To be a well-rounded, fully invested, appropriately credentials American sports fan, there are certain events you sort of have to attend in person at some point. We can argue about which events you'd include in this sort of Bucket List -- in fact, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do that very thing -- but here's a quick attempt at a rough sketch:
- Super Bowl
- Any World Series Game
- A basketball game at Madison Square Garden
- Fenway/Wrigley/PNC Park/AT&T Park
- Lambeau Field
- Churchill Downs
- At least one NASCAR event
- A full first weekend at an NCAA tournament venue
I'm sure I'm missing some. But key to any list like that, and something I'll be experiencing for the first time this weekend: Attending an SEC football game.
Yes, I am a 37-year-old man who writes about sports professionally, and I've never been to an SEC game. (Only FBS schools I've attended games in person: Illinois, Washington and Rutgers. That's sad.) That's changing Saturday morning/afternoon/evening/midnight, when I go between the hedges for Georgia-South Carolina. Actually, I'll be more above the hedges, far above them. But I'll be there.
I keep trying to get people to explain to me what I'm in for at my first SEC game, but I can't get any straight answers: They just sort of get this faraway look in their eyes, then chuckle to themselves. Oh, you'll see. I can't possibly begin to explain it. I'm just supposed to show up somewhere around 9 a.m. -- for a 4:30 p.m. game -- and the rest of the day will take care of itself. This is a bit concerning.
A confession: I was not raised a tailgater. I grew up two hours from the closest big city -- St. Louis and Indianapolis are about equidistant from my hometown, if you want to define them as "big cities" -- and tailgating was a casual pursuit, at best, an hour north in Champaign. My sports experiences typically involve drinking at a bar near the stadium/arena/park, then going to other bars afterward, or just going home. We didn't have the notion of sitting in one spot, grilling meat and drinking whatever is within arm's reach, as masses of humanity wearing the same color surround you and scream. And this goes on for eight hours. The game doesn't come until the end. I might be too old to start this.
And particularly the SEC, which would seem, from an outsider's perspective, to have the fanbase passion to come the closest to the rabid, sometimes tribal intensity of European soccer. Asking around, it appears the atmospheres at Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Missouri can't quite measure up to the rest of the SEC. Everybody else: Insanity. Now that I've moved to Athens, close enough to walk to Sanford Stadium, suddenly we're getting calls from all across the South, from close friends and people we sort of know, not looking for tickets, but lodging: It's possible my house that Sunday morning is going to be a bunch of middle-aged UGA alums sprawled all over my carpet. And that's if Georgia wins.
I just don't feel quite prepared for this (warning: NSFW language and stupidity).
I mean, they're fighting in ponds! To be fair, that's from the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville: It's possible those are just two typical Jacksonville residents, unaware there's even a game going on. All told, from what I understand, Georgia has one of the tamer, albeit still intense, tailgating experiences.
See? Gentility! Just people drinking and watching games and grilling and yelling at every camera that happens to be in the vicinity. It's the other ones around the SEC I need to worry about, like LSU:
Or maybe LSU:
These are, basically, sectarian passions. I show you these videos not as a way of denigrating the participants but revealing my ignorance of (and therefore, hopefully, innocence involving) these tribal customs. What I'm saying here: I don't want any trouble. I am just a mere Illinois graduate. We don't even know we have football. I come in peace.
Georgia-South Carolina is a huge game, in both the SEC and the national title race, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to watch it. Assuming, of course, I make it there. It's a long time between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. I'll see you Monday, I hope. Keep me away from any and all ponds.
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