Jackson Winters is back a ready to take on the nation as he goes in search of America's best tailgate.
While my cohorts in college spent their time dawdling in the libraries, the cafés and the classrooms around campus, I always felt most comfortable in the parking lots on game day. I educated myself over barbeques; knowledge came fast in the form of a can. I crossed the stage with an honors degree in tailgating, my major in a glass, with a minor in ass.
There were never enough Saturdays for me, so when the call came to trek across this great country in search of the best tailgate party, I grew giddy as a kid at Christmas. I was out the door before my editor had even finished the sentence. When I got home, the receiver was still dangling off the table. Tailgating is my calling; it is my god, my savior and my religion. Another season of Saturdays was upon me, and my first stop had been a long time coming.
EverBank Field – Florida/Georgia Classic
Scene: 10/10 Girls: 9/10 Fans: 8/10 Food: 7/10
Drink of Choice: Bourbon
There was no getting around it; Jacksonville, Florida was a must. Rumors of three long debaucherous days descending upon the American South were too great to pass up. The annual meeting of Georgia and Florida has long been considered the “biggest outdoor cocktail party in the world,” but that’s probably too formal a word.
For anyone else in attendance, I was the guy in the frilly pink tutu outside The Landing grumbling about horseshoes. All Hallows’ Eve coinciding with tailgating, and naturally horseshoes, had proven to be a major setback. At a buck a point and a beer every five, playing six games against some very serious ringers from Georgia had me drunk, broke and dressed as a princess, the last being an unfortunate consequence of a side bet with my own friends. Ten hours under the Florida sun had taken its toll and I was brooding.
All around me was chaos. Any time after 11, the Jacksonville Landing is a breeding ground of Fun. Beer flows frivolously, hordes of students weave in and out of crowds, jockeying for position and eyeing the next packed bar. With Halloween thrown into the mix, the whole thing looks like a circus, something straight out of a Hunter Thompson novel.
The days are no different. Students spilling into the parking lots, parking lots spilling out into the street and beer spilling every which way but up. For three long days there are no definitive lines or boundaries in Jacksonville; the whole city turns into one giant backyard barbeque, the true Elysium of the tailgating elite.
Husky Stadium – University of Washington Huskies
Scene: 10/10 Girls: 8/10 Fans: 7/10 Food: 7/10
Drink of Choice: Cuba Libres
Breaking out, bleary-eyed, into the sun is disorienting enough, but stuck somewhere in the middle of a Pacific waterway with little recollection of why you are there is not something you can immediately come to terms with.
There had been a football game. Evidence littered the deck of the boat and floated carelessly alongside us, but I had no clear memories of seeing any sort of on-field action. The portable TV, toppled and cracked in the corner, was still showing highlights, and I sat down looking for anything that would bring back images out of the carnage of the previous day.
My last clear memory is the lights of the stadium exploding into the orange-blue twilight. Anything after is a tangled mess of passing boats, echoes booming across the bay, cheers from a distant crowd and innumerable trips in and out of the startlingly cold water. Flashes of scantily clad women diving from the deck, drinking from the bottle, shooting fireworks out into the dead summer night and finally passing out amid the booze, the blondes and the beer are all that are left. Sailgating with a raucous Husky crowd had long been a dream of mine, and having done it, it still is, every year, from now until I can remember it.
Tiger Stadium – Louisiana State University Tigers
Scene: 8/10 Girls: 8/10 Fans: 8/10 Food: 10/10
Drink of Choice: Sazerac
Sitting alone, deadline looming, my eyes are bloodshot, my mouth is dry and my body is covered in purple paint. Everything itches. Who convinced me to do this?
Washing off the sin of a Louisiana State tailgate is no small feat when it’s a visible and likely toxic paint. I have to stop wagering personal pride when consuming adult beverages.
Somewhere in the confusion of Friday night, I bet a group of rabid LSU fans that their SEC upset of Tennessee was in 2002. Four clicks on the iPhone later, I was wrong, off by a year and now obligated to paint my entire body purple for Saturday’s game.
