I remember the first time I was invited to a tailgate.
It was 1986, before an Auburn football game my freshman year. I don’t remember whom we were playing, but I remember it was midday, and my roommates and I were walking from the Caroline Draughon Village apartments to Jordan-Hare Stadium. It was hours before kickoff, but we had to get there early to reserve our seats in the student section. We cut through the parking lot across from the Coliseum—where the Arena now stands—and entered the maze of RVs.
Instantly, it was as if I’d wandered into a secret world. Sure, I’d noticed the campers pulling onto campus as early as Wednesday, but I’d never ventured into the little lanes and alleyways between the vehicles and tents. So I’d never really paid attention to the details: the folding tables covered in orange-and-blue tablecloths and laden with trays of food and pitchers of sweet tea and lemonade. Or the charcoal grills and the overflowing coolers of Coke and beer. The blaring radios and portable TVs. It was so festive, and so fun.
An older couple invited us over to have some food (and yes, beer) before we went into the stadium. I remember they were so hospitable, so proud of us as students. They were strangers, but we shared a love for our university and our team—and that’s when I realized the appeal of tailgating: Why battle the stadium crowds? The bathroom and concession lines? The other team’s obnoxious fans? Why not just camp outside with your extended Auburn family, eat and drink well, and maybe grab a nap in a folding chair at halftime?
Thirty-two years have passed since that game day, and tailgating has gotten fancier, no matter the team. Folks who want to stay in town from Wednesday through Sunday either own a condo near campus or book their favorite Airbnb. Even the park-and-party crowd has gone bigtime: flat screen TVs streaming the SEC Network inside premium tents that are set up and taken down by the university. Catered meals. Full bars. High-boy tables, sofas, string lights, and space heaters.
I was raised by big football fans who regularly came to Auburn home games, but my parents didn’t tailgate. My in-laws didn’t either, and today watch the Tigers in their tricked-out man cave with the giant TV, leather recliners, and surround sound. And Todd and I spend our fall weekends on the boys’ soccer fields and in the parking lots and hotels that surround them.
Maybe that means we have to turn in our Southerner membership cards, but I still have an appreciation for the folks who travel to the games, set up the full spread, and spend days and nights eating and drinking well, sharing laughs, and yes, maybe watching a little football.
So this year, when a student takes a shortcut through your space, offer her a hot dog and a cold beverage. You’ll make her feel like she’s a part of something big and special. And I promise, she’ll always remember it.