Snow flurries swirled across the pavement, the temperature stalled at 9° and those hardy Minnesota Viking fans were arriving for last season's game with the Chicago Bears. The kickoff was still three hours off, but Minnesotans. remember, are positively mad about fresh air. Not content to simply cheer their team on, they accordingly celebrate every home game, whatever the weather, with a bacchanalian feast in the Metropolitan Stadium parking lot. In this smorgasbord on asphalt, the football is part of a hero sandwich: the festivities start in the morning and end well past dark, with the game buried in the middle.
An exercise in that old football-going custom known as tailgating, only done on a Paul Bunyan scale, the party in the parking lot is an occasion for some Viking fans to play cards on picnic tables, others to break out portable TV sets and watch football games being played elsewhere and everybody to fill up on great quantities of food and drink. Of the 48,000-plus who attend Minnesota games, as many as 10,000 have tailgated at a time, a phenomenon that prompts St. Paul radio station KSTP to conduct its pregame grandstand quarterback interviews not in the grandstand, but in the parking lot. "There just isn't anybody in the stands until kickoff," Jim Ramsburg, KSTP's programming manager, explains. Adds another radioman. "Everybody's outside getting boozed up."
Encircling the stadium like covered wagons around a campfire, the crowds arrive not just in the usual cars and station wagons, but in every kind of mobile home and camper, plus a couple of buses painted in Viking purple. Cold as it was at the Bears game, small knots of celebrants abandoned the warmth of their vehicles, the better to attend to their barbecue grills and portable stoves. And when the weather is balmier, as during the tropical 26° of last month's game with San Francisco, the crush of tailgaters gives Metropolitan Stadium, looming on the horizon in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, an epic War and Peace quality.
Everybody is dressed for warmth, but there is room for such fashion flourishes as silver-lame face masks and Viking snowmobiling suits advertised in Twin Cities stores as "purple people warmers." Dressed in all their quilted and thermally insulated glory, people move stiffly about like so many windup toys, their drinks (or "antifreeze," as somebody in every group insists on putting it) clinking in mittened hands and their faces frozen in a beatific glow no doubt caused in part by the sublime satisfaction of not having to worry about the ice cubes melting.
If the affair has the atmosphere of an Arctic street fair, the food is prepared with a care worthy of a Pillsbury bake-off. For the 49ers game, the Elks Club of Hopkins, Minn, bused 200 delegates to a state Elks conference into the parking lot for a pregame snack. Instead of chicken-salad sandwiches, they devoured 250 pounds of buffalo roasted on a spit by a white-capped chef. Not far away, 150 tailgaters in leis stood around consuming pineapples, salmon in aspic, coconuts and rum punch, everything going down the hatch to the sounds of Tahitian drum chants issuing from a loudspeaker. As palm fronds, part of the decorations, rustled in the raw air, co-host John Ebin, an officer in a Minneapolis brokerage firm, allowed, "I guess there's getting to be a lot of one-upmanship involved in all this."
Without doubt the most ambitious of the tailgaters to date is a group of 26 fans who call themselves the Guzzling Gourmets. Before this season's Chicago game, they dressed their womenfolk in mink stoles, set their table with candelabra, Limoges china and mum centerpieces, then sat down for an eight-course dinner. The mushrooms stuffed with p√¢té de foie gras were exquisite, the breast of chicken in ham Newburg sauce divine, the peaches in champagne scrumptious and the after-dinner cigars just right for putting gentlemen in the proper frame of mind for football. That may seem like a difficult act to follow, but the Guzzling Gourmets topped it when two of their number got the bright idea of getting married in the Met Stadium parking lot before the 49er game.
"Anybody can get married in a church or justice of the peace's office," the bride, a 27-year-old bond underwriter named Caryl Meyer, enthused on her wedding day as exhaust fumes mingled with the odors of food. With the stadium as backdrop and a Minneapolis judge performing the double-ring ceremony, Caryl stepped out of a Winnebago camper and into holy wedlock with Bill Caughfey, a 37-year-old bartender. Following a wedding feast of steamed lobster and three varieties of oysters, Caryl shed her coat and white-knit bridal minidress, put on long underwear and heavy sweaters and hurried into the stadium to watch the Vikings lose 13-9.
That left the bridegroom in the company of the many happy tailgaters who simply don't make the opening kickoff. Caughfey relaxed in the camper, sipping Scotch and listening to the game on radio. "I don't like to sit out in the cold the way Caryl does," he said. Nonetheless, he finally made it to his seat.
