Like most football fans, when I make the trek to see a game live, I do so in pursuit of a successful dichotomy. The perfect day means that of course, my team won. But equally important and entirely under my control is the unbridled fun that comes with properly tailgating.
Tailgating is a uniquely American experience that is unlike any other party or festival I can think of. It takes advantage of the special pocket of time immediately preceding an athletic contest; common experiences on both sides of nerves, excitement, and a lot of booze to prepare for the three-hour endeavor that has us all gathered there in the first place. But whereas European soccer fans often throw rocks and flares at each other and sometimes need to be kept separate by riot police, I’ve always found football tailgating to possess an umbrella understanding of détente. Yeah, your team sucks, but until then do you want a hot dog?
I was educated on the art at the University of Oregon. Being a broke college student, cruising around the tailgate lots was like being welcomed by the Statue of Liberty after escaping the potato famine. Except instead of being shunned and forced to live under inhuman conditions, everyone did what the Statue of Liberty was supposed to represent and gave me pulled pork sandwiches, adult refreshments, and shelter from the occasional downpour.
And while the University of Oregon taught me many things, it failed to educate me on an important truth, the thread that ties tailgates together from sea to shining sea. You must pay homage to the all-powerful group of tailgating shamans or they will smite the fuck out of your whole day. Tailgating can be done in a number of ways, but poorly is not an acceptable one.
I didn’t realize this until I tried to independently throw my own tailgate after college. I got on an airplane and flew to Phoenix in the middle of a hellish September to watch my favorite NFL team, the Detroit Lions, play live for the first time ever. But this was the NFL, a far leap from the friendly confines of Eugene, Oregon. Instead it was Arizona, and it being Arizona, there were stupid rules and restrictions in place to make it a lot harder to have fun.
I didn’t do much logistical planning, my friends hosting me hadn’t lived in Phoenix very long and didn’t know any better, and due to such lack of foresight, we ended up tailgating in a fairly deserted high school parking lot, chugging Rolling Rocks and seeing if they started to boil under the scorching desert sun before we could finish. As I stood on the near-melting asphalt in a goofy wide-brimmed hat I bought at goddamn Walmart to keep my neck and shoulders from being charred, eating tortilla chips because we weren’t allowed to use charcoal, and guzzling formerly cold cans of beer, I had a thought.
“This isn’t the way you’re supposed to do this.”
Lo and behold, I pissed off the shamans by participating in such a poor facsimile of a tailgate. The Lions blew the game, desert people wearing Kurt Warner jerseys jeered me on the way out, and the day was brutal. I had tried, and I had failed.
So with this knowledge in mind I packed my car carefully two weeks ago to host a tailgate for the UCLA-Oregon contest at the Rose Bowl. We had a grill, we had a cooler stocked with beer and ice, we had brats and buns, and we had a football.
Kickoff was at 12:30pm and by 8:15 we were parked on the fairways of the golf course that serves as the greatest tailgating ground in America. I looked around at one point at smoke rising from grills, beanbags floating towards their destined cornhole platforms, birds probably chirping, and had another moment of epiphany.
“This is the way you’re supposed to do this.”
It was magical! People from ages eight to 80 gathered together in celebration and anticipation. Food, drink, gluttony, inebriation, merriment: when all those elements are humming in unison America can sing a decent song. Sure enough, the Ducks destroyed the Bruins and I had a great time. The shamans were whistling in the SEC parking lots they call home.
But since NOTHING IS EVER PERFECT, I had thrown away that terrible Walmart outback hat I bought out of sheer necessity in Arizona. Naturally, it happened to be 95 degrees that day in Pasadena, and I didn’t bring a hat of any kind, so I left with my neck looking like this.
Understood for next time. Sun protection is most important.