Last Word

The Tailgate


Dear Ellie,

We haven’t been officially introduced yet, but your grandparents, Pops and KK, have already been sending out photos that will embarrass the heck out of you someday. If you’ve spent much time around them, I’d wager a guess that you’ve heard more than a fair share about the letters A, S and U. And while those letters won’t mean much to you now, they are part of a story 35 years in the making—one you’re about to be a part of yourself.

In 1981, your Pops and KK had been married a couple of years. The three of us had met five or six years earlier at this place called Arkansas State University. Having kids, much less a granddaughter, was far from their minds. Probably what concerned them most at the time—specifically, Nov. 20, 1981—was our first spartan attempt at a tailgate. There was a little Budweiser hibachi, wieners, white-bread buns and beverages. My brother later said we were easy to find in the parking lot due to the 4-foot flame. And if we weren’t the only group tailgating outside Indian Stadium that night, we were awfully close.

In the years since, the Arkansas State University football team has had 10 head football coaches, gotten a new mascot and changed the stadium’s name and the color of its uniforms too many times to recall. Our group has remained steady over the years, though, and has even expanded. In 1981, our tailgaters were largely from Jonesboro, Memphis and Little Rock. The group has since scattered to places such as Columbia, Paducah, Springfield, Houston and Germantown, to name a few. Hair is thinner, waists thicker. We find ourselves accidentally meeting the 2016 standards of diversity. Male, female, black, white, straight, gay, somewhat young, old and older. We’ve even gone international with folks from Greece and Vietnam. We are a diverse group, but we are all Southerners when it comes to storytelling. We’ve told our stories so many times that just saying, “Remember the time …” and a name is usually enough to draw laughter. The truth is starting to fade a bit but was never that important anyway.

Every home game, then as now, your Pops unloads his carefully packed SUV in our corner of the parking lot. There are hugs, handshakes, good food, good stories. Hopefully, a win for the Red Wolves. The tailgate menu has seen the most change over the years. In 1981, it was hot dogs, likely burnt. Now, we chow down on such grub as omelets, gumbo, ribs and cedar-plank grilled salmon. Fancy. The whole gourmet experience. You’ll likely start off with baby food, but at least you’ll have something to look forward to.

Discussion is pretty much limited to football and life in general. Ex-wives, religion and politics are mostly avoided, which is likely one reason the group gets along so well. Politicians have dropped by the tailgate, but we don’t encourage their type. The port-a-potties are close by, so we see pretty much everybody, sooner or later.

As the years and decades have slipped by, there’ve been new faces—sometimes smaller faces. A new generation of tailgaters has grown up in the shadow of what is now Centennial Bank Stadium. Your Pops and KK were joined by your Uncle David in 1988 and your old man, Andrew, in 1990. David and Andrew and others brought friends with them to the tailgates. One of David and Andrew’s friends, currently a teacher in inner-city Memphis, still comes to the tailgate, even though he has no other connection to ASU. He even drags his girlfriend along. If you grow up strong and brave, as expected, you might bring a boyfriend to the tailgate someday. Not sure it’s advisable, though.

We’ve had some rough times as well, not all brought on by the team. Ailments have hit some, and the group has provided support. One member of our tailgate party missed an entire season of games because of a battle with cancer. He did rally to get to Mobile for the GoDaddy Bowl that year and caught a game ball thrown into the stands after the ASU victory. Some say it was a divine one-handed grab, others say the ball fell in his lap.

The years and events tend to blur a bit over time, but some things stick out. You’ll hear about that game in 2014 when Pops and KK hosted your mom and dad’s wedding party at the tailgate. Opening-day tailgating, Aug. 31. Weather a bit on the hot side? You bet! Former ASU head coach (and Dallas Cowboy scout) Larry Lacewell let everyone at the tailgate check out his Super Bowl ring. And of course, there’ll be this fall: Pops and KK will introduce you, Eleanor Packard Dawson, third-generation tailgater, born in May to Andrew and Emily, to the group. Uncle David will fly in from San Diego to join everyone at the tailgate. Did I mention Pops and KK might go a bit crazy over you? Be prepared.

Girl, you have so much to get caught up on. Like the time Pops broke into Wilson Hall via tunnels running underneath the campus (the statute of limitations has surely elapsed by now). You’ve got a lot to look forward to, too, and there are stories yet to be written—some you’ll probably star in.

By the way, on Nov. 20, 1981, they day of that first tailgate, the ASU Indians defeated the Tulsa Golden Hurricane 31-7, though nobody much remembers the score. The Budweiser hibachi is long gone, but the friendships remain. Welcome aboard.

David Pipkin is a graduate of ASU. He joined the other OTs (Original Tailgaters) and additions in welcoming Ellie Dawson to her first tailgate on Oct. 29.