Early Friday evening, Skoal Train could be found erecting tents and guiding RVs to appropriate docking locations. His friend, Llama Guy, fired up the grill and dragged stocked coolers into ready formation. Kickoff was still 20 hours away, but they and other fans eagerly anticipating homecoming were getting their tailgate on well in advance. Meanwhile, great athletes from the school's past were being inducted into the Hall of Fame over a fancy dinner at the student center. Though the buzz around town and excitement in the air was similar to that of any campus in America, this wasn't an enormous Big Ten or SEC program.
Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in the shadow of I-AA powerhouse James Madison University, Bridgewater College fields a football team that begins each year with aspirations of conference championships and playoff runs. It wasn't always that way, but when Dr. Phil Stone took the reins as school president and installed Mike Clark as head coach, Bridgewater's fortunes quickly changed. They reached the D-III national championship game in 2001, and have made the playoffs nearly every year since. With success on the field came devotion from fans. Nowadays, their grandstands are always full of fans proudly wearing the school colors, cheering the team to victory.
Students and alumni gathered at the east end of campus for a pep rally that included a bonfire and speeches from the school president and head coach. After the announcement of the homecoming court, fireworks lit up the sky. The explosions weren't always so welcome. The first time fireworks were included in the festivities, a local retirement home believed the area was under attack, so fair warning is always sent to them in advance. The following morning, tractors hauled homespun floats through town in the Homecoming Parade. Coaches and dignitaries riding in convertibles tossed candy to children in the crowd. The procession was over in a matter of minutes. As one school official told me, "If you blink, you'll miss it." But the fact that the president can say more than hello to each person in the crowd as he passes by more than makes up for any concerns about brevity.
Skoal Train and Llama Guy, of course, have real names. Both Bridgewater graduates, John Coleman and Bo Morris first encountered one another via internet message boards discussing the team. Banding together with other posters, they began combining tailgating efforts. They called their group Stone Station, so named because they set up directly in front of the president's house. Thanks to appearances at the D-III championship game (a.k.a. -- the Stagg Bowl), their tailgate has become famous across Division III. Their homecoming feast did not disappoint. With everyone pitching in at different points throughout the day, Stone Station offered the following: slow-cooked chili, crab soup, deep fried turkey, bacon-wrapped shrimp, fried mahi-mahi, low country boil, grilled tuna bites, barbecue brisket, special recipe chicken and ham pot pie which someone aptly referred to as "belly food." And those were just the main courses. Various pasta salads and homemade desserts made appearances as well. After all that eating, it's a wonder that anyone could still walk over to Jopson Field for the game.
With every seat on the bleachers filled, some fans took spots at the fence surrounding the field while others sat perched on a grassy hill at the west end of the stadium. In a crucial conference matchup, the home team came in as underdogs to visiting Guilford. With their crowd behind them, Bridgewater raced out to a 41-0 lead. The bleeding didn't stop there for Guilford, and early in the fourth quarter, the score was 76-6.
Students and alumni returned to their tailgates breathing easy and content with the outcome. One couldn't help but think that the lopsided win subdued things a little. While fans want their team to finish on top, there's a D-III brotherhood that extends to each opponent. Sympathy for the Guilford players and fans surely was on the mind of all Bridgewater backers.
When Bridgewater was going through year after year of losing seasons, the alumni didn't come back to campus, at least not to watch football. The success of the team has not just sparked interest in football, but reclaimed some school pride. Fans who would only return for Homecoming now spend five weekends every fall back on campus. Without the opportunity to cheer on the Eagles, some would surely have moved on and left their college days behind them. Their connection to the school now continues in perpetuity. As I say goodnight and started my way out of town, I wished the gang the best of luck and told them I hope to return sometime. Llamaguy replied, "As long as we're alive, we'll be here!" Of that I have no doubt.
To read more of Andrew Reed's tailgate reports, check out his Road Games blog.