On Saturday morning, thousands of people and their vehicles will pour into downtown Lincoln parking lots, staking out spaces for the renewal of an annual ritual — a festival-like gathering of the tribes to celebrate and prepare for an event with food, music, and very often beer.

That event, of course, is the first Nebraska football game of the 2018 season, and the gathering and celebration is known as tailgating — for reasons we’ll see shortly.

Tailgating isn’t one of those hallowed traditions just Husker fans cling to. It's far from unique to Lincoln. More than 70 million people take part in tailgating before hundreds of NFL and college football games each year.

That number, according to a University of Minnesota study, represents about about 18 percent of all ticket-holding fans. But tens of thousands will turn up for the tailgating and never enter the stadium.

Surveys have placed the number of those who tailgate but don’t go to the game at a minimum of 10 percent, more likely 25 percent and in some cases, nearly 50 percent of the tailgating total.

Many of them remain in the parking lots watching on televisions or go to nearby bars to catch the telecast of the game.

The latter is a function of the last 30 years of tailgating, and particularly the last decade, when every game of a Power Five conference school, like Nebraska, is televised and satellite packages are available to bring the broadcasts to parking lots via ever-more-elaborate television setups.

But it certainly wasn’t possible when tailgating got its start — likely in 1906 at Yale University, but perhaps even earlier.

Notre Dame anthropologists Tonya Williams Bradford and John F. Sherry Jr., who did a 2015 study of tailgating behavior, link tailgating to ancient Roman celebrations called “Vestival,” annual fall gatherings of widespread communities to commemorate the harvest and the coming of winter.

That might be a bit of a stretch. But in late 18th century France, a macabre tradition very much like tailgating emerged. Thousands would bring lunches (and plenty to drink) to public squares to prepare to witness executions, sometimes by guillotine.

And in the U.S. during the Civil War, there was an actual tailgate-like gathering. Here’s how American Heritage magazine described it in a 2005 article titled “Tailgating: The History":

“Consider the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Enthusiastic Union supporters from the Washington, D.C., area arrived with baskets of food and shouts of 'Go Big Blue!' to watch the opening battle in America’s Civil War.

“Historians generally agree this was a case of the right idea at the wrong time, war not being a spectator sport. Still, for those who attended, there was socializing and tradition, tension and excitement. And on that day there was even precedent set for future upsets by Southern teams against their Northern opponents.

“Most important, the incident effectively established definite boundaries and regional differences in tailgating traditions. Clearly, the idea appealed to hungry partisan supporters. They simply needed another eight years for a more limited field of battle to be created.”

Eight years later, the limited field of battle was the first college football game, the 1869 contest between Rutgers and Princeton.

Even if those who attended brought picnics, until the early 20th century, one critical element of tailgating would have been missing from the gatherings — the automobile.

By 1905, there were about 78,000 automobiles in the U.S., most of them manufactured in the Northeast and owned by the wealthy, including Yale and Harvard alumni.

When the Bulldogs and Crimson met at the Yale Bowl in 1906, a good percentage of the nation’s cars were driven to New Haven, Connecticut. “The open fields about the grounds were simply black with machines parked together in such a hopeless mass as to make it seem impossible for one ever to find his own once more,” The New York Times reported at the time.

The Yale Alumni Magazine, drawing on the research of football historian Thomas Bergin, told the tailgating story like this:

“It was at the Harvard game that tailgating was first recorded, though it was not yet called by that name. Thousands of spectators took the train to New Haven for the two o’clock game, and many had to walk to the field.

“Few were able to get luncheon on the way, and these gazed with envious eyes as they neared the field at small parties of automobilists eating tempting viands that had been brought in hampers spread out in picnic fashion on a table cloth laid upon the ground.”

Some of the tailgaters shared their picnics with the train riders, and a tradition was born.

Within a few years, tailgating had come to Nebraska.

"I know that in the '20s, when Ed Weir was playing, there were special trains coming in from Superior," said Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock. "Nebraska had enough cache in those days there were trains coming from Denver, Kansas City and Iowa. I'm sure they tailgated. But they didn't call it that."

Tailgating wasn’t called tailgating for decades. It took the invention of the station wagon in the 1930s for tailgates to come into being.

And the “parking lot picnics” didn’t get the name tailgating until the 1950s, the era of land yachts like the Ford Country Squire, Chevy Suburban and Chrysler Town & Country.

By then, tailgating was still going strong in Lincoln, even though passion for Husker football dropped between 1941 and the arrival of coach Bob Devaney two decades later.

"World War II put a damper on it and it never recovered from that until Devaney in the '60s," Babcock said. 

In 1995, writer Joe Starita and photographer Tom Tidball found Norm Smith in one of the parking lots northeast of Memorial Stadium the morning before a game.

Smith had been driving to games since 1950 when he lived in Ogallala, a 550-mile road trip. In the same lot they found Tom Hilt and Bob Cole, who came from Omaha in an RV, pulling out grills for some pregame eating then watching other college games on the RV’s color television.

Canvassing the parking lots before the game, Starita and Tidball found dozens of fans, enjoying their tailgating experience, whether tossing a football or imbibing some morning Bloody Marys, which wouldn’t have been entirely legal on university property.

What Starita and Tidball found for their book, "The Fans of Memorial Stadium,” has grown over the last two decades, filling more and more lots with ever-more elaborate vehicles and cooking setups.

More than half of tailgaters arrive at least three to four hours before a game, some as many as six hours prior. National surveys show that tailgaters are regular — 47 percent tailgate six to 10 times a year and 15 percent hit 11 to 15 tailgates. Most return to the same spots, game after game, year after year.

As far as investments go, a 2005 survey found that tailgaters spent an average of $500 on food and drink each season. Factoring in inflation, that number is now $625. 

And the vehicles, well, they can get ridiculous. For a mere $200,000, Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s Mercedes-Benz dealership will sell you a limited edition, custom-made tailgate partymobile.

Wonder if it comes in Husker red?

Gameday in Nebraska through history

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


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