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Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: The evolution of tailgating

Story by Hardy Jackson

Illustration by Dennis Auth

It began as such a simple pleasure.

Drive early to the game in a pick-up truck full of stuff to eat and drink. Get there, park, lower the tailgate, use it as your table, and there you have it — tailgating.

Only hardly anyone goes in a pick-up any more.

I do, sometimes, but I am hardly anybody, which is my point.

My first experience with tailgating was as a boy with my Daddy. We would drive over to Auburn from the home place at Slapout, stopping along the way to buy barbecue sandwiches from church folks who set stands by the side of the road. When we arrived at the stadium, we parked, ate and then went to the game.

A few years later, some college friends and I wandered down from our Birmingham-Southern 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.

Then I was at the University of Alabama, living not far from Bryant-Denny Stadium. My housemates and I marked off our yard and sold slots to eager tailgaters who paid us well and let us party 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.

Finally, I taught and tailgated at Jacksonville State.

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/post-game event that, for some, is more important than the game itself.

Another sign of the sophisticating of the South.

As football spread beyond its small-town Friday night roots and as more Southerners developed loyalties to college teams, tailgating became part of the weekend ritual.  Even the ticketless who could not make it inside the stadium gathered with food and friends and a radio or TV.

Today, at home or on campus, tables are loaded with food and drink appropriate for the occasion.  Like so much else that is Southern, football has become yet another excuse to eat.

Wings, fried chicken, barbecue, and a mess of other stuff that can be eaten from a paper plate with one hand. Occasionally someone will whip up something fancy, but most buy it and bring it.

For many, tailgating is a multi-family affair, so the food is kid-friendly. The vehicles also form a protective barrier that keeps the small ones in.

There they are, we are, dressed in team colors. Milling about or sprawled in lawn chairs, waiting while the Tigers, the Tide, the Trojans, the Gamecocks, get ready to take the field.

Then the band marches by, with majorettes and flag corps and cheerleaders, whipping fans into a frenzy.

Then it is off to the stadium to cheer and stomp and have a fine time.

And when it is over, everyone returns for a little more of the same.

Which is often more fun than the game.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.