It is part of the ritual of seasons changing, of the end of summer and the anticipation of fall.
Calendar people tell you that a new year begins Jan. 1. The government tells you the fiscal year begins the first of October. People with school-age children mark the new year with the arrival of those big yellow buses. But for folks like me, the year begins with a whistle and the sound of a ball being kicked.
Now, I won’t go into the history of this pregame/postgame ritual feast. For that you can check out Volume 16 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which has a dandy entry on the topic — one that, you will note, took three contributors to write. There are that many opinions on the subject.
Which stands to reason since everyone who engages in the practice of tailgating has his or her own story of how they came to do it and what ingredients make their own particular brand better than all the others.
Tailgating can be as simple as picking up barbecue sandwiches on the trip to the stadium and eating them in the parking lot, which was what Daddy and I did when we used to drive from Slapout (the Jackson family seat) to Auburn on game day. Every church along the way would have stands set up where you could pull in, get great food and contribute to the building fund, which was always in need.
(Daddy had two favorites. One outside Notasulga. The other just before Loachapoka. You had to get there early or they would be sold out.)
Tailgating can also be as elaborate as what goes on in The Grove at Ole Miss. A sea of tents set up among the oaks, with enough food to feed a small, developing nation often laid out on cloth-covered tables with fine china and Mama’s silver. A scene right out of Southern Living and Garden & Gun.
Between these two extremes are a host of tailgatings that carry with them the imprint of the people and their university loyalties. Though I have never participated in a tailgating I didn’t enjoy, I have to say that what goes on at Jacksonville State is as good as any and better than most.
I blame my son and daughter for this.
Because of them, we found a cadre of parents who liked football and all that goes with it. So it was that we began tailgating together, behind the stadium where then-Athletic Director Jim Fuller had an RV lot. With electricity and cable, and easy access to the game, it was perfect. One of our number had porta-potty connections and he got us our own private john — with a lock on the door. Watching sorority girls, well-hydrated and in need of relief, trying to get the door open was one more perverse delight we enjoyed.
Then JSU expanded the stadium and our precious spot disappeared in the construction.
Undeterred, we sought another and discovered that around campus there were a number of places where fans arrived early, set up their tents, set up their grills and prepared for the game. We joined in.
However, I missed the convenience of electricity and the cable connection that allowed us to go back to our spot after the game and watch more football well into the shank of the evening.
So, when the expansion was completed and the university announced that there were new RV slots ready to rent, I decided I had to have one.
Although I don’t have an RV, the university was happy to take my money, so on game day we set up a couple of tents, laid out the food and drink, let the kids run wild in a controlled environment and watched the fraternities and sororities frolic in the neighboring field, safely separated from us by a creek.
As I told those that my wife and social director invited to join (and contribute food and drink), “It is my slot and if you don’t do right, I will expel you.”
Power rests lightly on my shoulders.
So we are ready. Tonight the season begins.
The season of football and the season of tailgating.
And let me close with this observation. Folks who live near a regional university have a unique opportunity to enjoy it.
All around these campuses are places where fans can tailgate, free of charge, enjoy the atmosphere and the game.
So if you have been thinking that you might want to, you should.
But you can’t come by my place without my wife’s OK. And if you clear that hurdle, be prepared to feed me and do right, or I will send you on your way.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.