The battle before the war
It was a tranquil Saturday afternoon when the stampede began.
Lines of vehicles, like mechanical horses with flags waving high, hurtle down the highway, resembling some cavalry charging into battle, desperately in search of a cherished parking space near the football stadium at Western Carolina University.
It’s homecoming weekend and WCU is playing Georgia Southern.
To those keen in the art of tailgating preparation, large tents and barbeque equipment has been set-up for hours, if not more than a day, as they now sit in pride, watching others scramble for position. All in one motion, these kings of asphalt imperialism flip burgers and ribs, turn up the volume of the satellite television and grab for a cold beverage in a nearby cooler as if they had six arms.
Leaning against the trunk of their car, recent Georgia Southern graduates Andrew Petrak and his girlfriend Laura Beasley watch cars from their school rush past them. They’ve been directed to park in seemingly the furthest lot away from the game, something the couple thinks may be part of a conspiracy plan by WCU to keep the opponents in a distant purgatory of hot pavement and arduous walk to find their seats.
“I think [WCU] likes that we’re this far away from the stadium,” Petrak jokes.
It was a five-hour drive for them to make the game, an obvious testament to their self-proclaimed status of “die-hard fans.” Petrak said the key to a proper tailgate is cold beer, good food and even better friends.
“It’s all about hanging out with friends and being outside,” he said.
“Don’t let him fool you, he’s obsessed with football,” his girlfriend countered.
Not to lose sight of homecoming weekend, an array of alumni are scattered around the campus, many of which only see each other at these tailgating functions. Spooning out mashed potatoes and fried chicken from the back of her car, for any hungry face within reach, WCU alumnus Anne Clodfelter radiates an excitement of crossing paths with familiar faces.
“I love coming to homecoming because it’s the perfect time of the year to be outside at the football game and see lots of friends,” she said. “Many of us have grey hair now, but we get together and have a good time.”
Though Clodfelter acknowledges some of her friends go “all out” with their tailgating habits, she likes to keep it simple by making sure everyone is well fed and fueled for the game.
“It’s football season, you look forward to it all year,” Clodfelter said.
Soon, other Georgia Southern fans stuck near the edge of campus converge and create their own unique atmosphere of old “war” stories about games long yellowed in the pages of newspapers, tossing around statistics and beverages like black flies on a hot summer night.
On the other side of campus, behind the baseball field, a raucous group of WCU students are headlong into a heated match of cornhole, a traditional game of tossing beanbags through holes cut in a wooden plank. Taking a breather from the fun, Arielle Goralski, a political science major at WCU, has her fingers crossed for a home victory.
So, what does WCU need to do to win?
“To actually run the damn ball down to the touchdown line,” she said.
Behind the cornhole, another group of Georgia Southern fans are milling about. Goralski is feeling diplomatic and gazes over at them.
“We’re about to go talk to them,” she points to the enemy. “They seem pretty friendly.”
A row back in the lot, two students from Georgia Southern are sitting on their truck tailgate, readying a small grill filled with plump hot dogs and toasted buns.
“You’ve got to prepare. We’ve got our tents, chairs and food here,” said Jarrod Rickman. “[Tailgating] creates great bonds between people, and you make friends.”
Rickman reflected that the ambiance brings him back to high school, with that anxious feeling of what it was like to get ready for the game. A roar eventually echoes from the stadium, signaling kickoff. It’s time to pack up and walk over. Groups part ways and look at their ticket stub to determine which gate to enter.
“The anticipation is what it is,” he said. “Cornhole and all those little games get you pumped up. It reminds you of the good old days of tailgating with your friends. It’s a great time.”