Monday, December 12, 2011

Tailgating Tails


I watched the game at my parent's house while Trae was visiting a friend. After the glorious ending of the game, my father turned to me and asked, "Why didn't you convince me to go to Charlotte?" That seemingly simple reminded me of the years I spent at Clemson, the epic tailgates, and the Peach Bowl 2004 trip. While going to the ACC Championship game would had been wonderful, part of the magic would have been missing: the magic of friendship.

When I was a undergrad student, my parents would come to all the games and feed a gaggle of students. The tailgates would mass up to 30 plus students. Multiple tables of food, sagging from the mounds of food, would be set up in a grassy field. We would spend all afternoon eating and playing washers, a toss game played with metal washers. The menu would be extensive with fried chicken, ham, cheese, veggies, apple salad, chicken salad....the list could go on. The chicken salad was so good that one of my friends who jokingly get down on one knee with a sandwich in his hand asking my mother to marry him so he could live off this heavenly creation for the rest of his life.

My parents were the master tailgate party throwers with one simple goal: prove a clean, friendly environment for the students to go, eat, and enjoy. (My parents never allowed alcohol to any tailgating event.) This tradition continued all six years and two degrees later, with the numbers getting fewer as more of us graduated. By the time I graduated for the second time, the numbers had decreased to ten or less. Throughout the years, several stories stand out in my mind.....

Number Seven
 My parents feed a lot of college students. The numbers quickly grew from two, Corey and myself, to the double digits. Some of my friends would wake up, show up in their pjs, eat, go back to sleep during the game, and then get back up to eat again after the game. Many times friends would bring other friends with them or suite mates, and before long the new people were calling my parents Mom and Dad. Eventually the newbies would become permanent fixtures at the tailgates. One permanent fixture, however, never had a name or an origin. He wore a number seven jersey every game, and always hugged my parents before digging into the delicious buffet. 

Number Seven, as he was lovingly called, never missed a tailgate, talk with everyone else like he knew us, and would leave before the game started; yet we never knew his real name. My parents always assumed he was friends or roommates with one of the other regulars. After the end of the season, my parents asked me who exactly he was, and I could not answer them. Despite having no clue who Number Seven was, my parents never asked him to leave, always hugged him, and always packed him leftovers care packages along with the rest of us. Mom always figured that Number Seven needed some friends and some family, and she was more than happy to provide it for Number Seven. Even if she didn't know his name, she could still hug him and make him smile.

Chicken Toss
Fried chicken is a staple in the South, especially at large gatherings. The food would be sat under a Clemson-themed pop up tent as well as some chairs. My friend Ben would always sit in the Cadillac of tailgating chairs; it would fold out to be a lounger, complete with rigging to prop up your feet after a long game of standing to cheer on the Tigers. During one particular tailgate, Ben was devouring the fried chicken, and then in a redneck fashion, toss the bones into the grass. After finishing a piece of chicken, Ben threw the chicken over his shoulder, causing the bone to "ping" against the metal leg of the tent. Ben, the master of expressively emotional faces, had us all laughing at his "how did I just do that?!?!" face. He consumed another piece of fried chicken. Before throwing it from his Cadillac chair, he, overly exaggeratedly, looked over his shoulder and then with a cocky grin, threw the chicken bone....right as my father walked by and pegged him perfectly in the side. His face and our laughter has remained one of my most vivid and fun memories.

When Ben passed away in a tragic accident, the old tailgating group went out to eat after the funeral where we shared Ben stories. The chicken leg story, told by my father that day, gave us a reason to laugh at even the saddest of moments. Ben was a person of joy and happiness, and was able to share that joy with us when we needed his lively personality to cheer us up through his stories.

Washers Olympics
Corey, the Crocodile Hunter from Indiana, brought to the South a strange game: washers. The game is fairly simple with two large wooden boxes that have large PVC pipes. The boxers are placed apart from each other, and a player then throws typical hardware store round metal washers at the box. If the washer lands in the box, the player gets one point, balanced on the side of the box is two points, and in the pipe is a ringer, worth five points.  Corey would constantly brag he was the best at washers, so one day we teamed up and help the first annual (and only) Washer Olympics to determine who truly was the champions. Four people would play against each other at the same time in teams of two. The games were taken very seriously with a bracket being drawn out and our own lighting of the torch. (The torch being a burning leaf run around the tailgate site by Corey.) The very last game was Corey and a girl named Jen against my cousin Ryan and Jen's boyfriend. Corey was confident, especially since he had the extremely competitive Jen on his team. My cousin Ryan, however, wanted to beat the smack talking team, despite Jen's boyfriend not wanting to beat his girlfriend.  Ryan lead the team to victory, and to this day, when my days of Clemson get brought up, he pipes up and says, "Well, I am and will always be the real Washers Champion!"

Graduation Gaming 
A large group of us graduated at once. We started at Clemson together as scared freshman and were graduating as equal scared adults. Even though the future was uncertain, we did know one thing: we wanted to celebrate this milestone together. While Clemson does have nice restaurants, these places couldn't not accommodate us with our extended families. Instead, my mother offered to throw a graduationn-gate. We set up at the tailgating spot, ate, played washers, and shared memories. Over 60 people were at the graduation-gate. Mom did it next year too for the second set of the group who were a year younger and graduated a year after we did.

Tailgating, to us, was more than a way to kill time before a football game. Tailgating was were friendships were solidified and memories were made. In all honesty, it is only fitting that my college years started and ended sitting in a fold out chair with a paper plate filled with yummy delights. After all, isn't college just one big tailgate? A place to mingle and try new things, talk to people, learn new things, and laugh?

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