Although Viking fans obviously need no inducements, tailgating has been actively encouraged by promotion-minded Twin City Federal, a savings-and-loan firm that is offering a prize of two expenses-paid Super Bowl trips to whoever prepares the most mouth-watering meal in the parking lot this season. In the same spirit, The Minneapolis Star prints weekly tailgating recipes for such delicacies as avocado soup and then dispatches a couple of staffers to the stadium to ladle out free samples. So far the paper has avoided the fate of a group of car dealers who, or so legend has it, used the parking lot a few years ago to entertain their salesmen and simultaneously show off their new station wagons. Everything went as planned until the salesmen got into a spirited game of football on the pavement—tackle, not touch—that ended with one of them suffering a broken jaw and another being hauled away by Bloomington police.
All this has enabled Minnesota to supplant Green Bay as the undisputed tail-gating champion of the NFL. Until four years ago, Minnesota law prohibited bars and restaurants from serving liquor on Sunday—which made the parking lot as good a place as any to whoop it up. Some fans also found tailgating a way to interest their wives in attending the games. Another explanation was offered by a suburban St. Paul cattle salesman named Connie Olson as he relaxed with friends in his camper long after the final gun had sounded at one game.
Olson and his guests had just finished a huge steak dinner and, in the gathering darkness, dying embers from the charcoal grill glowed on the pavement outside. "When you leave late like this, you beat the traffic," Olson said as Bing Crosby's White Christmas sounded over a portable radio. Of course, if Olson and others like him stay much later to avoid traffic following Sunday-afternoon games, they'll have to start worrying about the Monday-morning rush hour.
Its usefulness in easing traffic is one reason Bloomington police give for tolerating tailgating, although it remains a matter of interpretation whether the drinking that goes on is legal or not. The stadium—and the parking lot—come under the jurisdiction of a commission representing the cities of Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington, and the drinking question all but unravels the stadium manager, an ex-FBI man named William H. Williams. Approached by a reporter awhile back, Williams refused to discuss tailgating unless his visitor promised not to write anything to suggest that anybody touches a drop. "We don't want the WCTU or somebody on our backs," he said.
As a consequence the official attitude is decidedly ambivalent. On the one hand, when the Viking management offered earlier this season to provide portable toilets in the parking lot, something that would have pleased many fans, Williams flatly refused. On the other hand, he and everybody else in Bloomington recognize only too well that Metropolitan Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Twins, is not really suited for football, and that tailgating is helping to keep the Vikings there.
There has been talk of a new domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis to house the Vikings, and the University of Minnesota would love to land the pro team as a tenant in its 56,652-seat football stadium. But neither the automobile ramps contemplated for the downtown stadium nor the university's widely scattered parking areas would be nearly as suitable for partying as Metropolitan Stadium's sprawling lot. Admitting that this is an important consideration in any move the club might take, Viking General Manager Jim Finks says, "Tailgating is half the fun these people get from going to the games."
For many of the fans the fun seems to increase the colder the weather gets, something no doubt explained by the same chest-beating instincts that have moved Bud Grant, the Viking coach, to prohibit his players from using hand warmers or wearing gloves on the sidelines. One expression of northwoods machismo was the party that Ching Johnson, a Minneapolis contractor who attends games in Norseman headgear, threw last year on the back of a 60-foot semitrailer, with music provided by a country-western band. Green Bay was the opponent, and it was so cold during the game that a number of fans tried to warm up by sneaking into the stadium beer cooler. Instead of going home afterward, 350 people swarmed aboard Johnson's truck, including Jim Klobuchar, a Minneapolis columnist, who reported breathlessly: "I got kissed five times and ate three passing corned-beef sandwiches without taking my hands out of my pockets."
With the phenomenon showing no signs of subsiding, the parking lot has become a meeting place for everybody but the Viking front four—who meet at the quarterback. The effect tailgating has had on the life of Keith Hopper, a Minnesota State College Board aide, sounds like something that Ann Landers might want to pass along to the lonelyhearts in her audience. It seems that Hopper, an Oklahoman who moved to Minnesota five years ago, had difficulty meeting people until he took up tailgating. "It's been quite a social outlet," Hopper says. He moves today in a wide circle of friends that includes a retired grocer, a chemist, a mattress salesman and a cattleman. He met them all in the Metropolitan Stadium parking lot.