Why We Love Philly: Tailgating Eagles Games at Lincoln Financial Field
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.”