Which, for the first 16 hours, was a blessing, one of those football miracles that got me in on the ground floor of Louisiana tailgating, accepted as one of their own. Every happy fan handed me a beer or bourbon. I was instructed to help myself to the mouth-watering Cajun cuisine. No one questioned my undying love for the Tigers; anyone painted purple in the parking lots of LSU is considered untouchable. A VIP of the college crowds.
Everything after that has been a nightmare; my bed sheets are purple, my doorknobs are purple, almost every surface of my bathroom is purple. I’m itchy and stiff, my skin cracking with every quick movement. I’ve showered, I’ve shaved and I’ve showered again, and I’m still decidedly purple.
If I wasn’t so god-damn impressed with the LSU tailgate, I’d be furious; fortunately, Louisiana knows how to throw a party, and being purple forever might be a relatively small price to pay.
Lambeau Field – Green Bay Packers
Scene: 8/10 Girls: 6/10 Fans: 10/10 Food: 7/10
Drink of Choice: Rhinelander Beer
January weather is notoriously cold in Green Bay, and Sunday morning is no time to be wandering the streets in a Bears jersey asking for directions to Lambeau.
“Oh ya, just hop on the highway and drive back to Chicago.”
“Just like the real Bears; they can’t find the field either, or at least the end zone.”
I remind them that we still hold a six-game edge in the long-standing rivalry, and they wonder aloud if Jay Cutler is also good at counting because he certainly is not very good at football. As I walk away, I hear them counting interceptions like they were on Sesame Street, the ha-ha-has following me for almost half a block.
The rest of the town is completely deserted; 102,000 Cheeseheads on a vast migration to the parking lots and pickup trucks surrounding The House that Brett Built. By 11 A.M. the whole area is full-blown beer-guzzling, barbeque-burning cookout. Even in the depths of winter, Packers fans flood the streets, their cheers and chants breaking through the frigid air, every beer building the chorus louder. Boisterous drunks from the backs of trucks conduct the ensemble cast in song, while revelers young and old prep their beers for the last shotgun relay of the season. By kickoff, the whole mess has exploded, a proverbial wave of green and yellow flocking toward the entrances of the field, half-stumbling, half-slurring, all in the name of another Sunday in Packer country.
University of Phoenix Stadium – Oddly, the Oakland Raiders
Scene: 7/10 Girls: 5/10 Fans: 9/10 Food: 6/10
Drink of Choice: The dirtiest swill sold in the highest quantity at the cheapest price.
We were beginning to doubt the sincerity of the Cardinals. A typically nice day in Arizona had yielded little enthusiasm from the crowd. For all the people, the tents, the beers and the barbeques burning, the energy had died on the vine, lost somewhere in the quiet calm of another 100-degree day. We’d heard Glendale was a retirement community; we just didn’t expect an Early Bird Special vibe in the parking lot.
Then it happened. Somewhere in the distance a dull roar broke the heat. Like their namesake bird, Arizona fans popped up from their chairs, heads darting in all directions, looking for signs of the impending danger. Somewhere on the edge of the crowd there’s a commotion, a chant, slow at first then growing in intensity. Raaaaiders, Raaaaiders. The Nation had arrived.
Looking like something out of a Mad Max remake, the Black and Silver marched into a sea of red, infiltrating casual crowds of Cardinals with menacing smiles and spiked armor of every make. Wrestling fans would appreciate a Legion of Doom reference, but honestly, Raiders fans are more numerous and horrifying. Their arrival signaled a new life, both sides battling for position; the Cardinals threatened on home turf, the Raiders waging a war in enemy territory. The next three hours were a frenzied clash of fandom, neither side giving way until the dying moments before kickoff, when the Cardinals retreated into the relative safety of the stadium and the Raiders staked their claim to the spoils, the last pregame beers before kickoff. On the field, the Cardinals won that day, but the Raiders fans came, they saw and they conquered, bringing the war home to Arizona in the stands.