Tailgate Take: The Party Before ‘The Game’ Is Far From Lame

Much like attending a pig roast on the South Lawn of the White House, or doing pickle back shots with the Queen Mum outside Buckingham Palace, going to a raucous football tailgate at Harvard just seems out of place. After all, this is Harvard. This is the top-ranked university in the world, where all parents hope their kids will get accepted. Alum regularly include world leaders, CEOs and Chief Justices. Most of the schools where we cover tailgates don’t count cabinet members and foreign ambassadors as attendees, if you know what I mean.

So if we collectively thought the Harvard/Yale tailgate would be a giant study group with six packs, or really rich parents standing around with swordfish and chardonnay… shame on us. Because here’s the straight Veritas: this tailgate was insane.

A bit of clarification from someone who has seen more than his fair share of tailgates: Harvard and Yale don’t really know how to tailgate, they know how to party. That they do it outdoors by the stadium qualifies it as a tailgate. But make no mistake — this is a bender to remember.

They’re only allowed about three hours (Lame!) to tailgate. There are no mega-grills, smokers, fanbulances or crazy tailgate contraptions to be found anywhere. Neither team the students pretend to be there to see will ever leave the Ivy League for the SEC. Both fanbases basically come out once a year for their annual grudge match (known as The Game, it’s been going on for 140 years).

With all the intense familial scrutiny and academic pressure these brightest of the bright face all year long, when they get a chance to party outdoors with reckless abandon like every other American college student, how do you think they respond? Like it’s the last party on Earth. I’d heard two things about this, aside from the fact that it’s not really a tailgate: the older alums and class parties are catered — very wine and cheese — while the student parties are out of control. After a Saturday morning outside Harvard Stadium partying for The Game, I’ll say yes… and yes.

The main lot was a small tailgate by usual standards; people eating and drinking at their cars, tables with snacks, much more fancy foods, gourmet goods and top-shelf liquors than beers, brats and burgers. It was a kind of 1% tailgate, if you will. I’m allowed to say that after I counted my fiftieth fur coat. No joke. And that’s when I stopped counting. It’s organized mostly by class, so you’ll see banners up saying “Class of 1974” or “Harvard 1981 Football Team,” etc. In terms of organizing or finding your people, this is a great system. The folks were friendly, but a wide open Texas tailgate it’s not.

A New England fall Saturday can’t be beat (says the guy born and raised 30 minutes south of Harvard), but you miss that southern hospitality after you spend so much time with it, too. We met some fun folks, many of whom thought it was super cool that a TV show about tailgating decided to join them this day. This is Harvard and Yale’s sports Christmas! Oh, if only these folks could walk with me for an afternoon at Tennessee or Texas A&M. By and large everyone in the main lots was on good behavior. Catered food, grilled goods and adult beverages always taste better outdoors, and when served for football. Even in a sea of wealthy academics. It was a fun day for them, to see their old pals and classmates, and throw a few back.

HOWEVER — and here’s what we’ve been waiting for — when my brother, our primary cameraman, and a Harvard grad himself, scouted the off-lot tailgates and found the Sigma Chi party, our entire day changed in less than a minute. Our grey skies cleared. Our empty cup suddenly was full. I was nervous that what we saw in the main lots was all we would see. And the novelty of “Hey, we’re tailgating for Harvard/Yale” could only last so long.

We needed to see some of this end of days decadence. Well, we got it, within one minute of walking into the Sigma Chi tent. Not even into it. I showed up with mic in hand outside with two camera guys, and we were greeted with a steady stream of champagne spray, like I’d just won the World Series. This happened three more times in the next five minutes. OK, game on. Finally. This is where the year’s worth of  all-nighters and research papers steam got blown off. Has to be, right? Else why is there a dude dressed like a velociraptor by the entrance to the circus tent?

See when Nick Stevens and Tailgate Fan will be near you.

More champagne showers greet us upon entering, along with invitations to swig from whatever’s left of the champagne (they might have gone through a thousand bottles here), hugs, high fives and complete chaos. You’d have thought these people won a war, and decided to wear costumes to celebrate it. Everyone was dressed up like they were going to Jay Gatsby’s house… on acid. They told me it was a robber baron-themed party. Of course. That’s why everyone looked part JazzAge, part Willy Wonka.

This was insane! I spend every fall Saturday sampling smoked meats, home-brewed beer, burgers and ballgames. I’ve seen every mobile apparatus you could cook with, along with every trailer, camper and fan-van possible. And none of it prepared me for a tent full of women on stilts, an electric string quartet, an interpretive painter and general fanarchy. Every single person I spoke with toed the company line: we only get to do this once a year — once every two at home — so we’re going to make this day count.

And that they did… some a bit too much. We saw plenty of “reversals of fortune,” if you will, along with some folks headed for an early exit, a burger, Advil and a nap. This is where the people of Tailgate State and Southwest Party University that we spend most of our Saturdays with have an advantage. This IS what they do all the time. People at Harvard and Yale, you know, study… and change the world. So if they’re kinda lightweights when it comes to handling their party time, well, who can blame them? They said they were gonna make it count. Mission: Accomplished.

There was much more TV coverage of this game, seeing as Harvard was unbeaten and Yale had but one loss (prior to the game), so security was tighter than normal. And as it is Massachusetts cops aren’t to be messed with. If you’re from there, or have been there, you know what I’m talking about. So while some parts were tame, and some totally insane, it never felt like it was going to get out of hand. Just that when they say they’re gonna break up the party after kickoff, they mean it. Growing up in Mass and spending a lot of time there since, I’m used to “Last call!” Lights on, music off, beat it!

But in the time before the Buzzkill Patrol shut it down, I saw a party, disguised as a tailgate, go from mediocre to mind-blowing, in no time. And while I like the consistency of great American tailgates week in and week out, there’s something refreshing about the change-up of a fur coat-dressed, champagne-soaked mom and pop chaperoned intellectual throwdown. I always wanted to attend an Ivy League school, mostly for the education, post-grad preparation and pedigree. Now mostly just so I can get ready for 364 days and then let loose for Ivy League Party Christmas. When it’s not what you do, and then you do it, even when you get out of control, it’s pretty awesome.

We’ll get back into our comfort zone next week at Wisconsin — as collegiate and tailgate-ish as a school gets — for Minnesota @ Wisconsin. And yes, there’s always room for brats and curds.

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