I’m standing in a parking lot across from Lincoln Financial Field, juggling a can of Miller Lite and my notebook, as 50 Cent teaches me the finer points of Shotgun Shotgun. This Fiddy isn’t the bullet-scarred rapper—he’s “Fitti,” a lanky 20-something member of Beast Tailgating, a dedicated gang of buddies who have taken the time-honored tradition of celebrating before (and during, and after) Eagles games to what is truly a new level. The sun hasn’t been up long, but Fitti, along with the Beast’s ringleader, Rob, a 30-year-old marketing executive, and their merry band, have already had a full morning. (One of the many Beast “core values” states that “your tailgate should be equal to or longer than your work day.”) Last year, the drive train on their RV (personalized license plate: FLIPCUP) fell out on Ridge Avenue; the new transmission cost $56 more than the entire vehicle. But the old girl has made it from Lafayette Hill to South Philly once again. “Unmemorable Greg” is on the lookout for bootleg t-shirts to add to his collection; a young blonde known as Roadhouse keeps the guys away from “questionable women”—a skank bouncer, of sorts. Her boyfriend Steve, a.k.a. Director of Sanitation, wears a kelly green track jacket embroidered with “Beast Tailgating Twenty Twelve” and a unicorn that is, for lack of a more delicate phrase, pissing out the word “Excellence.” I know a little something about tailgating. But as I roam the lots, I learn that the ecosystem that thrives outside the Linc on game day is far more complex than I’d realized. For some, the pregame ritual is a bacchanal of getting hammered on cheap beer and scarfing burgers and hoagies to save money on concessions. But what really stays with you is the cast of characters—artists, networking businessfolk, comedians, historians, philosophers, proselytes. For them, football is secondary to the blacktop theater that unfolds around it, a sport unto itself.
Which brings us back to Shotgun Shotgun. Two teams line up single file with full beer cans between each player’s legs. The captain pounds a brew, then hikes the unopened can between his knees to the next chugger. First team finished wins. Ever the philosopher, Rob says he sees tailgating as an antidote for the detached socialization of the technology age. “This brings family and friends together,” he says. Plus, since the Beast was officially founded four years ago, he adds, “Nobody has contracted hepatitis.”
The history of tailgating is curiously undefined, perhaps because those charged with record-keeping passed out early. Some point to its origins in collegiate football, dating back to the first intra-school game between Rutgers and Princeton. Others trace it to the early 1900s in frigid cities like Green Bay, where fans huddle around bonfires in parking lots to stay warm. What’s not in dispute is tailgating as a distinctly American pastime. Other cities have had more reasons to celebrate winning teams, and their throwdowns can be more sophisticated affairs (a spread of California rolls and Kumamoto oysters out West, perhaps). But nowhere in the country is tailgating more of a binding agent for a broader swath of fans than here. It’s a thread woven through our cultural fabric and pulled tight, a tradition every bit as important as weekends at the Shore. In the shadow of the Linc, co-workers leave shop talk behind; neighbors bond over more than borrowing a weed whacker. Family squabbles are buried in long afternoons. For a few hours, the only concerns are the final score and grilling those ground-chuck patties just right—and not necessarily in that order.
In Philadelphia, city of underdogs, it’s fitting that football—the
sport that hasn’t seen a championship since 1960—is still the sun around which the tailgating universe revolves. That’s largely due to the nature of the NFL, with games on weekends and short seasons that give each contest life-or-death significance. There’s a tribal element at play as well, a legacy that reaches back decades and is handed down from father to son and mother to daughter. We celebrate the biggest team with the biggest party, and uphold traditions that span generations, much as college towns do on game days. Of the sports altars at which we worship, football is seated upon high. Sundays here are for the Birds.
If anyone is qualified for the title of Philly’s tailgating historian, it’s 73-year-old Charles “Cholly” Garuffe, the last surviving member of what might be the city’s first—and certainly its most venerated—tailgating gang. Cholly’s bona fides are unimpeachable: first game at Shibe Park with his father in 1949, bought a school bus to take his pals to the brand-new Veterans Stadium in 1971, then retired it by placing it on top of his building, the Paintarama shop at the corner of Torresdale and Harbison in Bridesburg. “I’ve been through the bad years, the good years,” he says. “We always follow the Eagles. Even when they’re bad, everyone goes.”
Now, it’s Cholly’s 42-year-old son, Chaz, who drives the bus, version 3.0, to its coveted patch of grass near the Linc’s VIP entrance and the I-95 overpass. The crew meets at the original Chickie’s and Pete’s on Robbins Avenue (owner Pete Ciarrocchi is a longtime member of Cholly’s gang; a caricature of his wife Lisa, an ex-Eagles cheerleader, is painted on the side of the bus) and departs promptly at 11 a.m. on game days. Framed photographs spanning decades of tailgates line the interior walls, and proof of the changing times hangs in the latrine—for a while, there was a plaque honoring the first woman to pee on the Eagles bus. On the way to the Super Bowl in New Orleans in 1981, the pigskin chariot broke down. No matter. The guys not only made it to the game, but ended up on sleeping on a yacht along the Mississippi River.
“This is our church,” Chaz says. “You see all the pictures … this is third-generation. Those guys were on before I came on, and now I’m driving the bus and these guys bring their sons.”
I wander a bit and find myself around the corner in Lot K, in front of the Linc near Pattison Avenue. Here, food is the focus, as Chef Downey from Cape May cooks up a rack of barbecued ribs on a full-size professional grill. A few years ago, his friend Nick was a stranger with a modest tailgate nearby; then Chef and his buddy John took pity on Nick’s sub-par sausage sandwiches and invited him over. Now this South Jersey trio and their extended families are united as much by the day’s menu as football: steak and eggs in the mornings for early games, rib eyes and ribs for afternoons, and always crabcakes. They’ve been here since 6 a.m., when the gates opened, and waited in a long line of trucks and RVs to secure their usual location. Vehicles in the rear often send someone on foot to run ahead and stake out territory, like human lawn chairs reserving parking spaces. “The key,” Nick says, “is the spot. If you keep changing spots, then you’re a rookie.”
In a physical and mental place far away, east of the Linc in the old Jetro lots, I meet the Zubaz Brothers, two pals who share a love of regrettable trends from the late ’80s/early ’90s, including their namesake multicolor zebra-stripe pants, white Reebok high-tops and matching Eagles fanny packs. I ask Jason, a 32-year-old radio producer a.k.a. Bird Head—in the Oz-like world of tailgating, everyone has a nickname—if his man-purse is problematic when they head inside for the games. “I like security to go deep in my fanny,” he says. His partner in crime, Glen “Mullet Man,” a contractor from Huntingdon Valley, fills a blue Solo cup with ice and pours me his “Eagles Punch,” a heady mix of apple juice, fresh fruit, ginger brandy, Canadian Club whiskey and Jack’s Hard Cider (“a local brewer,” he notes). It’s basically a liquid blackout.
The Zubaz Brothers have joined forces over the years with a group of neighboring air traffic controllers, one of whom, Rick from West Chester, is wearing a Pabst Blue Ribbon jersey and is here with his 24-year-old son. He echoes a theme I hear throughout the day—that today’s tailgates, especially for early games, aren’t the free-for-alls of years past. “Back at the Vet, there were fights,” Rick says—fights inside the stadium, fights across lots. “Now, the worst you get is an ‘asshole’ chant when someone’s wearing a different jersey.” As his son chomps on a stogie, Rick says the experience has strengthened their relationship: “When I communicate with my son, we’re guys—we grunt at each other. We can bond here.”
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.