Road trip. Two words that go great with college football. And every good road trip brings back a lot of memorable stories. In our case, add an RV, BBQ tailgating, a border war, a club suite, 1 urologist, 3 gynecologists and a hunting club to the recipe. All of the sudden visions of the movie “The Hangover” may enter your imagination. Well it didn’t go that far, as there wasn’t a Tiger involved nor was there an Asian gangster locked in our trunk. Instead there was a rattlesnake and the RV did not have a trunk. So let’s start from the beginning to see how this story got started…
Back in April my wife and I were eating at a restaurant in Kinston, NC called The Chef & The Farmer (foodies, this place is a must) and we bumped into a friend of mine, Max. During the conversation he said, “We’re going to the North Carolina/South Carolina game, you want to go?” I responded, “Man, it’s only April, I’m not sure what the Fall looks like, when is the game, I don’t think I can make it…OK, I’m in.” It took all of ten seconds and an approving nod from the coolest wife in the world to commit to the UNC vs. South Carolina football road trip.
Fast forward through the summer months, during which the anticipation of this road trip began to build as the date crept closer, and it’s now Thursday, August 29th. College football’s opening day. My phone alarm was about to go off at 5:45am, but my internal sports’ fan clock woke me up a few minutes early. After stumbling in the dark trying not to wake 3 sleeping little girls and momma bear, I managed to get out to my car with a suitcase in one hand and a packed cooler in the other hand. I ran by a Bojangles’ to pick up some Cajun Filet biscuits (that’s a Cajun-fried boneless chicken breast on a biscuit to the layperson) as a kick-start to the day’s gluttony for the guys riding in our car to meet the RV in Lumberton, NC. As is customary in this part of the South, the biscuits were happily accepted. Then we pulled up to a Starbucks where we were the target of jealous glances as people realized the workday lay ahead for them; but for the 4 guys clad in light blue, a different day was just beginning.
It took all of 10 seconds in the car before the football chatter began with pregame analysis and reactions to UNC’s big recruiting commitment from the night before (5-star running back Elijah Hood-check him out). Before you knew it two hours had passed and we were in a parking lot awaiting the grand arrival of our mobile tailgating machine…the RV. A quick observation by the group noticed that we had more coolers than people. That’s what happens when you have 8lbs of Eastern North Carolina BBQ(more detailed review on that later), fried chicken, hamburgers, chips, dip and all of the various beverages needed to keep this group of 12 guys happy on game day. In any case, somebody’s ice machine was emptied out the night before. Sounds like a good start to long tailgate. And then the beast arrived.
You would have thought it was Christmas morning for us with the eager looks of what this RV could do for our tailgating adventure. It was big and it was glorious. But the clock was ticking, meaning tailgating time was ticking away, so we quickly loaded up the obscene amount of coolers onto the RV and headed south down I-95 towards Columbia, SC. Not confirmed, but I swore I heard Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” playing in the background as we hit the highway.
Talking sports in the RV was a new experience. It felt like we were riding in a traveling sports bar. And like most sports bars, the guys that had never met before this trip were soon talking like old friends. Keeping your drink upright, trying not to get car sick and using the bathroom while the RV was in motion proved to be tasks not to be taken lightly. What didn’t seem to be hard was engaging in a two-hour analysis of every single angle of the night’s game. You had your pessimists, your optimists, maybe a few realists, but who doesn’t want to dream big on opening day? A noticeable trend was the increasing confidence level in the Tar Heels’ chances as we got closer to the stadium…which also coincided with the increasing consumption of our beverages. Carolina was a 13-point underdog to host South Carolina, who came into the game ranked in the Top 10 under the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier and also boasted All-World defensive lineman, Jadeveon Clowney, picked by some to be a Heisman contender this year. But who lets daunting facts get in the way of the optimism and hope?
