Tailgate Take: It’s A Sparty Party, And You’re Invited

Seeing as we’ve done this a few times now, I try not to get too geeked up for these tailgate trips. After all it is a “business trip,” and we have a lot of work to do. Granted, most of that work is delicious, but still — the tasting doesn’t do itself! All the different cultures, foods and traditions of each region and college we’ve visited help keep each experience fresh and unique. Still, you could see how they all might roll into one, and it’s just a long season of burgers and beers and fans and freaks and… I know, poor us.

Gotta say, I was kinda pumped to travel to East Lansing and visit Michigan State. Everybody knows Michigan; they’re the established tradition in college football as far as most people know. I root for Blue because my in-laws all went there, so it’s in my best interest. But they’ve fallen on tough times, and Michigan State is the better program and team right now. They’ve always been good, but now they’re next level… top 10, and a fun team to watch.

Plus, every trip we’ve made to the Midwest — Missouri, Michigan, Ohio State… even Cleveland and other pro teams when we covered the NFL in 2012 — has been great. All the hospitable, knowledgeable and inviting fans cane seriously belly-bomb gameday grub and know how to hold their sauce.

It’s early November now. The weather’s getting “layer up” cold. Michigan State is playing Ohio State for 1st place in the Big 10. And it’s an 8 o’clock kickoff, which means a full Saturday of tailgating. The deep-fried stars are aligning perfectly. And I love it when a pigskin party plan comes together.

If you’re looking to make it a full Sparty weekend, then you need to rock ’n roll on Friday night at some of East Lansing’s legendary sports bars. We hit up the two that were highest rated and most recommended: Crunchy’s and The Peanut Barrel. Both are awesome local favorites, the kind of joint you know you’d visit weekly if you were a current student, alumni or resident: comfortable, colorful and full of character.

Crunchy’s has a huge selection of delicious craft beers brewed in the Michigan area, featuring Founders and Bell’s (get the Two Hearted Ale — you can thank me later). Students and people looking to light the night up get beer by the bucket. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a 5 gallon paint bucket filled with about roughly a case’s worth of beer. You dunk a pitcher in to serve it in your cup. It’s silly, convoluted and fantastic. Because why not? People who are regulars, as well as frats, sororities and local businesses have their own buckets. So it’s a great way to belong and show your dedication… to forgetting where you spent Friday night. Also Crunchy’s has great burgers and Sicilian-style pizza they serve on a cafeteria tray. Get the sausage, especially if you’re filling out your Bucket List. A bar full of merry Michigan State fans all there on reunion weekends. Nothing says “I miss you guys!” like 120 oz of Labatt’s Blue Light from a bucket.

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Next we rolled down to The Peanut Barrel, where a sign on the wall reads, “The Peanut Barrel Is My Happy Place.” Once you get a Bell’s Two Hearted, chase it with their world-famous Long Island Iced Tea (EVERYONE said we had to get one, so we did, and it was a game-changer). And then have a chat with Joe, the owner of this classic Midwestern mom ’n pop burger-slinging, beer-soaked rumpus room. It’ll be your happy place, too. Couldn’t have loved Joe, the Barrel and the people in there that night any more. Students fresh off their semester abroad, making a beeline to the Peanut Barrel to see friends and feel home again. I was 800 miles away from mine and couldn’t have felt any closer to that glorious state of mind. The Long Island probably helped.

Now, as far as the game-day party went? Smooth as a piece of Michigan Spaghetti Pizza, washed down with a can of Canadian beer. The game itself? Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Frankly we thought Michigan State was going to win. And so did the 100,000 or so fans at the tailgate. Their spirits were soaring… as if they just polished a second Peanut Barrel Long Island. Nothing was going to deter them from having a blast and celebrating a great rivalry game and the arrival of real football weather, which, if you didn’t know, actually makes the beer and BBQ taste better. We met hundreds of the coolest fans, every single one inviting us in to the tent, telling us to turn the camera off, relax and hang with them for a while. Little did they realize that coming in and enjoying their goods and generosity IS our job. But of the dozens of Sparty party peeps we hung with, I’d like to highlight three in particular.

First was Scott of the self-appointed Great Michigan State Tailgate. What was great about it? Nothing… except for the chance to eat Spaghetti Pizza (baked spaghetti with meat, cheese, sauce and love) and drink beer with 20 of the nicest people Michigan’s known. No contraptions, rigs, fireworks show or what have you. Just people, in a tent, with good grub and cold suds, who you’d love to waste a day with. They were on campus, where a lot of the older alums party — tents set up everywhere. The sporadic campus party, plus the tennis courts and the North/South lots by the stadium are where it’s at. Anyway, hit these guys up, tell ’em Tailgate Fan sent ya. Get a slice of what we called “Spazetti,” and get ready to laugh at how good we all have it.

Second is the star of our show, the woman who upon seeing us literally grabbed the microphone and began to improvise and take over the shoot for 10 minutes. Tricky Talbot. A reality-show star and Midwestern tailgate supermom, Tricky toes that fine line of “Is this real? Will she ever stop? Wait, I don’t want her to because she’s so funny!” She basically showed off her tailgate, foods, family and friends better than I could, so I made her the star of “Tricky-Gate Fan,” while eating hammy sammies and her outrageous iced pumpkin cake. What a freakin’ hoot! Rumor has it her son is Sparty, or the guy who dresses up as Sparty on game day for MSU, so theatrics and great game-day performances run in the family. She won the day for us.

And third, but hardly last, was Andy T, the farmer who is “Pure Michigan.” This guy loves Michigan so much, all you have to do is hang around him for five minutes and you’ll be ready to sign up to work his fields the next morning. That is, after he feeds you from his smoker full of his farm’s meat (we call it “Andy’s Meat Hotel”), then pours you a cup of his fresh-made apple cider, with a splash rum to keep you warm. From 50 feet away you see him glowing, loving the day, his big bushy mustache the perfect finishing touch on his weathered, smiling face. You get the feeling this isn’t the only day of the week he wears overalls, or cooks for pals while spiking cider. If we could have elected a Mayor of the MSU Tailgate, it’d be Andy… with Tricky serving as his and all Sparty-kind’s spokeswoman.

After a six-hour shoot with these fine football folk, we made way back to Detroit for a quick snooze and short flight home. What a hearty SParty party it was. Not that I have any business in Michigan any time soon, but if I do, I’ll be sure to zip across I-96 to East Lansing to visit Tricky and Andy T in their new environs. Tricky can give me some pointers on bringing new layers of energy and enthusiasm on camera. And Andy will teach me to farm and prep for my own tailgates some day soon. That’s the green in Go Green! Go White!

Time for a nap, some more kalegating and a short turnaround. We’re on to USC in just a few days time. From Spartans to Trojans — how very Greco-Roman of us.

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