War, Beheadings, and Booze: A Brief History of Tailgating

Tailgating has carved out its place in American football culture, but how exactly did it get started in the first place?

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Nov 14 2014, 1:40pm

Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tailgating is less a science than an art—a recipe written with ingredients, but without measurements. It is a regional activity: alligator down in the bayou, brats in the Midwest. For early games, fried and scrambled eggs, this is breakfast after all, and we're not savages. For entertainment, beer pong or bags, or anything, really, that can be played with one hand grasping a beer.

So, how exactly did this cultural phenomenon get started?

An examination of the history of tailgating before football games can only go back as far as football's first contest, pitting Princeton against Rutgers, 145 years ago. But 145 years ago, cars did not yet exist, and neither did parking lots. Perhaps tailgating's genesis predates football, and must be traced back to another type of battle.

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According to the American Tailgaters Association, the first occurrence of tailgating occurred in mid-summer of 1861—a full eight years before the first football game—in Manassas, Virginia, before Confederate forces and Union soldiers met in the First Battle of Bull Run on—you guessed it—a Sunday. The story goes that civilians arrived at the battlefield in wagons loaded with wines, whiskeys, and food. Spoiler alert: the blue team retreated, but came back to win the war.

So tailgating is an American pastime, shrouded in red, white, and blue, right? Maybe not.

Perhaps tailgating goes even further back, all the way to the Reign of Terror in France in the final years of the 18th century. The guillotine executions took place at prime time, programs containing the names of the soon-to-be headless were sold, and people brought their families to dinner at the conveniently named Cabaret de la Guillotine before heading to the scaffolds.

In Stanley Karnow's book Paris in the Fifties,he wrote that a "carnival atmosphere pervaded Place de la Révolution, where many of the executions took place." The precedent for the face-painted, early-morning imbibers may be the Tricoteuses (French for "knitters"), the earliest of season ticket holders, who'd knit and gossip in-between the chopping.

Looks French to me. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

But, alas, we shouldn't give France of all places credit for something as truly American as tailgating. After all, there's no tailgating before European soccer matches, just furious emptying of six-packs on the way from the pub to the stadium. Stadiums in Germany even prohibit the consumption of alcohol during the game, something American stadiums at the professional level don't do, lest there be mass riots. At the collegiate level, just 30 of 128 teams sell alcohol to the general public. More are sure to follow, but for now, the ban on buying beer during games makes tailgating that much more integral to the Saturday experience.

John Sherry, a University of Notre Dame marketing professor and anthropologist, in his study titled "A Cultural Analysis of Tailgating," likens the festivities to harvest celebrations in Greece and Rome. It seems a bit of a stretch to equate drunk-by-9-a.m. college kids to ancient Romans, but both are experiencing a communal gathering of conviviality. There's feasting and music and a tangible sense of community. There's an excess of drinking and camaraderie of strangers. It's not uncommon at tailgates to barter and borrow: a beer for a burger, for instance. Or to participate in a competitive but friendly game of Beirut for parking lot supremacy.

The beginnings of football tailgating are murkier than the dirty Solo cups at the end of a game. At the college levels, some research points to the Ivy League, particularly Yale University, where parking, it's said, was scarce. Opposing fans would travel by bus or train, arriving early at the stadium. Thus, they'd bring food and drinks to satisfy themselves while they awaited kickoff. Home fans would also arrive before the start of the game, though there is doubt that games of flip cup took place on the New Haven campus in the early 20th century.

"Some sources credit former Yale SID [Sports Information Director] Charley Loftus with coining the term [tailgating]," said Rich Marazzi, author of A Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Years of Football at the Yale Bowl. "However, in my opinion, it is not definitive, although I do believe that in his writings and promotions he at the very least popularized the term."

Marazzi added that it's "difficult to say when tailgating began at Yale since I'm sure people, for many years, took sandwiches and other food items to the Bowl."

The Green Bay Packers franchise is weighted heavily in pro football folklore, so it should surprise no one that the Packers are also right in the middle of the history of tailgating. Some say tailgating began the year the Packers joined the NFL, 1921, when fans would back their trucks into the old City Stadium and watch the game with snacks from the beds of their vehicle.