When the RV came to a stop, all eyes fixated on the large stadium in front of us. Our group was one of the first arrivals to the parking lot, a fact that made me think of how Clark Griswold must have felt when they were the first ones to pull into the parking lot of Wally World. Except, unlike in the movie, the South Carolina Gamecocks’ Williams-Brice Stadium was not closed for business. There would be no moose telling us to go back home. We had entered SEC country and the stadium, nicknamed “The Cock Pit”, had a motto that said, “If it ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin’.” When we stepped off the RV you could smell the BBQ smokers and you could feel the game day buzz already. I looked for the first Gamecock fan I could find and shot them a steely eyed mean look to announce our arrival.
The tents went up quickly, coolers were set up and the UNC flag to mark our spot was proudly hung. We met our neighbors, turned on the music and got out our feast. This gets me back to an earlier mention of Eastern North Carolina pork BBQ. BBQ aficionados know that as you travel to different regions of the country, the style of BBQ changes too. Many places have varying degrees of thicker, ketchup-based sauces. In cities like Memphis the dry-rub plays a big role in the BBQ recipes found there. In the area of South Carolina where we came to tailgate, a mustard-based BBQ sauce reigns supreme. It’s a yellow sauce that uses mustard as its base and cane sugar instead of molasses. The mustard idea comes from the region’s German roots where mustard and pork is a popular meat/condiment combination. Well, we were the invaders for today’s border war and as such, we brought our own style of BBQ. Eastern North Carolina BBQ is rooted in a vinegar and pepper based sauce that is commonly used with chopped pork BBQ, which is what served as the centerpiece of our menu on this day. If you haven’t tried it, you need to add it to your culinary bucket list. Don’t fret health nuts, 8 of the guys in our group were doctors, including a cardiologist, and they ate their weight in BBQ without an ounce of guilt in their satisfied eyes. Parker’s BBQ out of Greenville, NC was the generous provider on this day. The additional menu items of fried chicken, hamburgers, and chips and dip led to one of the memorable quotes of the trip when my friend Hale said, “Wow, you can tell this tailgate was planned by men…because we don’t have one vegetable item on the menu.” And even though there was some debate about whether the jar of pickles counted, in the end, he was right.
Customary to how a tailgate should be run; there were bountiful amounts of food and alcohol. Our group commenced into a solid, “Eat, Drink and Repeat” rhythm. During this gluttonous display a new theme had cropped up for the day. It was steaming hot outside. I mean really hot. Your only option was to suck it up and drink a little more, but it was sweltering. With an hour left before kickoff, most guys had a tasty beverage in one hand, and a bottle of water in the other.
Finally, our internal clocks went off and it was time to head into the stadium. It was go time! As we joined the other 80,000 fans walking into the stadium, the intensity was thick and soon rivaling chants of “TAR…HEELS!” and “GAME…COCKS!” echoed throughout the concourse areas. Arguments ensued over who was the “Real” Carolina. Gamecock fans hate the fact that outside of South Carolina, everybody else in this country is referring to the Tar Heels when they say Carolina. The anticipation was building and I got goose bumps when we walked out of the walkway tunnel and saw the field for the first time. The pageantry of college football is hard to beat. The bands are playing and the student section is going nuts. There’s nothing like it. When we arrived at our seats we quickly noticed the clever strategy of the home team…put the opposing fans’ seats directly facing the sun so that the intense heat can drain all of the passion from their voices. Did I mention it was boiler-room hot?
After the Gamecocks ran out of the tunnel to the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Tar Heels kicked off and the 2013 college football season was underway. The high of a great opening hit by a UNC freshman was quickly erased by the low of watching South Carolina score on a long bomb on their 3rd play from scrimmage. It was a dagger right through the heart. That didn’t stop the back and forth chatter between fans. Your ears could pick up debates on play calls from the arm-chair quarterbacks, me included, or the constant critiques of Clowney’s performance. There’s always one chatty guy that sticks out from the crowd. This time it was a twenty-something kid that drank enough for all of us. He didn’t stop ranting against the Heels the entire game…and HE was a Heels’ fan! At one point a few guys were debating which one was going to put this section out of its misery and take him out. It was that bad. And then the type of statement I had been waiting for all night to define this guy came forth from his own mouth…”I played two and a half years of high school football, I can coach better than all of you!” Wow. Priceless. Judging by his small stature and high-pitched voice, I concluded he played left end of the bench for the JV team.
