BATON ROUGE, La. — Darren D’Aubin is a professional tailgater, with 25 years of experience in his craft. He knows of all the items necessary to create the perfect tailgate.
You need a pot—preferably a black cauldron of sorts, for Cajun favorites such as jambalaya and gumbo. You need booze, and lots of it—beer, liquor, maybe frozen drinks. You need shot glasses for the booze and huggers or koozies to keep your beer cold. You need tents. Not a tent. Tents. Because the south Louisiana sun will melt your skin. You need a radio and a television; a generator to run them; and a barbecue grill for ribs, sausage and chicken wings.
And in 2020, you need something else.
“The state tax assessor’s map of East Baton Rouge Parish,” D’Aubin says, laughing.
Welcome to the pregame during coronavirus. LSU may see itself as the tailgating capital of the world, but such gatherings are currently banned on the school’s campus, and so D’Aubin and his likes are left to erect their lavish spreads just off campus.
D’Aubin had dug through courthouse archives to find the campus’s official boundaries; then he contacted the owners of individual parcels of land bordering those boundaries. And he found a spot suitable for his game-day gathering.
So, on this particular Saturday morning, four hours ahead of LSU’s season opener against Mississippi State, about two blocks from the campus’s northernmost boundary and a half-mile from Tiger Stadium, in front of an uninhabited home in a quiet neighborhood, the 50-year-old D’Aubin stands under a four-tent creation surrounded by two dozen unmasked friends and family members, a pair of smoking grills, a full liquor bar and a truck painted to resemble a purple-and-gold bengal tiger. He’s gripping a bottle of his best bourbon, emphatically licking its rim as he takes a second swig and shouting for all to hear that there is, he declares, “No COVID here!”
“Hurricanes, viruses and governors,” he says, smiling. “Nobody is stopping us from tailgating.”
For the first football game day in what has to be decades, not a single full-throated—or even half-throated—tailgate party transpired on LSU’s campus. Give the school, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, credit for enforcing that restriction, which made for an eerie scene: somewhat empty and mostly quiet, if you weren’t in earshot of D’Aubin’s off-campus setup. For a school and state that prides itself on food and fun, that excels at throwing a party, LSU’s campus on Saturday was decidedly “dead,” as one local described it. The air felt stale. No wafts of Cajun cooking, no thumping zydeco tunes, no belligerent college partygoers. Typically dotted with tents, the parking lots on this afternoon sat empty. At one entrance there was a security guard, adjacent to a sign stuck in the ground: NO TAILGATING.
The party here usually starts Friday night, when motorhomes and RVs roll into town, set up shop in a massive lot adjacent to the stadium and then get to it. For this opener, though, LSU had moved its RV lot three quarters of a mile from the stadium and reduced the number of spots from 700 to 125. Roughly five hours before kickoff, right when the parties would normally rev up for the day, the gravel lot sat peaceful, with only a dozen or so RVs parked.
“Give credit to our fans,” says LSU’s senior associate athletic director, Dan Gaston, gesturing toward the emptiness. “This is hard, to not gather and celebrate the season, especially in a place like Louisiana.”
Tailgating is rooted in the fabric of this place. The fall gumbo cook-offs, the springtime crawfish boils and the outdoor music festivals. This is, after all, home to the U.S.’s biggest party, Mardi Gras. But those celebrations may have been instrumental, scientists believe, in spreading COVID-19 across the U.S., acting as a super-spreader. And the subsequent pandemic shutdown has rattled people here. The party finally had to stop. Or at least slow to a crawl. Tailgating, too.
Tailgating “is a part of our lifestyle,” says Brandon Landry, an LSU graduate who owns Walk-On’s, the closest bar to Tiger Stadium. “Down here, we don’t eat to live. We live to eat. Taking that away, it’s tough.”
As the SEC kicked off an already bizarre 2020 season, those tailgating blues swept across what many argue is college football’s holy ground, a territory spanning horizontally from Texas to the Carolinas, and vertically from the Gulf Coast to Tennessee. Five hours north of Baton Rouge, at the University of Mississippi—the closest thing to LSU’s tailgating rival—the Grove, by decree of the governor, went tentless Saturday for the first time since maybe the 1980s, says Curtis Wilkie, an Ole Miss journalism professor and a noted historian of the American South.
In Baton Rouge, school officials had spent several weeks issuing public reminders about the tailgating ban, and on Saturday giant speakers all around Tiger Stadium boomed the message on loop: By order of the governor, no tailgating or congregating on campus.
Attendance restrictions—25% capacity in the 102,321-seat Tiger Stadium—helped keep calm a campus that’s been doing a mix of online and in-person learning, but the school took other precautions, too. Only attendees holding one of a limited number of parking permits could even drive onto campus. Once parked, small groups of ticket holders were allowed to loiter around their vehicles, snacking on food and sipping drinks, but they were forbidden from erecting the tents or setting up the televisions that typify an LSU tailgate.
Making the most of this limited on-campus opportunity—though maybe not a true tailgate, by the locals’ lofty standards—61-year-old Bob Riches hosted a six-person party Saturday out of the back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee, parked in the shadows of Tiger Stadium. Riches, a Baton Rouge resident, has been tailgating in this spot since 2005, and he says he didn’t think for a second about staying away. “Absolutely not.”
His hatchback propped open, Riches and friends dined on sandwiches and chicken fingers and listened to music from a portable speaker. But it was a far cry from normal. Typically his crew would operate under two tents, with a spread of food for more than 30 people. Today he laid low and wore a face mask affixed firmly around his nose and mouth. (Riches’s adherence to a campus mask mandate was an outlier; few masks were spotted worn outside the stadium.)
