There are a lot of traditions in the South that continue for generations. Nothing makes southerners happier than carrying on something their parents did before them and their children will likely do later. Nowhere is this more true than in parking lots outside football stadiums throughout the South in the fall. That is where the word tailgate is transferred from a noun to a verb, where it goes from a vehicle part to an outright celebration.
It was when we moved from the western part of the state to the Triangle region with its rabid college sports atmosphere that I was introduced to exactly what tailgating at college football games is all about. That first game was between N.C. State and East Carolina, my future alma mater.
At the tender age of 8, I was introduced to parking lot football, strange odors coming from strangely rolled cigarettes and a whole new vocabulary of four-letter words.
I experienced some of the best grilling I had seen up to that time.
It was there, for the first time, I witnessed some unnatural things being done with alcohol.
My next tailgate experiences also involved East Carolina, this time as a naive and somewhat innocent 18-year-old kid from Harnett County enrolled for my freshman year of college.
Funny thing, I smelled those weeds again and saw more unusual alcohol activities. There was great food and lots of great fun. There are some of those tailgate celebrations that remain right where they should be, in the past, but those celebrations were a good part of a very good part of my life.
Fast forward 30 years, to my most recent tailgate experience, last weekend in Raleigh. I will say first that I bleed Wolfpack red. No one pulls harder for the Pack unless they are playing my alma mater.
I only chose East Carolina over N.C. State because, well, N.C. State chose not to accept me based on my not-so-stellar performance at Triton High School. That was divine providence because I wouldn’t trade my experiences in Greenville for anything.
Despite my affection for N.C. State, I have to wonder how a school full of engineering students came up with the parking plan in place in west Raleigh this year. Carter Finley Stadium seats 57,583 loyal Wolfpack fans. It seems those in charge this year planned only how to get half that number into the stadium.
Lines for buses were close to an hour prior to the game. Following the action, the situation was equally as dire as we waited in long lines again for buses, this time with a thunderstorm looming.
A quick call to Uber and a ride in the back of a pickup truck are all that kept us from being nearly drowned by what I would call a Noah-like flood. At one point, I swear, the Wolfpack mascots, Mr. and Mrs. Wuf, joined other pairs of animals waiting in line for the ark to float by.
There had to be a tint of sarcasm in the voice of a stadium announcer who urged spectators to “evacuate the stadium as soon as possible” because of pending lightning. Did he really think we had a desire to stand there near soaring metal bleachers in the middle of a North Carolina thunderstorm in August?
Did he really think we had nothing better to do than to stand amongst other heat-drained, sweat-soaked football fans as precious weekend hours drifted away?
Apparently, the need for student housing at North Carolina State is more pressing than athletic parking spaces. Former tailgating locations are now construction sites. Parking lots for football games are in the process of becoming parking spaces for apartment residents.
Despite what I would call a poor crowd-control plan, it was a good day.
Our grill was lit at a family member’s home, and activities were in a backyard instead of a grass parking lot, but there was still outstanding food and a good football game.
I only wish I could have tailgated this past weekend when ECU battled a certain school in Chapel Hill. As I type these words I don’t know the outcome of that game, but for the sake of the future, I will say go Pirates!
Tom Woerner is a reporter with The Daily Record. Reach him at 910-230-2038 or firstname.lastname@example.org.