Football Tailgating: How Newtown's Community Does It

Published: November 24, 2017 at 12:00 am


Eric Phaneuf cooks during a tailgate event at the Yale-Harvard game. Mr Phaneuf attended with friends, including Steve George, a Newtown High football coach. (Steve George photo)
Eric Phaneuf cooks during a tailgate event at the Yale-Harvard game. Mr Phaneuf attended with friends, including Steve George, a Newtown High football coach. (Steve George photo)

Football and feasting come together, as evidenced by Thanksgiving tradition every year, but food and the game of pigskins go hand-in-hand throughout the fall and early winter.

Tailgating is a popular activity for football enthusiasts attending professional, collegiate, and even high school games.

So how long has tailgating been a tradition?

"The modern tailgate likely has its roots in college football, first played at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869," according to American Heritage's 2005 article "Tailgating: The History."

The article also reads: "The advent of the automobile led to the democratization of prefootball partying, and the post-World War II popularity of station wagons provided both a name and a platform for the burgeoning practice. During the 1980s and 1990s tailgating took on a life of its own and turned into a social movement of sorts."

According to a November 5, 2014, National Geographic article "The History of Tailgating," as part of publication's column "The Plate - Serving Daily Discussions On Food," tailgating goes back to late in the 19th Century.

"For many in modern times, football - or less commonly baseball, lacrosse, soccer, or rugby - has become incidental to the food party. One report found that as many as 35 percent of tailgaters never attend the game inside the stadium," the National Geographic article reads.

"In more recent (and pedantic) history, some link tailgating to the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. It was the US Civil War's first major battle, and voyeurs traveled from DC to Manassas, Virginia to cheer on their team, Union or Confederate," according to the article.

'Food, Family, Football'

"I think it's kind of embedded in the tradition of football," Newtown High School Football Coach Bobby Pattison said of getting together with friends and family for tailgates prior to games.

Mr Pattison summed up tailgating with three words: "Food, family, football."

Foods and beverages are commonplace in parking lots as fans, often decked out in their favorite team's colors, battle the elements to socialize and eat before watching the game.

"Anything from steak and eggs, sausage and peppers, to good old burgers and hot dogs," is what tailgaters grill prior to games, said Newtown High School Athletic Trainer Sabrina Byrne, a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, who has tailgated when her favorite team visits the New York Jets and Giants.

For 1 pm games, parking lot gates open in the morning a few hours before kickoff, hence the steak and eggs option on the menu, Ms Byrne noted.

Fans set up grills and TVs to watch parts of other games before and after the one they take in live, while avoiding traffic both before and after the game.

"It's amazing what people do as far as tailgating goes," Ms Byrne said.

On a related but side note, Ms Byrne has also tailgated at NASCAR events.

"I don't think there's anything like NASCAR tailgating. It's beyond ridiculous," said Ms Byrne, describing trucks equipped with hot tubs and portable restrooms.

Tailgating can get pretty colorful in football parking lots, too, fans say.

It is somewhat of a potluck event in which strangers, brought together by food and the game of football, interact and share what they cook.

"You'll usually end up making friends with the people next to you in the parking lot," Ms Byrne said.

Carl Paternoster, a defensive coach with Newtown High, tailgates at Army games every year. "It's a big family tradition for us," Mr Paternoster said. "We do hot hams, steak, chili, chicken."

"Chili's always been a part of tailgating for me," said Mr Pattison, who has set up to eat in the parking lot prior to games, including those played by the New York Giants.

Steve George, also a coach with the Nighthawks, has tailgated at New York Giants and Jets, New England Patriots, and collegiate games including UConn contests, and most recently, the Yale-Harvard game, on November 18.

Among the tailgating experiences for Mr George and other Newtown coaches was going to Penn State to see a battle between two former Newtown High players, Dan Cascone of Wisconsin and Brennan Coakley of Penn State, almost a decade ago.

"We rented an RV, drove to Penn State, and had an all-day tailgate," Mr George recalled.

"The grilling, the getting together with friends, the excitement of the game, the atmosphere," Mr George said, are what draw football fans to the tailgating experience. "It doesn't matter what age you are."

Mr George sometimes tailgates with his sons, Jake and Peyton, and they throw the ball around in the parking lot before heading into the stadium for games.

Cornhole and other games keeps fans occupied while the grills fire up and the meats get cooked.

Rob Hughes, whose son Connor plays for Newtown High and whose son Robbie went to West Virginia, has tailgated at West Virginia games, as well as at professional and high school games.

Mr Hughes notes that high school game tailgates are much smaller-scale setups, with prepared foods, whereas grilling is a big part of tailgates at college and pro games. There are some differences between collegiate and professional game tailgating, too, Mr Hughes said.

For college football tailgating, alumni tents are set up, said Mr Hughes, adding, "You get marching bands from high schools, food and grills. RVs come days in advance."

"Everyone's got their specialty foods. You've got burgers and dogs, then you've got brats, ribs, and buffalo chicken, chicken wings," Mr Hughes said.

An avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Mr Hughes also tailgates in the parking lot of the Steel City's team.

"Now I carry it on to the next generation and teach them how to do it," Mr Hughes said of tailgating with his children.

"Steelers fans are fanatics. They travel well and they are fun to hang out with," Ms Byrne added.

Matt Datin, a 2011 Newtown High graduate who also played at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, enjoys tailgating when he is not playing.

"Any chance I get it's always a good time. It gets everybody more into the game," said Mr Datin, who has tailgated at college games, including those played by UConn. "It definitely gives you a different perspective."

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