For about seven fall Saturdays each of the past 12 years, Peter Moran has enjoyed one constant: tailgating for Gophers football games.
The tradition started with a group of seven friends buying season tickets and has grown from the Metrodome days to TCF Bank Stadium, expanding along with the families. For the usual Thursday season opener, the friends would take the day off work to golf before the game that night. On Saturdays, their group would be among the first in line when Lot 37 behind Ridder Arena opened at 7 a.m., pulling into the same spot on the far east side.
Throughout the years, this became more than just a pregame gathering for snacks and cornhole. Lot 37 became a community — a community temporarily disbanded during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You take away that aspect of it … of community and getting together with friends and other fans and just celebrating the good times and wallowing in misery with each other through the bad times,” Moran said. “ … It’s just not going to be the same.”
Moran is one of many Gophers fans left with a void where following their favorite college football team used to be. While the Big Ten helped that a bit by reinstating the canceled season to start Oct. 24, the conference still won’t allow fans to attend games or tailgate because of COVID-19 concerns.
For Moran, 43, of Greenfield, it’s not the food or the beverages or even the fact that as a father of two boys, those home Gophers games are some of his few social events of the year that he’ll miss most. It’ll be catching up with his friends and their families. Playing cornhole with the tailgaters across the lot or dropping by another setup to catch a different college game on TV. How even if the group is late to claim its usual spot, other tailgaters will block it off to save it or give anyone grief who dares to take it.
A fan melting pot
Nadine Babu and some of her friends run a tailgate that’s become “a melting pot for anyone who’s a Gophers fan,” as the co-owner of fan site GopherHole.com put it. Around 100 people pass through each game, including former players and current players’ parents from out of state. Babu takes on cooking duties for some games and posts on Twitter the coolers and refrigerators filled with meal preparations the night before a game.
“A tailgate is one of those things where it’s so much work and it’s so much time, but then you see the joy that it brings people, and it’s worth all of it,” she said. “ … It’s really one of the only things that brings every group of people together, regardless of political affiliations or religion or anything else. It’s just, you are all there because of your love of the Gophers.”
On Sept. 3, the day the Gophers were supposed to start this season before all the COVID-19 delays, Babu was texting her tailgating group, sharing how sad they were to not be together. Babu is also disappointed to miss out on a chance to raise money for charities such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through a donation bucket set out at each tailgate.
To cope with no tailgating, Nadine and others have been creative. She planned a small birthday gathering with a tailgate theme. Moran is hoping to host his group for the Gophers new season opener, Oct. 24 against Michigan.
Patrick Griswold, 45, of St. Louis Park started a traveling tailgate each week even before the Gophers’ season was back in play.
Griswold has been a season-ticket holder since 2006 and met his wife in the 2701 University Av. lot when her family’s spot was right next to his. While it’s not quite the same extreme setup — including a DJ for one game a year — as the actual tailgate, Griswold still throws up the tent, lugs out the TV and fires up the grill in his backyard.
“We’re happy just to be hanging out and being together and watching games,” he said. “ … Anything right now is better than nothing.”
Tailgating, along with other large-group gatherings, will have to wait until the pandemic dies down, hopefully by next season. In the meantime, Gophers fans have a little extra time on their hands for Saturdays this fall.
“Obviously, this will lead to other people being able to contribute more to society, people spending more time with their kids and doing more housework and things like that,” Babu said. “But there’s just nothing like spending the day in the lot and going into TCF Bank Stadium and just knowing that that’s your Saturday no matter what.”