Tailgating

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By Hardy Jackson

Tailgating. It began as such a simple pleasure.
Drive early to the game in your pick-up truck full of stuff to eat and drink and when you get there park, lower the tailgate, use it as your table and voile — tailgating.
My first experience with tailgating was as a boy with my Daddy and uncles. We would drive over to Auburn from the home place at Slapout, stopping along the way to buy barbeque sandwiches from church folks who set stands by the side of the road.
When we arrived at the stadium and parked, the men, without shame or irony, washed down church pork with beer they brought (I drank a coke). Then we’d go to the game.
A few years later, some college friends and I wandered down from our hilltop campus to Legion Field to mingle with tailgaters who packed the parking lot. Things had gotten fancy. Some had set up tents and grills and such.
Taking note of the lack of tailgating space, we roped off the parking lot at our Methodist college and sold spaces to the overflow.
The administration was not happy.
The practice was banned.
Then I was at the University of Alabama, living not far from Bryant-Denny Stadium, and my housemates and I marked off our yard and sold slots to eager tailgaters who paid us well and let us eat (and drink) with them.
Then it was the University of Georgia (by this time my father had about decided that my goal was to attend every school in the SEC). There, tailgaters crowded into the lawn around the history department building and we graduate students mingled and consumed because everyone belonged to the Bulldog nation.
Then, I tailgated at Jacksonville State University.
All of which is to say that I have watched the evolution of tailgating from a way to get a good parking place and a bite to eat before kickoff into a pre-game ritual that, for some, is more important than the game itself.
I blame this on Southern Living.
In its successful campaign to become the how-to manual for middle-class Southerners on the make, Southern Living staked out its claim to fall and football by announcing its own pre-season All-SEC team and giving the trendy advice on how to make the most of gameday festivities.
So now you can walk around the campus of your choice and see tables set with fine linen and silver, laid out with food and drink that would not be inappropriate for a Sunday brunch at the country club, being consumed by well-dressed, well-coiffeur, well-mannered men, women and children who you can tell give big to the alumni association and have premium tickets on the 50-yard line.
Until you come up on us – me and my tailgating buddies.
There we are. The antithesis of all Southern Living holds holy.
More like the infield at Talladega than “the Grove” at Ol Miss.
A mixture of mini-vans and my pick-up, backed in for unloading food from the best college town eateries – wings, fried chicken, barbecue and a mess of other stuff that can be eaten from a paper plate with one hand (the other’s for the beer). Occasionally, one of us will whip up something fancy, but most follow the rule laid down by my lovely wife – if you can’t buy it locally and ready-to-eat you don’t need to bring it.
For us, tailgating is multi-family affair, so the food is kid-friendly (except the beer) – the vehicles also form a protective barrier that keeps the small ones in. And because of to the foresight of the Jacksonville State University Athletic Department, our spot has electricity and cable-hookup.
That’s us – dressed not stylish but seasonal, with an emphasis on red and black.
Milling about or sprawled in uncoordinated collection of lawn chairs in front of the TV someone brought, watching another game while the Gamecocks get ready to take the field.
Then the Marching Southerners march by, with ballerinas and flag corps and cheerleaders, whipping alumni into a frenzy and when they pass we all walk across the road and into the stadium, which is the great thing about tailgating at smaller schools like JSU.
Schools like Auburn, Alabama and the other biggies stick you with a long hike from the field and your seat. Not the Jacksonvilles of this world.
Which also means that when the game is over, you can quickly return for a post-game more of the same.
And discover that some loyal alumni of the team on TV decided to stay with the food and watch the tube.
Which, of course they could have done without leaving home.
But they wouldn’t have gotten to tailgate.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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