Andrew Tellez, left, and Lannon Turowski, right, both of San Diego enjoy tailgating before the start of the game Sept. 9 in Green Bay, Wis. / Dan Powers, Gannett Wisconsin Media
Pregame tailgating isn't just a party. It's a complex community-building exercise that hearkens back to ancient harvest festivals.
John Sherry, a University of Notre Dame cultural anthropologist, conducted a two-year study of college tailgating and found that the parking lot parties have ties to harvest celebrations in ancient Rome and Greece, picnics during Civil War battles and modern gatherings such as camp-outs at Jimmy Buffett concerts and Occupy Wall Street encampments.
"The idea of getting out of your house and feasting and drinking somewhere else is a pretty old tradition," Sherry says. "People eat and drink and build up community in the process. It's one last blowout before we hunker down for winter."
He says tailgating "is more about sharing than it is about competition," and people who participate help build the brands of their favorite teams. "The individual traditions that they are creating add to the larger tradition," he says. "They see it as participating in the team experience."
Tailgating before college games enables fans to "surround the entertainment that's provided for you with entertainment that you yourself are creating," Sherry says. Competition is more evident in the elaborate food and vehicles tricked out with cooking, TV and sound gear.
Lisa Wieting, 33, a University of Nebraska graduate who drives six hours from her Denver home to attend games in Lincoln, says the gatherings are "like this huge family reunion" for friends, old and new, as well as relatives. About 70 people gather regularly at their tailgate site.
"The reason all the people come together is because there's something about building a tradition ... a sense of home and comfort," says Wieting, who works in marketing and public relations. "Every week it's the same: the same people, the same food," including fried chicken, moonshine cherries and her mom's famous cereal mix.
Mark Thompson, 62, whose daughter attends Iowa State University, says the social aspects of tailgating are as important as the outcome of the games. He likes to roam around and meet people who support the home team and the visitors. "Some people actually realize that a game is a game and tailgating is for both sides to have fun and meet different people," says Thompson, who lives in Primghar, Iowa.
Nick James, 31, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, tailgates at the University of Miami's home and away games, often with his brother Ryan. The allure for him: "It's definitely sharing that football experience with friends and making new friends," he says.
Sherry acknowledges that there can be a negative side to tailgating. "You do get excessive drinking, and there's the possibility of an escalation of violence or fender-benders," he says.
Those factors have prompted some colleges and universities to impose restrictions. Starting this season, Kansas' Pittsburg State University tailgaters can't drink alcohol after kickoff. After a truck carrying beer kegs accelerated into a crowd, killing a woman at a 2011 tailgate, Yale University imposed new rules.
Sherry says tailgating has spread to a new venue: high school football games.
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