Thinking back, I’m not sure if I was more flummoxed by the Ryan Lochte hubbub or handball, a game that seems better suited for middle-school P.E. than the venerable Olympics. Thank goodness all of that business is behind us and it’s time for the thumbs, finger pistols, and horns to go up and the tailgates to drop down. For almost two decades, I’ve been part of a small but spirited group that has gathered beneath a huge oak tree on a pretty little patch of the University of Texas’s Forty Acres to wallow the day away in the glorious spectacle of college football and its associated pre-game soirees.
Prior to this, I attended UT during a dark period, between 1984 and 1987, when the Longhorns went 27-19-1—cue a sarcastic “hooray” and the sad trombone—and the games were less important than the game-day experience. We didn’t tailgate per se, but I remember the pre-game beer at the Delt house flowing like, well, cheap beer at a frat house. And I remember getting excited when the band would strike up “Texas Fight,” “March Grandioso,” or the “Eyes of Texas.” One time, late in a game against a now-forgotten foe, the skies really opened up. As the rain poured down, the band, undeterred, started in with “Wabash Cannonball,” and there, in the middle of a mostly empty section, a running buddy and I began an exuberant do-si-do. Had the Longhorns been worthy of television coverage, I’m confident we’d have made the highlight reel. Sadly, they weren’t. By the nineties I had quit attending games with any regularity.
My father-in-law, L. Dean “the Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas” Cobb, changed that. He was at UT in the fifties and had been a member of the Texas Cowboys, the service organization known for firing “Smokey” each time the Longhorns score. He never stopped showing up on game day. In 1998, after UT completed a renovation of Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, Deano and his gang moved their tailgate to a spot just south of the stadium—the pretty place beneath the old oak tree. Mack Brown had arrived with an air of newfound excitement, and fans, in burnt orange–clad throngs, were having fun again. Lots of fun, it seemed. So after a years-long hiatus, I started attending games again, always kicking them off at Deano’s get-together.
Over the seasons, the tailgate torch was gradually passed to me and my UT alum wife, Kendall, Deano’s daughter, and my good friend Richie and his wife, Kristine. In 2013 Deano suffered some health problems, which curtailed his attendance. And then, in 2015, after Charlie Strong’s first year with the Horns, we lost Dean. The tailgate isn’t the same without him, but we have soldiered on. He would most assuredly have it no other way.
Today, the tailgate involves my fun-loving mother-in-law and Deano’s better half, Kathleen; a core group of five or six couples; some fair-weather family members; a few bachelors; and some friends of these friends. There are more kids than there once were, but they busy themselves climbing the oak tree, playing touch football and that bean bag game with the unfortunate name, and spilling drinks and having to be taken to the bathroom a lot.
Our centerpiece usually consists of an impressive spread, with brisket or fried chicken or a few platters of cold cuts with all the fixings. One friend brings her famous deviled eggs, and there are more salsas and dips than you can shake a chip at. Of course, there’s always plenty to drink: whiskey, wine, and coolers of cold beer. Maybe some of Kendall’s margaritas. And spicy Bloody Marys are always de rigueur at early games, as are breakfast tacos and delicious picadillos from Cisco’s Bakery, in East Austin.
Putting on such a fete is no easy feat. Richie and our friend Greg will meet at my house at the crack of dawn to load up my pickup with tables, chairs, and all the dry goods and drive down to campus for what always feels like an excessively early drop-off. But prime spots like ours are reserved first come, first served and by way of the honor system, so it’s necessary. We’ll reconvene, with coolers, food, spouses, kids, burnt-orange garb, and tickets, a few hours before kickoff.
As people show up, there’s eating and drinking and talk of football and politics and family goings-on. A good time is had by all. But as the ticket holders head off to the stadium, there is a contingent that stays back, holding down the fort. Those stragglers, however, are long gone by the time the game clock strikes 00:00.
So after the game it’s just the diehards. We decompress with a cold one, analyze the team’s performance, and wait for traffic to die down. This is one of my favorite parts of the day. Night has usually fallen, and where there had been a sea of people and a palpable buzz, a calmness descends. Unless the Horns have underperformed. In these cases, Richie, who is one of those who bleed a more intense orange than the rest of us, can require some tending to. Last year, for instance, after a painful loss to Oklahoma State, I returned to find him in a particularly sour mood. A few of those deviled eggs remained on the table, some five or six hours after they had been unveiled, and as Richie reached for one, I implored him: “Don’t eat those! They’ve been sitting out here since three o’clock. You’ll get sick.” “Good,” he said. “I hope I die!”
But that was last year. We’re back this season, reveling in whatever the Horns give us. If you’re in the neighborhood, we’ll be under the big oak tree. There’s tasty food, full coolers, and nice folk. Stop by for a Bloody Mary and a picadillo. And, as always, Hook ’em, Horns!
The Texanist’s Rant of the Month: For the record, the Texanist has never been invited to meetings about the magazine’s cover. But how could the powers that be have settled on Tony Romo with the words “Now or Never” for last month’s issue? For crying out loud, Michael J. Mooney spelled it out quite clearly in the story: “It’s an injury just as the team seems poised for a great run. This has become a colloquial truth. . . .” “Now or Never”? How about “Fingers Crossed”? Or “Please, Don’t Break a Leg, Tony”? Or “Get Well Soon, Tony. We’re All Rooting for You”?