There were some swings of momentum in the game, but as the score drifted away from our desired result, it seemed to get even hotter. I think I had consumed 6 bottles of water inside of the stadium at this point. I looked next to me and saw that Max was struggling too. I asked him what he thought the temperature was and without hesitation he responded, “153 degrees.” I really couldn’t argue with that very specific assessment. Finally at half time cloud cover came in and we could breathe again as the temps dropped about 10 degrees in a matter of minutes. Carolina’s chances of winning had dropped by then too. And if you have lived in the South for any period of time during the summer, hot weather followed by clouds and cooler temps usually mean some serious weather is on the way. A serious thunder and lightning storm caused the stadium to be emptied out and sent the game into a weather delay with 8 minutes left in the game. Bummer…or was it?
What ensued over the next hour is what I would call the game within the game. My buddy Bill was on his phone in some serious discussion it seemed, totally oblivious to the fact we needed to exit the stadium. We walked ahead. He then hung up and called out to us, “Wait a minute guys, change of plans.” Now usually I would have ignored this considering the weather was deteriorating fast all around us. But something in his voice and his serious glare signaled the need to stop and listen. Bill informed us there was a Gamecock Club named “The Zone” with free food and drinks and air conditioning…and come hell or high water we were getting in that place. I sent a doubting glare to Max and our other friend John. Max sensed my trepidation, but then he reminded me that if there was a graduate degree for getting into exclusive places you don’t have credentials for, Bill would graduate Magna Cum Laude. After walking through half the stadium, we found the entrance to this place. Of course the door was guarded by a serious woman who took as much pride in keeping the wrong folks out of this place as Bill takes in sneaking into these places. Three attempts to sweet talk her had fallen flat and Bill got frustrated, managing to drop his iPhone and break it in the process. Just when we were ready to leave, the door opened again, but the lady was looking backwards. Sensing his moment, Bill bum rushed the door and slipped in behind her. The three of us on the outside couldn’t believe it. And 5 minutes later the door opened and Bill came out with four passes for us to get into The Zone. The man has a gift.
Four guys clad in Carolina blue had just entered the belly of the beast. As we stepped inside it was painfully obvious that we stood out like a sore thumb. There must have been a couple hundred folks dressed in garnet and black…and then there was us. I could feel the stares of disgust that were fixated on us. So we did what anybody would do in that situation. We walked right up to the first carving station and asked the kind gentleman to fill up our plates with the delicious pork tenderloin presented before us. Followed by a trip to the chili dog bar and the spinach dip station. I felt like Vince Vaughn in ‘The Wedding Crashers’ sampling all of the food in the weddings they snuck into, minus the crab cakes. Then came the moment where I thought we were toast. As I perused the shrimp cocktail station(did I mention this place rocked!) I noticed the attendant was giving me an evil glare. After an awkward silence she finally declared, “You should not be wearing that shirt in here sir.” All I could do is smile and cleverly say, “Can you pass the gamecock-tail sauce mam?” She did not laugh.
After trying every food and drink offering in the place we reunited to notice the game was getting ready to start back up. Should we leave? Of course not. We stepped through the glass door to the club level seats to watch the remaining 8 minutes of the game. By this point only about 10,000 people remained in the entire stadium. Carolina finished strong but came up short in scoring the touchdown that would have covered the point spread and sent us home with some added level of satisfaction. Overall, the Tar Heels did not play well and against a Top 10 team like South Carolina, you have to play well to have a chance to win. But who am I kidding, getting into The Zone was victory enough for us at that point.
The game was finally over and the four of us made our way back to the RV and noticed everybody was exhausted and ready to jump into the cars that were headed to the hunting camp we were staying at for the night. The hunting camp was a whole other story in itself; which included elk heads, wild hog traps, and a rattlesnake. But we’ll save that for another time. This action-packed day was over. We rang in the opening weekend of college football, made some new friends, had a great tailgate and experienced the ‘SEC’ atmosphere. The only question left was…who’s in for the next road trip?
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