As you may or may not know, when the Fighting Illini host a home football game, tens of thousands of Illini fans descend upon the parking lots surrounding Memorial Stadium. They arrive heavily equipped with their grills, tents, lawn chairs and beer in order to eat, drink, shout, laugh, socialize, play games and eventually, if they haven’t gotten too drunk to walk, attend the game.
The parking lots open at 7:00 a.m. regardless of when the game starts. This past Saturday, October 18, the game against Indiana started at 7:00 p.m. This gave the diehard tailgaters a full twelve hours to accomplish their frivolity.
I have had many opportunities to observe the tailgaters and have never been disappointed in the entertainment they provide. One of my favorite tailgating performances from last year was when it poured rain during most of the day turning the parking lots into a sloppy mud pit. But this did not dampen the spirit of the tailgaters, some of whom took full advantage of the weather by stripping down to their underwear and sliding on their beer-filled bellies in the muck.
At the most recent game, I saw a tailgater in a gorilla costume climb onto the roof of a nearby building and do a delightful drunken dance until the police arrived to escort him away.
But perhaps the oddest tailgating phenomenon that I have observed is the folks who don’t even attend the game. They come with their big screen TVs and dish antennas so that they can continue to tailgate as they watch the game on television even though it is happening live only a block away.
What is it about the power of tailgating that would make people not even leave the parking lot in order to attend the game?
I think, for many, the tailgating experience is not just drunken revelry. It is an honest-to-goodness spiritual experience that manifests itself not just on gamedays but in other forms as well. Anywhere there are masses of people gathered outside, tents, food, drinking and fun, the Spirit of Tailgating is there.
It can be found in June at the Taste of Champaign, in August at the Urbana Sweetcorn festival, and every Saturday morning at the Farmers’ Market at Lincoln Square Mall. It happens in September at the Apple and Pork Festival in Clinton and at the myriad of other festivals held in little towns throughout Illinois. It was present a hundred years ago in the Chatauqua Movement and earlier in the religious Campmeetings of the frontier.
And I believe the tailgating spirit was present even two thousand years ago among the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus preach. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, I am sure there was lots of eating, drinking and silly stuff happening among the crowd.
Tailgating has been around forever.
So next time you’re at an Illini game and you see a drunk in a gorilla costume, remember, he might actually be communing with God.