The tailgating scene at Beaver Stadium is the best in the country. At least, we've never seen anything quite like it anywhere else, and we've been to a lot of different stadiums. Why? We have the advantage of lots of agricultural land and parking lots surrounding Beaver Stadium to accommodate the crowds who pour into University Park on any given football Saturday. A lot of stadiums just don't have the luxury of space.
The scene is one massive party, with some very elaborate preparations by many tailgaters: charcoal grills, satellite dishes to carry the game on TV, tents, and all sorts of games. Not everyone has a ticket to the game, so they just come for the party.
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And the food! There are some people I've met in this town who spend 2-3 days just cooking for their weekly tailgate. I'm not one of them. I'll go to the Wegman's grocery store for something special if we have guests. They have an amazing selection of tailgate food.
Elaborate preparations are not for us. We usually keep it very simple. We pack our one cooler, at least 25 years old, with mostly soda, a few beers, and some ice. We have one grocery bag with miscellaneous items and snacks. We have a tray in the cooler that might carry a sub or some cheese and fruit. We throw four chairs into the trunk, perhaps a table. We throw extra layers of clothing if we need them into the trunk, check that we have our tickets and parking pass. That's about it. But we do have two rituals: mascots and magnets.
We add to our car an old, stuffed lion, at least 30 years old, a blue and white hand-knit prayer shawl, also old, and the mascot of the opposing team we play. These will adorn the roof of our car at the tailgate. We are very superstitious about bringing these to every game. We think they add luck and increase our chances of winning.
Today, we "dressed" our car with Penn State magnets. We used to do this when we owned a white car years ago and drove 185 miles to a home game from Easton, PA. For a while, we also brought them to away games. We always rented white cars from Avis so the magnets would stand out. But later we owned a red car, then a green one, and the magnets didn't look quite right. They adorned our refrigerator instead. And carrying magnets with us on airplanes became burdensome, so we stopped. But Avis always gives us a white car anyhow. It's in our record. They apologize when they don't have one.
This summer, we purchased a midnight blue car - Penn State navy blue. I had the magnets in mind when I convinced Terry to shy away from the red one he preferred. Besides, I didn't want us to drive a red car to Beaver Stadium for the Ohio State game!
So all 26 of the magnets we have collected over the years were positioned on our new car for the drive to Beaver Stadium. Terry thinks I'm crazy, but I will insist on it from now on. It turns heads as we drive down the street.
Finally, we're ready to go. There's a final check to make sure we really do have the tickets and parking in our possession. We leave for the stadium - 7 miles away on back roads. It takes about 15 minutes, 30 minutes if it's a big game.
We park behind the North End Zone in the shadow of the stadium. A pleasant grassy reserved parking lot with some very nice people around us. A mix of old people, younger people, and kids. We see them week after week during football season. Many of them have elaborate tailgates and tons of people who meet them there. And on a sunny day like today, everyone has a great time. It's a very family-oriented, pleasant environment where we park. Lots of kids throwing footballs, older people get into a game of "tailgate golf" or bean bags. It's easy to forget that the reason we're here is the game, especially on a sunny day like today.
We're always the first to pack up our tailgate and leave for the gates - that's one of the reason we keep our tailgate simple! About 75 minutes before the game Terry starts getting antsy. He wants to watch the pre-game warm-ups and be in the seats an hour before the game. I like to take lots of photos of the "scene" surrounding the stadium. I usually tell him I'll meet him in the seats and take pictures until the pre-game show.
In the stadium there are old friends. Terry has had the same seats for 31 years at Beaver Stadium. So has Larry, who sits right in front of us, and his son Darryl, who has had a few tours of duty in Afghanistan. I always breath a sigh of relief when I see him each fall. Dave and Sharon, old friends from Allentown, and Dave's sister Janet and her husband John, who make their annual trek up from Florida for the first game of every season. We have two extra tickets next to us that we use for guests. Today our guests were Ben and his friend. As a kid, Ben used to come to games with his father Mike, a former colleague of mine and a Penn State grad. We hadn't seen Ben for six years, and he is now a college graduate. His friend, a Tulane graduate, had never been to a Penn State game. He was awestruck.
So reunions - in the parking lot - in the stadium. Tailgate by tailgate, row by row, everyone reunites for yet another season and gathers for one purpose: to see Penn State win. We really are a family. And if you combine all these individual experiences together it's one BIG family. The 2009 Penn State White-Out T-Shirt says on the back, "Don't Be Intimidated. It's Just Me and 110,000 of my Friends". It's really true.
The first game of the season, on a perfect summer-like day. It doesn't get any better than this, especially when we win!