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Tailgating is as American a tradition as there is. Most Americans have probably tailgated at one point or another in their lives, probably because of a football game. Whether it’s pro, college, or any other level of football, tailgating is a part of the fan experience, and the culture would be lesser without it.

Check out the parking lot of any stadium prior to a game, and you’ll see things you might never have thought you’d see before, but it’s all in the name of fun, and people aren’t afraid to be creative when it comes to tailgating. However, does anyone know when tailgating really started? What the origins are of this great ritual of fandom? Was it a natural thing people did at the very first football game, or did it gradually evolve over time? Well …

There’s a War Going On

There are a number of theories as to the origins of tailgating. One of the best and most prominent theories traces the roots of tailgating all the way back to a battle during the Civil War.

No, really.

The legend goes that in the middle of the summer in 1861, people showed up to watch the First Battle of Bull Run between Union and Confederate forces in Manassas, Virginia, and, when they showed up, they brought wine, food, and, of course, whiskey with them in their wagons so that they wouldn’t be hungry or thirsty while watching the battle take place in front of them. This might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s a great story.

Moving on to Football

Of course, war is a little bit different than sports, and tailgating wouldn’t appear again until the rise of American football, which officially began eight years after the First Battle of Bull Run. The first game took place in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, and, although the rules have changed a lot since then, it was the start of a period of rapid growth for the sport, as well as growth of fan interest in watching the games.

By the turn of the 20th century, watching college football games was becoming a very popular weekend activity for a lot of people. In some places, particularly Ivy League schools such as Yale, people would travel by train to the stadium, arriving long before kick-off. In order to keep themselves from going hungry, they brought food and drinks with them to pass the time before the game started.

When road transportation by automobile became more commonplace, spectators would travel to the same games by bus. However, parking at these older stadiums was extremely limited, so the fans would make sure to get there especially early so that they had somewhere to park their bus. Again, they always brought food and drink to keep themselves occupied until the game started.

One of the better stories about the origins of tailgating involves, not too surprisingly, the Green Bay Packers. The team started their operations in 1919, and, in order to have seating for the games, Packers fans would back their pickup trucks up around the field, and fold down the tailgates. Of course, if you’re going to be watching a game, why not have some food and drink, right? So they brought what they needed with them to avoid going hungry. Some (including the Packers themselves) say that there isn’t any real evidence to support this theory, but who needs evidence when you’ve got a great legend?

Modern Tailgating

Whatever the origins of tailgating, it has definitely become as much a part of watching football as football itself. In fact, watching tailgating can be even more of a spectacle than the game. Fans get up to some pretty crazy antics during tailgating activities, and there really is no end to the ways they find to do wild, fun, and sometimes ridiculous things. It’s great to watch, even when the game isn’t.

In fact, there are a lot of fans who don’t even attend the games. They just go for the tailgating parties, and then watch the games on TV. And why not? The beer and food you can bring from home is cheaper than what you’ll get inside the stadium. Also, tailgating parties are among the most social activities that you can find. Most of the banter between fans of opposing teams is all in good fun. Sometimes things go a little too far, but, hey, that happens in almost any situation. Whatever your preference, tailgating is a great way to enjoy a big sporting event.