How good of a title is that? I should write a book. Seriously. Someone let me write a book.
This post was drafted prior to last night’s loss to Maryland. All of these opinions and viewpoints remain accurate.
You may have noticed that so far, our University of Connecticut football team hasn’t been doing so well. We lost to a team that we paid to play us and whose name I still don’t really know how to pronounce (is it Toe-son, or Tow-son?), and we are probably going to get massacred by a bunch of Terrapins tomorrow night. I’ve heard a lot of comments from my friends and my Twitter feed about how everyone is going to start selling their tickets because clearly the games aren’t going to be fun anymore. If you are one of these people, you are missing the entire point.
Maybe I’m a bit unorthodox in the way I watch football. For me, unless the Giants or the Eagles are on my television*, the game itself is slightly incidental when you think about all the rest of the things that make the practice of attending a football game memorable.
* Yes. I root for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. When they play each other I’m happy no matter who wins. If you have a problem with this, I suggest you take it up with my Dad, who is a Philadelphia native and makes me root for every single Philadelphia team even when they suck. It’s fine. Just go with it. Also – HAHAHHAHAHAH REDSKINS.
Growing up in my middle-of-the-state town, I didn’t really understand the ritual behind tailgating. Mostly because until I was 18 we didn’t have a football stadium in our state that warranted any tailgating, unless you parked above the old garage up on campus to watch UConn football when they were still fighting to become a Division 1 team. I would drive up with my parents and eat hamburgers and not watch a single moment of the game, but rather would play on the blacktop with my friends and lay on the car hood looking at the darkening sky. It was a ritual that I liked but didn’t get too involved in. Probably because my school is first and foremost a basketball school. Maybe I’m biased. I’m probably biased.
Additionally, when people I knew did go out to tailgate it wasn’t to sporting events – unless they made the trek to the Meadowlands or to Gillette Stadium – but to concerts like the Dave Matthews Band at the Meadows Music Theater. Yes, I know it’s called the Dodge now, but to me it’s the Meadows. Back then, DMB would play every single summer for a few nights and my friends would traipse out there in their cars and secretly drink in the parking lot before dumping the beer out and rolling around on the lawn seats. The first and only time I went to a DMB tailgating adventure it was with a first date that did not end very well – he was more into the concert than me – and I came home smelling like cheap weed.
So, as you can see, my tailgating experiences weren’t the most regular or the most exciting. But things changed. As they always do.
A few years ago, I believe back in February of 2008, I started to participate in a production of Crazy for You at the Warner Theater in Torrington. I made a lot of lifelong friends in this play, and I still try to speak to all of them regularly now. One of the girls in the show turned out to also work at another theater I was going to do musicals at in the fall. She stage-managed a production of Camelot I was in, and asked me if I was interested in tailgating with a group of her friends in the fall. Although I couldn’t even stay for the game itself because I had to go to work at my seasonal hours at J.Crew, I decided to come for the tailgating part of a 12PM kickoff for the final home game of the 2008 season, before they went to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The tailgate crew started at 8AM, a fact that shocked me initially; who the hell gets up this early to tailgate? But when I met the crew, I instantly understood. These people weren’t the drunk/high denizens flopping about to “Satellite”, nor the bored families chasing after their kids. These were adults that got up this early because they just wanted to be together and they really, really liked football. It made me shy at first – I am horrendous in groups of people I don’t know – but I was immediately embraced, literally, by this crowd of awesome dudes and girls. It was at that point I started to understand the culture of football.
I must mention that my Dad’s identity came about in a very funny way at that first tailgate – one of the women came up to me and said, after a beat, “This is going to sound insane, but are you at all related to Geno Auriemma?” “Yes, did Lisa tell you?” I said, not at all mad or embarrassed. “No, you just look so much like him!” she said. “You are a GENIUS”, I shouted. Instantly friends. I must also mention I came to the tailgate hoping to meet up with a guy I was interested in. He never showed up. But this story ends happily!
Over the next few years, I tailgated once a year with this group of people. I started to learn their names, their families, their histories with each other. I began to be part of the fabric of the group, and each time I showed up for my yearly go-round they were psyched to see me. I was equally happy to see them; they were becoming my close friends. And yes, I ended up starting to stay for entire games.
Two years ago one of our guys ended up buying a short bus. It’s painted Husky blue, covered in Jonathan decals – they just re-did it so the new Jonathan is glaring out from the side – and has an interior wall reserved for tailgater signatures. When I arrived for my annual game that year, which happened to be the 2011 homecoming effort, I spent about five minutes just walking around the bus, yelling “This is the coolest thing EVER.”
That bus ended up being a bit more fortuitous than I could have ever anticipated. Because of our new way of transportation the group could tailgate at the field reserved for buses and RVs rather than the regular car-filled Blue Lot. This gave the group much more space to branch out. It also allowed more people to come join our tailgate.
Because more people were able to come, a lot of the sons/daughters of the people I tailgate with were able to hang out with us. I ended up meeting a ton of wonderful guys and girls my age that day, including one particular guy who ended up being pretty wonderful indeed. (I told you this story had a happy ending.)
Since then, aside from some games I had to miss that season because of school, I have been at every single tailgate. It’s one of the things I look forward to the most about fall. Well, that, and the sudden need to put pumpkin in everything.
I have traveled to Maryland in that bus, blaring the UConn fight song and scarfing down tortilla chips. I’ve drank ice cold mimosas at 8:30 in the morning while setting up chairs and fire pits. I’ve shoved Bud Lights down my pants in order to get them past security. I have played Beer Grab Bag in the freezing cold, wearing two pairs of leggings and a pair of sweatpants and still begging for mercy from the wind (and having people pound on the car door and yell “CHEATING” when I tried to warm up in the car). I’ve fallen asleep in the autumn breeze. I’ve sat in snow-covered bleacher seats sucking down hot chocolate and eating pretzels. I’ve played cornhole and swizzle sticks and catch and tried to figure out how many layers will warm me up without making me sweat. I’ve laughed and yelled and thrown things and laughed some more.
And in all of these moments, I never can remember who won the games or lost them. I simply remember the moments spent with a group of people who, with every passing year, are becoming more and more like another family.
Tomorrow, I will traipse with my guy and our merry band of misfits to Rentschler Field for the 7:30 kickoff. We will drink, nosh, and commiserate. I’ll catch up with my friends I haven’t seen since the last game, and see those friends I see nearly every week now. We will probably watch a bad game of football. I will fall asleep on my love’s shoulder on the way home, the love I found because I started tailgating. My belly will be full of chili, Angry Orchard, and contentment.
Perhaps that’s the love of the game.