My ideal tailgate has always been a laid-back affair: some Jerry Jeff Walker, screwdrivers, and brisket with a handful of close friends has a certain way of getting me amped up for a big game more than huge crowds, loud music, and lots of cheering ever could. But, in an effort to become a martyr for capital-J Journalism, this weekend I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone, paint a sign, and wait up all night to get a prime spot on ESPN’s College Gameday. The show hadn’t been to Austin in a decade, and I wasn’t sure if it would be back before I graduate next year. What follows is a minute-by-minute diary of the experience, so that y’all don’t have to do it yourselves.
1:50 AM: Leaving a bar tab on 4th St. The plan was to get two or three hours of rest before heading out to Gameday, but instead, I’m audibling to go straight there. This might be a genius plan, or it might be the bar tab talking.
2:03 AM: Stopped back at my place to grab my sign. Going simple today: 69 National Champs. Grab two water bottles full of vodka. Ready to roll. Asked a couple friends if they wanted to join and got a resounding “Fuck that” in response. Oh well.
2:10 AM: Picked up some Topo and candy bars at a 7/11. A group of strangers ask me where I’m going. When I tell them, they respond the same way my friends did. “Fuck that.” They outnumber me 5-1 but look soft. I call them pussies and continue on my way. They don’t say anything back. Pussies.
2:41 AM: Just arrived outside the LBJ Library, and there are about 40-50 people here so far. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. It sort of looks like any other park in Austin these days, bodies strewn around asleep on the lawn in a mismatch of directions. The first surprise is how quiet it is. Nobody’s brought a speaker or anything. There are a handful of hushed conversations, but otherwise, people are either asleep or whispering to friends. I see a group playing cards and decide to investigate if there’s some blackjack money to be won. As I’m about to ask if I can join, I hear one of them say “Go fish.” I keep walking.
The Hellraisers are in the front of the line. They’re all sitting around shirtless, which I note only because it means that they don’t even bring backup shirts to games in case they want to, say, go to a bar after the game. I could wax poetic for days about how embarrassing they are with their painted chests, their barbaric screams and overall Aggie-like demeanor. Instead, I will show you a picture:
Yes, that is the Milwaukee power tools logo tattooed on his bicep (and a weird t-shirt thing below it, which is ironic considering he doesn’t appear to own one). I couldn’t believe it either. The man actually labelled himself as a tool. Wow.
3:03 AM: Have been friendly, trying to get to know my neighbors. One ESPN producer tells me that at most schools, there are folks that camp out for three days to get on the show. The fact that nobody does this at UT makes me proud to be a Longhorn. That said, it’s not the crowd I expected here. Every other person I introduce myself to says they’re pre-med. Only one group brought beer, and they said they don’t have enough to share. The vodka is going quick.
3:25 AM: The Hellraisers just shotgunned Red Bulls. This makes sense.
3:33 AM: An LSU fan arrives and lets his presence be known by shouting “Go Tigers!” I wonder if he wants to die, and then scream back, “I hope you remembered your tampons!” He shoots a middle finger in my direction. He does, in fact, have a death wish. I try to remember why I’m even here, and then I wonder if I have a death wish too.
3:48 AM: Ian, a 30 year-old engineer from Odessa, is sitting next to me. This will be his second Horns game ever, and he can’t name our quarterback. He’s just here for the experience. I ask him where he’s from. “That’s the big question, isn’t it? Where are any of us really from?” I finish the first water bottle of vodka.
4:17 AM: Guess I fell asleep. Wake up to find a jorts-wearing, shirtless Hellraiser standing over me. “Get up, dude! We’re about to go in!”
“What time is it?”
“Don’t the gates not open until 5:30?”
“So how are we about to go in?”
We talk some more, and I ask him about himself. He says he’s from San Diego, and he’s at Texas, “to party. Duh.” Next month, he says he’s going up to Colorado to camp in the woods for two weeks and bow hunt. He’s taking a week to drive up there and a week to drive back. I ask him how missing a month of classes is going to work. “Oh, I don’t take any classes.” I try to clarify: “Are you a student here?” He says, “No. Like I said, I’m just here to party.” I think this man is my new personal hero.
4:42 AM: The crowd’s gotten significantly bigger, and things are starting to pick up. Somebody brought a speaker and the first thing they play is that awful “thank God I was born a Texas Longhorn” song. I yell, “We’re not Aggies. Stop playing this thing,” and a Hellraiser tells me to be quiet because that song “is what being a Longhorn is all about.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that the Horns take themselves more seriously than Aggies. Silent pride, y’all. Ever heard of it?
4:48 AM: The crowd’s gotten huge now, wrapping out of LBJ Lawn and down the street. Some people are tossing a football around. One person walks to the front of the line, seemingly just to say hello to a friend. The idea that he would cut the line almost creates a riot. Apparently, getting a prime spot on College GameDay is very serious business.
4:55 AM: One of the Hellraisers tries to shotgun a can of chicken noodle soup. One onlooker notes, “That’s like throwing up but backwards.”
5:00 AM: Secured a beer from a friendly government major. My eternal thanks. He can count on my vote one day.
5:19 AM: Living up to his promise, Chris Del Conte hands me a Tacodeli breakfast taco. Potato, egg, and cheese. I say, “Thanks, Chris,” and when he gets a whiff of the liquor on my breath he staggers backwards. I consider this a victory—of what, I’m not sure. But it’s a victory nonetheless.