Unfortunately, says Packers team historian Cliff Christl, there isn't evidence to support this theory, however romantic.

"I don't believe the story about Packers fans tailgating around the field is true, and we have no pictures that even prove there was tailgating at old City Stadium (the Packers home from 1925-56)," he told me, adding that, like the Yale fans, he believes people would bring food and drink in their trunks, a practice that "continued at the new City Stadium."

Christl recalls hearing stories that tailgating began—at the professional football level, at least—in the backyard of the Packers' NFC North rival, the Minnesota Vikings, at Metropolitan Stadium ("The Met") in the late 60s or early 70s. But according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune sports editor, Christopher Miller, there's no archival record of that, either.

Presumably the Mayor of San Francisco. Photo by Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Like the harvest festivals in times past, the beheadings that took place during the French Revolution, and the Rockwell-ian image of Ivy League students in cardigans prepping for the Big Game with small pennants and toothy grins, there's a cultural significance to tailgating. Where the professional leagues do their best to squash tailgating because of its negative connotation in regard to excessive drinking, it's still prevalent in college football territory. Steeped in tradition, perhaps no one does tailgating better than the Southeastern Conference. Though these might be perceived as fighting words.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, the so-called Vols Navy dock their boats outside of Neyland Stadium on the banks of the Tennessee River and partake in a floating tailgate they call "Sailgating." In Oxford, Mississippi, students and alumni gather at The Grove, an atmosphere likened to the pomp at the Kentucky Derby. The Sporting News called The Grove the "Holy Grail of Tailgating Sites."

The most famous tailgating party takes place on neutral turf. Since 1933, the Florida Gators and the Georgia Bulldogs have met in Jacksonville, Florida to, ostensibly, play football. What ensues from Wednesday to Saturday, this year's game taking place in early November, is what's called "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail party," a term coined by a Florida Times-Union sports editor in the 1950s. The city of Jacksonville even embraced the nickname, using it as the game's slogan until 1988, but has since ceased doing so after a series of alcohol-fueled college antics.

Tailgating is prevalent not only to collegiate and professional sports, but it's become a pregame ritual extended to concerts, weddings, and barbecues. In order to capitalize monetarily on the scene, some places are making tailgating a commercial business, too. Nowhere is this more true than the NFL, of course. In Cincinnati, for instance, there's the JungleZone; while in San Diego, Charger fans can meet the Charger Girls at the Power Party. For the nineteenth year in a row, Boston sports radio WEEI hosts what they call the All-Pro Celebrity Tailgate Party. It features a raw bar, because nothing screams gridiron action like a Pemaquid oyster.

These parties are a diluted way to tailgate, like camping in the backyard. It's warm and the bathrooms are easily accessed. There's no struggling over the charcoal grill, there's no set-up involved. You don't listen to the radio to hear the early games or the pre-game banter, you watch it live on a large, flat-screen television. And, I guess, if your Sunday morning would be incomplete without hearing Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher fake-laugh at each other's stories, this is a good thing. It'll lighten your wallet considerably, though.

This is exactly the type of thing that the head honchos of the NFL want. The sense of community in a traditional tailgate was publicly shot down when Roger Goodell pulled on his concerned-and-condescending-college-dean khakis, and forbade ticket holders for last season's Super Bowl in East Rutherford, New Jersey from tailgating. If we're nitpicking the NFL for choosing the wrong things to care about, this could be exhibit A.

Either way, it's not really clear whether we should feel good about gathering—either raucously or peacefully, in each case with a mouthful of brat and high blood-alcohol levels—before young men gracefully concuss and maim each other in a big stadium. There is something lingering and ominous about the predecessors to football tailgating: collective celebrations in anticipation of bloody battles and public beheadings. Meanwhile, we paint our faces, fly our flags, and get drunk to watch young men violently collide and destroy one another's heads in a slower, less literal way. No matter, though, so long as no one forgets the burgers.