Friends often ask me: What is it about sports? What makes an educated, literature- and music-loving person succumb each Saturday to the boozy lure of college football? Why is it that so many people come out to support the Hawkeyes?
They pose the question with a bit of wistfulness. If only those numbers would rally behind my candidate, my cause, my startup. Of all the things that can unite people across party lines, state lines and picket lines, why football?
I see their point. It’s probably a bit disheartening for folks who aren’t fans to see such a vast surge of humanity unite behind the single-minded goal of winning. But appearances can be deceiving. For most, winning is a bonus, not a necessity.
When large groups gather together socially, it can be tricky to navigate the conversational minefield of politics, hashtags, art, movies and TV shows. Supporting a team, however, is blissfully simple. I lived or went to school in X place, therefore I cheer for Y team. That’s math we can all calculate!
If any sports-related event is evidence that being a fan is more about togetherness than trophies, it’s the tailgate. I walked to Kinnick the day of the Iowa vs. Iowa State game to get some insights into this unique cultural phenomenon from the die-hards who do it every gameday.
First, I stopped by the EPB parking lot, where vehicles from Subaru to suburban crammed into every available space. Trunks were propped up by speakers, camping chairs were crouched in semi-circles and fierce bags battles raged in the narrow aisles between the spaces. A woman named Julie Ann Petersen, a.k.a “The Trumpet Lady,” stood at attention near a gorgeous gold sportscar, blaring an imperfect but enthusiastic Iowa Fight Song.
Julie, her husband Jeff and their adult children set up camp here on home-game Saturdays. “I graduated in ’72,” says Jeff, “and last year was my first year to miss a home opener due to being in surgery.” After 40-plus years of fandom, the couple love to reminisce about the good ol’ game days. “In the ’80s, you could sneak the trumpet into Kinnick. She’d help the band!” he laughs.
While the spirit of the EPB lot was festive, it was time to get closer to the action.
Next stop: Parking Ramp 4 of the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. Here, Randy (no last name given) and his family pay $20 a day to park in a covered space, sheltered from any storm.
“We left Des Moines at 4 a.m. to get this spot,” Randy explains. His setup is slightly more extravagant than the EPB lot; he’s got space for a long folding table, a propane grill and Jell-O shots. “Did you make those?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” he admits with a grin.
A group of college kids mills around the table, slugging beer and potato chips. “I have one son,” Randy says, pointing to a bleary-eyed student slouched low in a folding chair. “He’s the one back there in the PBR shirt.” I can’t think of another scenario where these words would be uttered with a tinge of parental pride.
The closer we get to Kinnick, the more grandiose the tailgating becomes. Pop-up tents lead to small campers, tricked-out vans, even bigger campers, buses, until we stumble upon the motherload — a shiny, black, full-size combine.
Looming over the parking lot, the combine sports two giant-screened televisions, a massive sound system, huge grill, swarms of hungry Hawk fans — and an owner with zero interest in speaking to the press. He won’t give me his name, saying that he doesn’t need or want publicity; he’s just doing this for the enjoyment of friends and family.
“He’s really busy making sure everybody’s having a good time,” one of his friends explains apologetically.
Further into the fray, we find another unique setup with a more loquacious host. The “Ferentz and Fry Funeral Home” hearse is a totally unique tailgating experience owned by ’01 UI graduate Paul Trovas.
“It’s the million-dollar idea that never paid,” Trovas explains. During a particularly festive gameday six or seven years back, he came up with a way to really get into the “spirit” of the season. After purchasing the ’85 hearse from a funeral home in Muscatine, a group of his friends constructed a 6-foot-long, wood-grained casket cooler jam-packed with what I can attest is the coldest beer around Kinnick. His prime parking spot was included in his season tickets, which run $415 for the general public.
To round out my survey of the wide Winnebago sea, I head north. Here, it’s hard to miss the 1998 Brave with an eye-catching vinyl wrap, owned by ’87 grad Mike Vonderhaar.
“It’s supposed to look like the RV is breaking through the walls of Kinnick Stadium. It’s really obnoxious — but that’s what you do when you come to Iowa City.”
For the better part of 15 years, Vonderhaar has hosted up to 100 extended family and friends in his Northside spot. “My wife’s the youngest in a family of 10, and I’ve got three brother and sisters, so we just invite the whole family to come up and have fun.”
For away games, Vonderhaar is even known to park his rig in his own driveway and tell the neighbors to come on over.
Another Northsider, Michael Stockdale, has a living-room-style tent setup that hosts 40-50 friends and family each home game.
“We used to tailgate next to the stadium,” Stockdale says, “but they made a rule four or five years ago that you couldn’t have tents. Well, we needed a tent for our 50-inch TV and surround sound!”
Of course you did, Mike.
Along with bags tournaments, Stockdale’s tailgate boasts a buffet of pork chops, beef and chicken skewers, bacon-wrapped smokies, sausages and shrimp. His grillmaster hails from the Husker state, but Stockdale made it worth the trip by purchasing a $1,000 stainless-steel Weber grill for him to use on game days.
“I figure if you’re driving from Omaha to grill for me, you’re gonna have the best goddamn grill I can offer ya,” he laughs.
It’s become more and more apparent throughout the day that these tailgates don’t exactly come together easily. They require tons of work, planning, money and commitment. The men and women I chatted with that sunny Saturday didn’t offer much in the way of deep, existential thoughts on why it’s worth the trouble. In fact, I got a whole lot of blank looks when I posed the question, “Why go to this extreme, spend this kind of time and money, on a parking lot party in support of a sports team?”
But there was one constant for everyone I spoke to that Saturday: Setting up a wicked tailgate party isn’t about notoriety or recognition. Heck, it’s barely even about the game (some admitted that they don’t always make it into the stadium). What it’s really all about is bringing friends and family together for what may be the one cause everyone can agree on: Go Hawks.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 251.