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Why a tailgate represents the ultimate moment of optimism on game day

Excitement and belief in your team builds up over BBQ, drinks and snacks as you prepare to walk into the stadium for kickoff.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With NFL training camp in full swing and preseason games kicking off, we are now mere weeks away from yet another glorious football season. Soon fans will descend upon stadiums by the thousands, ready to cheer on their favorite team as they embark on a quest for the prestigious Lombardi Trophy.

While the game itself is almost always the main attraction, I wanted to take some time to talk about the quintessential game-before-the-game. I am of course talking about the tailgate.

The name is derived from the open end of a vehicle that is generally serves as the main point of congregation for a group of fans as they gather together in pre game festivities, sometimes even as the main attraction depending on wether or not they have tickets. Of course, now there are countless tailgate setups that don’t involve a flatbed truck, ranging from huge RVs to fans wheeling on coolers on foot.

There are a number of things that make tailgating such a cherished tradition, but the greatest aspect of it is the ultimate moment of optimism on game day. When you pull up hours before kickoff to indulge in food, drinks, games, or whatever your preference may be, you are still in a state of bliss and belief that no matter how much the odds might be stacked against you, your team still has a chance to win.

In that period, even the biggest underdog can convince themselves “why not us?” and the gradual build up of excitement and belief in their team that cultivates during a pregame tailgate directly carries over as they close up shop and enter the stadium ready for kickoff.

There is a palpable level of energy that is created when that genuine state of enthusiasm is forged over hours of fraternizing with fellow fans. The social aspect is a major plus as well, as the most die hard tailgaters will generally have a setup that welcomes fellow fans — and even those from the opposing team — with open arms while enjoying the pre-game festivities before the main event.

In Santa Clara for example, there is a group of 49ers fans who set up a row of tents in the parking lot of Levi’s Stadium before every single home game. They not only set up a full bar with any kind of drink you can think of, but also a full taco bar with meat being grilled fresh and on a flat top. The coolest part about this operation is that they do not charge for any of the amenities offered, rather everything is on a volunteered donation system. I’ve always admired that set up because it welcomes fans from all walks of life, and doesn’t exclude those who may not have the financial flexibility to create a set up of their own like this.

It creates a sense of community and togetherness, which in my opinion is the greatest single thing about professional sports. There is something so beautiful about meeting a group of total strangers in a parking lot hours before kickoff, and feeling like you’ve made a lifelong friend as you embark together into the stadium for the main attraction.

So many of these friendships begin with the slightest of gestures during a tailgate, wether it’s offering up a beer out of the cooler, a hot dog off the grill, or even exchanging in a quick game of catch while throwing the pigskin around the parking lot.

Here are a few things I would recommend having for anyone tailgating for the first time this season:

  • Somewhere to sit. Foldable chairs, the tailgate of a truck, the bumper with the trunk open. Heck, I’ve even seen people bring their living room furniture. It doesn’t matter what you decide to bring, but make sure you have somewhere comfortable to park yourself as well as your vehicle.
  • Get there early. If you truly want to enjoy the tailgating experience, make sure you get to your intended destination with plenty of time to spare. This is supposed to be a leisurely activity, and the last thing you want to do is go into a football game on your last nerves because you spent the last hour and a half sitting in traffic and looking for a parking space.
  • Food. Everybody gets hungry at some point, and you’re better off bringing your own food rather than being at the mercy of the concession stand inside the stadium once the game starts. When I used to tailgate at Candlestick Park, my dad and I would always go to the Tower Deli on 3rd street. Looking back on it, those pre game trips to the deli left me with some of the happiest moments of my life with someone who I cherish greatly.
  • A barbecue. Some of the best burgers, hot dogs, chicken, etc. I have ever had have come off the grill of a little smokey joe charcoal barbecue in the parking lot of Candlestick Park. While stopping at a store, a deli, or making your own food at home is always a good option too, nothing completes a tailgate quite like some good BBQ.
  • Drinks. The majority of people attending a football game are going to be drinking an alcoholic beverage at some point throughout the day, and just like with the food, you’re better off filling up your own cooler rather than being at the mercy of the concession stand prices inside. Get a little bit of something for everyone, variety is the spice of life after all. Load up a cooler with some beers, seltzers, wine, heck even a bottle of your favorite liquor for those lucky pre-game shots. Also always make sure there are non alcoholic beverages like soda, juice, etc. available to those who don’t drink alcohol, and more importantly than anything make sure you have a designated driver who won’t be drinking and who can drive everyone back home safely.
  • Music. No good tailgate is complete without music. Bring a speaker, radio, boombox or whatever your preferred vessel for audio entertainment may be. Nothing gets a tailgate going like some good music to set the mood and get everyone fired up for the day.
  • Entertainment. You’re going to have some time to kill, so you should always have some things on deck to help pass the time before kickoff. The more traditional items are things include things like a corn hole setup, a football to throw around, and a table for beer pong. If you are on the west coast, I would recommend bringing a device that allows you to watch or stream any of the games that kickoff at 10 a.m. PT.
  • Good people. You can have all of the things listed above, but if you don’t have good people to share it with then what is the point? Football Sundays are supposed to be the ultimate leisure day, and you should always prioritize spending that time with people you enjoy, wether it be old friends, or ones you befriend for the first time during the tailgate.
  • Be welcoming. Extend an open arm to your neighbor. Offer them a cold beer out of your cooler, or a seat in one of your foldable chairs. Some of the greatest bonds among fans can be sparked with a simple gesture like that, and it only further increases the great sense of community among sports fans.

Now let’s talk about some things you should not bring to the tailgate.

  • Bad vibes and negativity. This is the only thing I am including on the “don’t bring list.” People who show up to an empty parking lot four hours before kickoff don’t do it because they want to have a bad time. They are there to have fun, so don’t be the person bringing everyone down with your negativity. If you aren’t capable of withholding your own negativity, pessimism, etc., don’t even bother showing up. There are plenty of other things that fall under the “don’t bring” category as well, but most of those are common sense, and if you’re old enough to host or attend a tailgate on your own, you shouldn’t have to be told these things