School officials, meanwhile, hope that as the season progresses—and the pandemic potentially wanes—state and local authorities will allow, perhaps, the return of something resembling tailgating. Possibly small functions of 100 people or fewer, says Gaston. But, he adds, to “have a shot at tailgating later this season, we have to [follow the rules] today.”
Those decisions will be left up to Edwards, a noted LSU football fan, a friend of Tigers coach Ed Orgeron and one of only two Democratic governors in the SEC’s 11-state footprint. Edwards, who attends most home games, sat out Saturday, says a spokesperson, Christina Stephens, who promised the governor was balancing a “healthy level of concern” about LSU football with an eye for new coronavirus spikes. “These plans,” she says, “have been made in conjunction with local health officials.” (While Louisiana’s 3.5% positivity rate, which looks at its number of cases and tests, is one of the nation’s lowest, the state still holds the country’s highest active infectious rate with 3,544 cases per 100,000, according to the CDC.)
For the most part, Baton Rouge behaved itself Saturday. Athletic department staffers were the first level of defense against tailgating, and they approached “a couple” of people, according to one official, but they were all compliant. “It never got to the point where we had to get involved,” says says Maj. Marshall Walters, who leads the game-day operations and has patrolled campus on fall Saturdays for the last 19 years. Campus police—staffed fully, like they would be for a normal game where they estimate as many as 150,000 would have typically partied on campus—acted as backup, but there were no reported incidents.
Instead, partygoers on Saturday mostly took the tailgating off-campus: House tailgates, condo tailgates, patio tailgates.
David Richardson is 48, and for the last 20 years he has hosted an on-campus tailgate. This year he went a different route: He met some buddies at Walk-On’s, where on a typical football Saturday the parking lot would turn into one massive tailgate, with sound stages, rows of tables and outdoor bars. Landry, the owner, decided against that this year. “Better safe than sorry,” he says. “We don’t want to be in the media. Virus Headquarters!” (The cost: Landry estimated that he’d bank less than half of the $100,000 that Walk-On’s turns on most game days.)
Another Tigers diehard, Luke Williamson, usually holds one of the biggest tailgates on campus: A half-dozen small tents encircling a giant inflatable canopy, under which a Cajun-themed buffet is laid out for more than 500 partygoers. A DJ blares the hits. Two bartenders run through 50 bottles of liquor. An ice luge delivers shots. Altogether it costs the Baton Rouge lawyer some $8,000.
But on Saturday his off-campus “condo tailgate”—Torchy’s tacos, homemade salsa and 10 attendees—was a fraction of the cost. And the fun. “It’s like a Big Ten tailgate now,” Williamson jokes, blending a heavy pour of Tito’s vodka into a metallic mug of soda. “Everybody is in mourning.”
Inside, one of Williamson’s attendees, Neil Thorne, explained how he came to be at a party, indoors, during a pandemic. “I’m COVID done,” the 45-year-old coronavirus survivor deadpanned, referring to the perceived immunity that doctors say may or may not follow an infection. Thorne said his worst symptom was losing his loss of smell for a couple of days, but he knows “a lot of people experienced more. … I was really blessed.” Now, he jokes, his family wishes they’d contracted COVID-19 when he did. They’re jealous of the potential immunity. To him, it doesn’t matter. He says he would have attended the game whether or not he’d been infected beforehand.
Three blocks from Williamson’s condo, D’Aubin and company are in the throes of the closest thing, on or around campus, to a true, full-on LSU tailgate. Theirs appears to be the only real party in town. The 40-member Cajun Tiger Tailgating crew has been around since 2005, but D’Aubin has been tailgating since 1994. Which is long enough to know: This is serious business. Dozens of crews, each with paying members, attempt every Saturday to out-do one another. And today, for better or worse, D’Aubin’s stands alone. “We are,” he says, “more determined than the rest.”
Yes, they may be flouting the state’s guidance, tiptoeing to the edge of what LSU allows, but Cajun Tiger Tailgating is offering, undeniably, a form of respite to many of its members. John Burch and Autumn Welch each saw their homes damaged a month ago when Hurricane Laura roared ashore in southwest Louisiana and wrought billions of dollars of damage. In advance of Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the two fans entered a ticket lottery, and when news arrived that they would be among the 21,000 people let inside Tiger Stadium, Welch—who lives in Lake Charles, the city hit hardest by Laura’s fierce winds—says she proclaimed, “We can escape! We can escape!”
Says Burch, who needs all new flooring at his home in nearby Sulphur and saw two homes on his street have their roofs blown cleanly off: “This is a break for us.” (In the end, LSU lost 44–34 to the Bulldogs.)
“This is not just about tailgating,” adds D’Aubin. “It’s about the psychological mindset. It’s about hope.”
Finding a place so close to campus to host that hope was an arduous task. With help from a friend, D’Aubin scoured those tax assessor maps. And after making contact with two property owners, he learned that government authorities had been visiting residential and commercial properties nearby, strongly encouraging their owners not to rent out to tailgaters. The third owner D’Aubin contacted, however, happened to be an acquaintance, and a deal was reached for a small fee.
That property owner, in fact, also owns the land across the street from where D’Aubin’s group is awash in laughter, booze and music on this Saturday afternoon. And on the adjacent land, there sits a small, white home with a fence and a shady tree and a lawn sign—scrawled out in marker, with an email contact at the bottom—that suggests the Cajun Tigers might not be alone for long.
“RENT THE HOUSE FOR TAILGATING!!!” it reads.