My own tailgating expertise is based purely on longevity—no custom-painted buses or food more impressive than burgers on a hibachi or a sack of hoagies from Wawa. (As Nick might say, I’m still a rookie.) I’ve grilled and imbibed in honor of all four teams, but it’s Eagles game days that resonate most. There was the time I road-tripped with my cousin Bill and his Northeast gang to see a playoff showdown at the Meadowlands, the sausage sandwiches tasting of lighter-fluid marinade. As I walked down Pattison Avenue another Sunday with my high-school pal Yabo, he tried tossing an empty beer can over a fence into the trash, but it landed near a group of opposing fans, including a little kid in a Raiders jersey. Seven years later, he’s still troubled that those out-of-towners thought he was aiming for their kid, feeding the Neanderthal reputation of Philly sports fans. While the box scores from many of my tailgating days have long since faded, it’s the snapshots of time spent with family, friends and good—if not gourmet—food that still remain in crisp focus.
Like football, tailgating consists of three periods: pregame, game and post-game. As you might expect, the pregame is the most hopping. But while you might also expect the parking lots to be nearly empty come kickoff, outside the Linc on my tour, there’s still a swirl of activity.
With the Eagles nursing a 7-6 lead against the lowly Detroit Lions, I wander over to the site of the old Spectrum, where Xfinity Live is now part of the party landscape. More of my most cherished sports memories drift by. There was the NFC Championship game for which my cousin’s pal bought tickets from a scalper in the parking lot. About 15 minutes later, we noticed the edges of the Verizon logos on the back were bleeding out. The date on the front was wrong. They were bogus.
The next hour was all beer, stress and strategy. Do we try to find more tickets? Retreat to a bar so we don’t miss any action? As it was a time before barcode scanners, we rolled the dice and pledged solidarity—if one guy didn’t get in, none of us would. I ended up last in line, watching as, one by one, Bill and our buddies approached the guard, who ripped tickets and let them through. As she took mine in hand, time slowed to a crawl. She flipped it over, and there was the shitty knockoff Verizon insignia. I figured I’d been made. The guard bent it, tore off the edge, and said, “Go Eagles.” As we high-fived and bounded up the concrete ramp, I felt like I’d won the lottery.
The euphoria didn’t last long. That was 2003 against Tampa Bay, the most soul-crushing defeat I’ve seen, as 65,000 fans filed out afterward in stunned silence. Over the years, it’s that tailgate story we retell, not the details of the loss. I still have that ticket stub. “Some of the games aren’t fun,” says the sage known as Bird Head. “The tailgate is always fun.”
Warmed by the sun and the wisdom of the Zubaz Brothers, I hear a truck loaded with concert-quality speakers blasting Merrill Reese’s play-by-play. Nearby screens show the waning seconds of the first half; cheers rise from inside the Linc. Standing by myself for a moment, I don’t feel at all alone.
“I am a season-ticket holder, but I’m tired of rooting for the Eagles. They using us!”
Megaphone Man is seated conveniently near an open gate in Lot F off 11th Street, perfect for greeting the miserable crowd that’s trudging back en masse, heads hung low and voices raised in disgust, after an ugly overtime collapse. He looks to be in his mid-50s, clad in a black-and-green Eagles track suit, and preaching into his bullhorn from a metal folding chair stationed outside his group’s midnight green bus.
“Can I get an amen?” yells a guy in a Maclin jersey.
“Amen, brother!” hollers Megaphone Man. “I’m tired of this bullshit! It’s a damn shame, y’all.” He notices a mother passing by with her young daughter in tow. “I’m sorry, I ain’t supposed to curse. But goddamn!”
The game’s anticlimax seems to have put a slight damper on the tailgate’s third act. Only two members of the Beast’s crew wander back; Fitti had to leave early for his shift at a downtown restaurant (but not before promising me a roster spot in Shotgun Shotgun for the next home game). The Chef’s posse, which usually relaxes after the game and lets the traffic thin out, is nowhere to be found. A few feet from their site, a tailgater I’ve dubbed Alan from Collegeville (probably because his name is Alan and he’s from Collegeville) is among the last men standing. He’s watching the four o’clock contests on a giant flat-screen affixed to his RV—an eBay purchase that required a flight to Ohio for pickup. The 55-year-old remembers parking-lot fires and donnybrooks from the Vet days, and admits there was a time when his three kids knew not to talk to him after an Eagles loss. Surrounded by them, his wife and his neighbors, Alan sees things differently now. “Being a part of this,” he says of his family and friends enjoying some late-day grilling, “the game is almost secondary.”
Almost. Tailgating binds rabid fans together in a unique quasi-shared party at every home game, but in the end, it does little to erase the lasting sting of a loss (particularly one in O.T. to the Lions). What makes tailgating for the Eagles so special—there are limited opportunities to do it—also makes it all the more depressing when the team lets us down. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The games mean a lot, so by extension, win or lose, the tailgating means a lot. To all of us.
As dusk descends on the sports complex, I see that Alan still has plenty of company. A young brunette in a kelly green Cunningham jersey throws a football to some friends nearby; a few dudes play a competitive round of washers, and two other crews—one young, one old—are huddled together, downing their last cans of beer. Scenes like this play out at NFL stadiums across the country. But the characters who define tailgating in this city—their photographs and drinking games and rituals and striped pants, both ironic and sincere—are strictly of this place. Take it from Cholly, who’s cheered for the Eagles everywhere from San Francisco to Detroit to Tampa, and most points in between. “Everybody tailgates,” he says, “but you can’t beat Philly.