Saturday, September 06, 2008

Rise and Shine | by Jay

I've recently relocated from Chicago to the west coast, and today, this first day of the new season, is a tad bittersweet for me: I won't be tailgating nearly as much as I used to. Chicago is such an easy commute to campus, and over the past five years I don't think we missed more than a handful of home games. The alarm would go off at 5am, but on most days, I was already awake, looking forward to a day of feasting and football.

We'd shake the friends from out of town who were sleeping on our couch, and pile into the van we'd loaded the night before after the trip to Costco. Rolling east, the sun coming up over Lake Michigan, we'd take Lake Shore Drive past Soldier Field, south through Hyde Park and onto the Stoney Island parkway, picking up the Skyway and heading on into Indiana. Our first stop in South Bend was always Martin's, where we'd load up on ice and pick up the tin of fried chicken we'd ordered the day before.

We'd hit the stadium lot around seven-thirty -- early, sure, but it always made me smile to see the handful of really early folks who by the time we rolled in had already set up and were enjoying their Bloody Marys. These guys are the real pros: pockets of old friends, people from LaPorte and Goshen and Elkhart, who have been doing this tailgating thing for decades, gathering in the same spot year after year.

We'd coast across the empty lot, the dark skies retreating, yellow-vested ushers just arriving with their steel thermoses of coffee, maintenance trucks dropping off cardboard trash bins, and we'd pick out a good spot. ("Same place as usual, Jay?" would be the question leading up all week. "That's what we're shooting for.") We'd back into the spot, throw open the van door, set up the table and plunk down the coffee. Then I'd gently unscrew the cap from the Bailey's, and pour the first coffee and cream of the day. This is what it's like to wake up with the birds.

We'd turn on the music. Set up the chairs, the tent, the table. Ice down the beer and soda. My favorite part of the day, before kickoff, came next: breakfast. Over the past couple of years we perfected a delcious and easy grill-top breakfast burrito (brown some ground sausage and onions in a pan set on the grill, mix in some whisked eggs to scramble, heat up tortillas right over the flame, and serve with sour cream, grated cheese, salsa and guac. Your friends will think you're a master tailgating chef). Friends and family who'd driven separately would begin to show up, and by 9am we'd have a core group of about a dozen regulars muching burritos and mixing up their Bloodies. The parking lot isn't even half-full yet.

Around eleven-thirty or twelve we'd hit our stride. Forty or fifty people by now, you'd ditch your Bloody for a beer, and it'd be time to transition to lunch to feed the hungy masses. Rip open packages of brats and hot dogs from the Vienna Beef store, and a pan of grilled peppers and onions on the side, toast the buns if a spot opens. The grill is working overtime. It's bright and sunny (we've had unusually good weather for home games over the past several years, even late in the season), and the lot is packed and campus is teeming. Late-comers with stadium lot passes would try to wedge their cars into open spaces, and we'd laugh: where the hell have you been?

I'd pull myself away from the grill to visit with folks, and this, really is the best deal about a ND home weekend: each game is like a mini-reunion. Most people from out of town will fly in for a game a year, and hook up with a few old friends. But the beauty of living in Chicago, within an easy drive: you get to go every weekend, and you get to see everybody. I've seen more of my far-flung ND friends over the past years than I ever did while I lived further away. This is the reason we set the alarm so early, this is the reason we prepare and shop and set everything up, this is why we tailgate, and this is what I'll miss most of all.

Then suddenly-- crap! It's a half-hour to kickoff! All at once, the leisurely day turns into a mad scramble. Turn off the grill! Break down the tables! Throw open the van and toss everything inside! Hand out the tickets, grab one for the road, and start heading towards the stadium. It's game day, we've been up since the crack of dawn, and now, it's time for some football.