that is what tailgating is all about: being a part of it. Just walking around your favorite team’s tailgate area and seeing all the people having fun, smiling, laughing and sharing old stories that have been told multiple times, but yet are still able to make people laugh. You get to walk around in the crisp, fall air and take in all the wonderful smells and tastes of burgers, ribs and every snack known to man.
So, get out your favorite hoodie, your stadium blanket, make those Rice Krispy treats, get your top-secret spice rub on your ribs, make sure you pack enough beverages and head to the game.
If you happen to see a little man taking in a big sports world, be sure to say hi and tell me your favorite tailgate tradition.