Throughout his four years as a football player at the University of Texas, Todd Bondy had little awareness of the revelry taking place just outside the team’s stadium.
It was only after completing his football eligibility and remaining on campus to finish his degree that Bondy, a fullback on Texas’ vaunted 2005 national championship team, felt he may have been missing out on something big.
“It was quite an eye-opening experience,” he says of attending his first tailgate party. “It’s a sunrise to sundown situation for many.”
Freed from his seclusion in a team hotel the night before a game, Bondy mixed with Texas students who camped overnight in spots to toss footballs, barbeque, and engage in a fair amount of drinking leading up to kickoff.
“It’s a hyper-social experience and mini-reunion every week for a lot of people,” he says, noting that he went back to every tailgate that semester, “and the fun thing is they are all rallying around Texas football.”
Since the very first college game played between Princeton and Rutgers University nearly 150 years ago, tailgating has gone hand-in- hand with American football as a celebration of fandom unmatched by other sports.
And the parties keep getting bigger.
‘I get tickets all the time, and I get rid of them’
Now an investment manager in Austin, Bondy was back on campus on September 15, shuffling from one tailgate event to another before his Longhorns played their rivals from the 2005 title game, USC.
They ranged from high-end alumni affairs, with deluxe buffets and open cocktail bars, to ones set in parking lots, where fans pitched tents, positioned big screens alongside beer coolers, drank shots poured down ice blocks, and stood on long lines at porta-potties.
Tailgating is a uniquely American experience, notes Daniel Shepherd, a native of Kent, England who moved to Austin with his family after stints in Dubai and Hong Kong.
“We got season tickets the moment we got here,” he says, sporting the burnt orange Texas colors on his cap, sunglasses and tee-shirt.
“For us as Brits (tailgating) doesn’t exist. You get a little bit of a pregame stuff at the bars, or something like that, but this is incredible.”
Shepherd attended his first college football tailgate in 2016, for an Alabama game at Louisiana State University — a school consistently ranked at the top of the tailgate party list.
He and his wife arrived in Baton Rouge three days early, parking their RV and enjoying a marathon session of Cajun food and booze interrupted by lawn games of horseshoes and cornhole.
The fact that Alabama won 10-0 in a drab matchup, didn’t matter: Shepherd was hooked.
“We’re new to Austin, new to Texas, and new to the US. We thought it was a good way to meet new people,” he says, before the USC game. “I haven’t paid for a beer yet today.”
Others, like local operations manager Steve Lawrence, never even make it to the stadium, which swelled to a record attendance of over 103,000 for Texas’ 37-14 win.
He showed up at 9:30 a.m. for the 7 p.m. kickoff, but didn’t budge from the parking lot.
“I get tickets all the time, and I get rid of them and stay here at the tailgate,” says Lawrence, who has been setting up at every Texas home game for 11 years.
“We’re broadcasting the game right here; all my friends are here, we’re all together.”
‘A great day, even if you don’t win’
Tradition, along with licensing laws, stipulate that no money is exchanged among tailgaters, with unwritten rules that everyone chips in.
Beer sponsors, like Coors Light in Austin, often drop off large coolers of free samples for tailgaters who grill steaks, burgers and lobsters, along with more exotic fare.
Adam Goldstein, who authored the book “Tailgate to Heaven” about his tour of all 32 NFL pre-parties, sampled fried alligator in Jacksonville, deep fried Turkey in Buffalo, and bear meat and raccoon fajitas in the parking lot outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa before Super Bowl XLIII.
“I flew back out for four days to live in a car park with no water, with 300 other RVs and big screens to watch the game,” says the Oxford, England native, who balked at the $1,800 cost to watch Pittsburgh beat Arizona in person.
Goldstein lists the Oakland Raiders’ “Bad Boys of Barbeque” as one of his favorite tailgating crews — “They had a grill the size of a horse trailer; they were cooking for 300 people, incredible food, couldn’t be more hospitable,” he says — and is mightily impressed by the stamina of Green Bay Packers fans, who tailgate despite the frozen winds around Lambeau Field.
For Goldstein, a Chicago Bears fan who doubles as a drama teacher, youth worker, and the coach of Oxford University’s American football team, part of the appeal is the ritual’s ability to mitigate a loss.
“With tailgating, you’re still having a great day, even if you don’t win,” he says. “The soccer experience is only about results. If you win you have a good day, if you lose you have a bad one.”
He remembers attending an FA Community Shield at Wembley Stadium feature Manchester United, and was aghast that “there was no razzmatazz, no pregame, nothing.”
Then again, it is hard to match the outrageousness of the Detroit Lions’ “Tubgators,” who roll out a giant hot tub complete with fans in swimming gear braving the Michigan weather, or the flair of the University of Washington’s sailgating crew, who float in the bay adjoined to Husky Stadium.
‘Everyone pitches in’
New York Giants fan Hank Uberoi organizes one of the most lavish tailgates in the NFL, with plans for up to 70 people — some flying in from London — to meet outside MetLife Stadium for this Sunday’s showdown against the New Orleans Saints.
An avid food and wine connoisseur, Uberoi’s crew includes celebrity chefs Nelson Yip and Floyd Cardoz, as well as the president of Zachys wines, who has supplied a six liter bottle of Bordeaux on occasion.
The cross-border payment company director has procured 24 game tickets and 18 parking passes so far — but the real highlight will take place before the game, where the convoy will set up seven tables and three grills the moment the lot opens at 11am.
His musician son — who once set up and performed with his band at the tailgate — is flying in from Austin for the occasion.
“We have a very eclectic group of people, from hedge fund managers to carpenters and everything in between,” he says, thankful that a few teetotalers volunteer as designated drivers.
“It’s very collegial. You end up chatting with the people next to you, particularly given the type of food we do. Everyone is welcome, everyone pitches in.”
Despite enduring the Giants worst season in 40 years in 2017, and a rocky 1-2 start this season, Uberoi’s gameday ritual remains unhinged.
“Tailgates are an independent event,” he says, though he does have one issue to consider. The parties can get in the way of the game — or vice versa.
“My wife complains because we’ve never made the kickoff,” he says. “So last year we actually attempted to do it, but we still missed it.”