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Holly Swanson: The Culture of Tailgating

by on September 20, 2012 7:19 AM

No one will ever label me as a party girl, but this past weekend I was easily welcomed and accepted by some of the friendliest people — Penn State tailgaters.

Despite living in State College for the past four years, I’ve never been to a tailgate. Football Saturdays were just an inconvenience and a reason to avoid driving anywhere in town. I thought of tailgaters as a group of fist-bumping, face-painting, cheerleading folks who may have had a bit too much to drink.

But about a week ago, I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

I told a group of online friends that I wanted to attend a tailgate and shamelessly asked if anyone would invite me to theirs. Steve, a Penn Stater from Iowa, told me that although he would not be there himself, he had friends who would welcome me.

I mistakenly thought it would be easy to find my way around, but the closest my chauffer/husband could get me was the corner of Park and Orchard. Armed with a backpack of Rice Krispie treats for sharing, I headed toward the stadium with a map of the parking areas and looked for my soon-to-be new friend Paul from Tennessee who was tailgating in the Pink Lot. Which meant absolutely nothing to me.

Walking in to the tailgates was intimidating. I never realized how far into the surrounding fields they stretched. I also had no idea how to find my way around. I had a parking map, but it showed six different pink lots with no designation of where a spot in the 100s might be.

Surely, the parking attendants could help me.

“I don’t know where that is,” handsome young man No. 1 said.

“These are the 4000s and the numbers get lower the closer you get to the stadium, so it must be over that way,” handsome young man number two said. They suggested that I check out the Beaver Stadium parking booklet, but neither had a copy and they didn’t know where to get one. I suspect that booklet may have only existed in their imagination.

The problem with being on foot is that you can’t really see the number coding unless you walk right up to a space. The occasional easy–to-spot sign on a light post, like they have in large retail parking lots and Disney World, would be a great gift from the parking gods.

After spending close to an hour wandering lost around the stadium lots, I located Paul from Tennessee, who was friendly and welcoming and, sadly, breaking down his tailgate. My poor sense of direction made me miss the party, but a spare ticket to the game appeared and, feeling like I’d won a small lottery, I got to see my first game in three years from inside the stadium.

It has been suggested by others that my attendance on the team’s first win of the season may not be a coincidence. Could I be a good luck charm in the making? Leave tickets for me at will call this Saturday and we’ll find out.

I thought everyone would pack up and head home after the game, but I was thrilled to find out that the tailgating continues. The group I was with, and the others whom I spoke to nearby, were polite, generous, and lovely. I suspect some of this was due to the adult beverages everyone was enjoying. But I think most of it was a result of the incredible joy they have to be part of Penn State.

I made new friends, like Brian from Tallahassee, Fla., and Suzanne from Tennessee. I heard about their Penn State memories, their pride, and their disappointment during the past year. But mostly, I heard about people who are fired up about their school and their football team. I have never met a group of people who are so happy to be identified with their alma mater. No matter what.

But then something happened that I didn’t expect. Just before 8 p.m., Navy’s busses began to leave campus behind their police escort. Once the tailgaters realized the lights and sirens were for Navy, many of them lined up along the street and applauded for the team as they drove away. The respect shown for the opposing team was moving.

Earlier in the day, I saw many Penn Staters welcome the men and women in uniform to State College and sincerely thank them for their service.

So my first tailgate experience saw strangers openly welcome an awkward woman with a backpack of Rice Krispie treats while being respectful and encouraging to students from the opposing school. At the same time, they proudly supported their school and each other.

If this is the Penn State culture, I’d like to see a lot more of it.

And about that will call?

Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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