Descend upon the parking lot of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. on a game day and you’ll see what appears to be a scene from the world’s most accepting college—septuagenarians clinking tall cans with frat brothers, under-10s chanting with foam fingers, moms playing beer pong alongside their daughters, everyone (pets included) decked in a strict uniform of home-team colors.
While in Buffalo, anyone in a Bills jersey is greeted with a nod and a raise of a Bud Light in sportsmanly solidarity (although, dare to set foot on their turf in another team’s colors—let alone the opposing team’s—and the only thing harsher than the wind chill will be the barrage of taunts hurled in your direction). Families living within a mile-plus radius of the stadium rent out their lawns to make room for decaled RVs and portable grills. And the crazy thing is, all of this is not only legal, it’s encouraged.
Tailgating is the kind of unique-to-the-U.S. custom our neighbors to the north (and south… and pretty much everywhere else) have to see to believe. In the words of a first-time tailgater, “it’s surreal, yet so real.”
Here’s what tailgating looks like to everyone who’s yet to experience the all-American parking lot party.
A stagnant, less-prepared arctic expedition
Sure, there are the quintessential tailgating traditions — the cheers, the food, the parties. But fans of teams like Green Bay and Chicago have a few other customs to add to the list: prying frozen fingers off a metal can that’s turned to slush. Tugging a jersey over layers of parka and sweater until you look sufficiently Michelin Man-like. Jaw frozen so tightly shut you can barely jam in your bratwurst. Those on the outside looking in could call you insane (the Packers’ tailgating zone is called The Tundra, if that’s any indication of the deep freeze they have to contend with every Football Sunday). But it’s all just part of the experience, right?
A giant, dysfunctional family reunion
Is it just you, or does everyone here know one another (hello from the outsiii-iide)? To the first-time tailgater, it can feel as though you’ve trespassed into an enormous high school reunion, with all the fist-bumping, man-hugging and off-key singing going on. But if you’re wearing the right thing (or should we say, the right colors) and hanging with the right people (aka anyone who isn’t wearing an opponent’s jersey), you’re in. Kind of like high school, actually. And, if you happen to be fans of different teams, your love may just be enough to keep the friendship intact — kind of like a slightly less dramatic “West Side Story.”
The world’s most specific costume party
Don’t even bother asking: no, your outfit is not “too much.” If you thought your Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, black-and-yellow hat and requisite Terrible Towel were making you look a little less “exuberant fan” and a little more “deranged bumblebee,” then you’re probably a few temporary tattoos and one wrestling mask short of being ready. The outfit doesn’t make the football fan, but it sure helps you blend into the bi-color sea of face paint and baseball caps that is Lot 7F. Remember: This is the kind of thing even male fans make Pinterest boards for. It’s just that serious of a matter.
An outdoor living room showcase for bachelors
If you were wondering if that is someone’s living room furniture, the answer is yes. Yes it is. Because part of the extreme tailgater’s M.O. is to have the most decked-out trunk/flatbed/slice of parking lot in the vicinity. And that means setting up the closest thing to an outdoor man cave you can muster without a lecture from your significant other (“do you understand how expensive a microfiber ottoman is?”). These New York Jets fans seem to have thought it wise to bring along their stuffed fish and flat screen for good measure, but for the average tailgate attendee? A portable grill, cooler, camping chairs, a game and plenty of snacks with cream cheese, buffalo chicken and/or ground beef as primary ingredients should suffice.Search for flights to New York
A time machine back to your college days
Better start warming up that pong arm. If you thought drinking was a sport in college, tailgating is the Super Bowl. After all, the concept of parking lot pre-parties was born out of college football, so it kind of makes sense that certain traditions synonymous with tailgate culture have, er, yet to graduate. But it’s not about the beer as much as it’s about embracing the collegiate culture—think starting a rousing team chant, eating something cooked on a portable grill, or joining in on a stranger’s game of cornhole — as long as they are rooting for the same team, of course.
Main image: iStock.com/Daxus