I don't know if the way to a man's heart is really through his stomach (I've always been a fan of the spleen), but I do know that I have come to embrace my inner Ute through a newfound love of tailgating. For four years as an undergraduate, I struggled to find an identity on a commuter campus with 25,000 classmates, but in the last year, I have found a transcendent connection between barbeque ribs and college football that can only be described as sublime.
Landon (L) and Tip (R), founders of the feast (center).
It's mostly Tip's fault. Bryan "Tip" Tippetts is the mastermind of a group of sports delinquents that hang out in the U's golf course parking lot the afternoon of every home game. He's that rare kind of guy who can feel just as at home watching the Food Network as he does watching SportsCenter. He lives in a shrine to sports decorated in posters, replica football helmets and random SI's, that all surround a big screen TV permanently locked on one of a dozen ESPN channels.
I met Tip two years ago through a mutual friend named Jake, who recently managed to put his own mania on hold* long enough to get married in between SportsCenter broadcasts. Jake had invited me on a road trip to Denver to see the Raiders play on Monday Night Football.
The game itself turned out to be a brutal debacle, especially considering it marked the culmination of a fifteen-year wait to see the Raiders in person. But though I didn't realize it at the time, the experience introduced me to a side of fandom I would soon become a fond part of.
Before the game a dozen of us wandered the Mile High parking lot, gazing at random packs of fans and countless T-shirt stands selling shirts with profane references to the hated Raiders. The most eccentric of these fans had pulled motorhomes and trailers into a special area designated for tailgating.
How does Al Davis feel about this?
I had heard of tailgating for years, and had always liked the idea, but with no local NFL team and only a vague interest in the college game, I had never participated myself. The people in Denver treated it like a lifestyle. Canopies stretched out over bunches of camp chairs and gas grills, which were often sitting on rolled out patches of astroturf. And every tailgating compound had some sort of twisted shrine to either Bronco worship or Raider hatred.
The Johnsonville Trailer: The Mecca of Tailgating.
I don't know if the voodoo dolls had anything to do with the game that night, but Tip's guys didn't need any help when I joined them in Logan the next September for the yearly contest against Utah State University. The Utes were well on their way to an undefeated season, and USU wasn't going to put much of an obstacle in their path. (In fact, their obstacle consisted of six points).
Before watching the Utes ceremoniously dispatch the Aggies, I spent about four hours in the parking lot neck deep in a gluttonous celebration of food and college sports. Tip and his guys may not have had a motorhome or a roll of astroturf, but they had everything else. We packed a dozen chairs around a couple of plastic tables loaded with an assortment of chips, pop, and other appetizers. One blessed soul even brought jumbo shrimp.
This year's hot new item: invisible brats. When and if I get engaged, registry item #1 will be a grill.
The first wave of brats, hot dogs, and grilled corn on the cob gradually gave way to full racks of ribs that Tip had been preparing as much as twenty-four hours beforehand. Not only that, but he had also brought half a dozen salsas from a guy named the Salsa King that made regular appearances at the Farmer's Market in Salt Lake City. It was like Tip was some kind of bizarre male counterpart to Martha Stewart, only with a sports fetish instead of a prison record.
While we ate, we entertained ourselves with a continual stream of college football broadcasts and updates courtesy of the TV and satellite dish the guys had brought along. This led to a number of conversation/debates about how everyone was doing or would be doing throughout the season. As a non-college football guy, I couldn't do much more than smile or give the "I don't know what you're talking about but I need to appear educated" nod that I usually reserve for conversations with financial advisors.**
In the middle, me, literally the black sheep of the group. To my left, Landon, wearing the "I've been outed from the Federal Witness Protection Program" expression.
All of this distracted me from the root conflict my presence made: I was actually an alumnus of both schools playing that day. Two years after finishing my bachelors at the U, I moved to Logan to get an MS. Four months before the tailgate I had been next door to our road compound accepting a diploma. In the end I justified my return to my BS roots by clinging to leftover bitterness that USU hadn't hired me as full-time faculty, and that the U had the better chance at a noteworthy season. I was more distracted by re-connecting with the freshmen I had been dating the year before, anyway.
So it began in Logan, and continued through the season at the golf course parking lot every other weekend. I enjoyed ribs, pulled pork, brats, and all sorts of good food. I can't remember if I went to any of the other games. I guess it was one step at a time for my inner Ute.***
During the second quarter of this year's rout.
We're already two weeks into the new season, and I actually followed up last week's tailgate appearance by going to the game. We beat up on USU again. The menu was pulled pork and corn on the cob. This year Tip has put together an entire web site devoted to our efforts (www.utetailgaters.com). None of us know if the Utes will be able to match last year's undefeated march to the Fiesta Bowl, and we're all keeping an eye on Florida to see if our old coach took all the magic beans out of town with him, but there are a couple of things we're sure of: Tip and his guys will be in their spots on row 43 every week, and none of them will need any hot dogs at halftime.
Just so you know, I'm wearing a Fiesta Bowl T-Shirt underneath.
*Prime Example: A year ago at a Monday night activity for singles, Jake (still quite single) left early to watch ESPN's Classic SportsCenter (new broadcasts that brought back old anchors). Yes, in a toss-up between girls and Craig Kilborn, Jake picked Kilborn.
**The "I don't know what you're talking about" nod is traditionally achieved by squinting and pinching your chin with your thumb and index finger while nodding slowly. It may also help to ponder a complex subject you understand while you do it, such as "Is TO ultimately a benefit or crutch to the Eagle's playoff chances", or "if you were to put the best SNL performers of all-time on a basketball team, who would be the point guard?"
***Now an NCAA-accepted moniker.
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