5:23 AM: A security guard has just informed us that if we want to get into the pit, which is right behind the stage where Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, etc. sit, we’ll need to go through a security check and our signs can’t be on any kind of post. Alternatively, we can stay in the area right outside the pit, bypass security, and elevate our signs as high as we would like. I can’t have them taking my liquor so head to the fence right outside the pit. A security guard tells me if that was my plan all along, I could have just gotten there at 6 AM. I forget what I said back to him, but it probably was not friendly.
5:30 AM: Everyone else starts streaming into the pit, and there’s intense jockeying to get as close to the front as possible. Still nobody anywhere around me, but there’s a camera lane right in front of me. I think I might have lucked into a prime spot to get on TV.
5:47 AM: Officially out of booze. I text some friends that it’s an emergency, and they need to bring more. Nobody responds.
6:15 AM: Very weird vibe here now. Everyone is standing, ready to go, but nothing is going on. Like nothing. Everyone is just standing around in the pre-dawn dark.
6:48 AM: Still, absolutely nothing has happened. The pit is squeezed full. There are about a dozen people who have joined me behind the pit now. I ask them if they have any booze. They don’t.
6:53 AM: They show a list of rules on the screen. Vulgar signs not allowed. Makes sense. Neither are religious ones or advertisements for any business. One unexpected rule: no dry erase boards. I’m kicking myself for not thinking to use one of those. Kudos to whichever genius forced this rule to go into effect.
7:03 AM: Pandemonium. People are falling over each other, screaming their heads off. I think someone must be giving away free beer and consider jumping over the barrier to get some. Turns out, it was the first live shot to air on SportsCenter. The camera closes in on one guy, shirtless, who grabs the camera, sticks his face in it, and yells so hard he literally turns purple. The guy next to me goes, “What drug is he on?” And then, as color returns to his face, I realize that the guy on the screen is my jorts wearing Hellraiser friend from San Diego who is just here to party. Apparently, he also joined the group who was shotgunning Red Bull. He’s living exactly the kind of life he wants to live. I’m happy for him.
7:18 AM: Desmond Howard comes out to do a segment for SportsCenter. People go crazy again until they see on the monitors that it’s such a close shot that none of them have any chance of getting on screen. Then they stop cheering altogether. I’m glad that everyone is singularly focused on being seen on ESPN. I start to wonder if I even want that kind of attention. In this state, I’m worried that a national TV close up would damage any chance I ever had of getting a job after college. On the other hand, if I don’t want to get on TV, then why did I come to GameDay? I don’t have an answer for that last one.
7:59 AM: The show is about to start. I’ve learned that cameras roam around the crowd constantly, and most of the time, they aren’t filming anything. They’re just there to get people fired up. I start to think that whoever produces this show might be an evil mastermind.
And then that very man walks on stage and gives everyone instructions. We are to yell like maniacs when the show first goes live, but the second we hear their hillybilly anthem of a theme song, we are to put our signs down because they’re going to put a giant Texas flag over us. Everybody nods very seriously, and if anybody has a sign or flag up, somebody nearby yells at them to take it down. This man could tell the crowd to cheer for Aggies, and they would listen to him. I think we should get him on the debate stage this Thursday. The man is a leader.
8:01 AM: The show begins. Mayhem. This makes Justin Bieber’s crowds of prepubescent girls look calm. People are climbing onto shoulders. When the sky cam comes over the crowd, there’s a mad dash to get to whichever side it is rotating towards. I’m pretty sure I get on TV right at the start, and wonder if I should just leave and go to sleep. And then that theme song comes on, a stranger yells at me to, “Get your fucking sign down. The producer told us, remember?!” And soon, I’m covered by a giant flag with nowhere to go. I am trapped with the peppiest people in the world, haven’t gotten real sleep in 24 hours, and am dangerously on my way towards a hangover. In that very instance, I begin to have a splitting headache. When the flag passes, though, I throw my sign into the air and scream like a lunatic. For the millionth time today, I ask Why am I doing this?
8:13 AM: My spot along the rails turned out to be a brilliant tactical decision. Cameras pass along here constantly. One of them zooms in on my sign. It is the proudest moment of my life.
8:21 AM: Surprised by how fun this actually is. They have screens and a PA system so that you can follow along with the show. It turns into a game: what camera angles do I need to put my sign up? What angle should it be at? How high? When can I rest? All of us outside the pit (probably 8-10 rows of people at this point) are figuring it out. The people in the pit are not. They trip over themselves every time there’s a camera cut. It’s endlessly entertaining.
8:30 AM: They’re passing out Home Depot College GameDay construction hats, and you would think they were handing people $100 bills. I get pushed up against the barrier as people try to get their hands on one. Apparently, they have some demolition work to attend to after the show is over.
8:34 AM: The sun just peaked out from behind the stage and instantly, it’s too hot to be comfortable and becomes hard to see anything since the sun is directly in your eyes.
8:50 AM: Fireworks. Smoke. Dramatic music. Rece Davis announces, “THE UNDERTAKER!” Two other students near me ask, “Who is that old man?” I’ll admit, he does look like the actual undertaker might pay him a visit sooner rather than later. He also looks like he would fit in well with the Hellraisers, and I want to ask my jorts friend what he thinks of his tank top.
9:03 AM: Someone tries to squirm past me to get right up against the gate. The man next to me almost throws a punch. My head hurts too much to care. I’ve sweat out all the booze.
9:10 AM: The camera makes another pass right in front of me. I’m restored, immediately screaming like a maniac, leaning into the lens and yelling “HOOK ‘EM HORNS BABY!” Then I realize the camera is off, and they’re just doing it to get fans cheering. I wonder again if the producer of this show would be interested in running for president.
9:17 AM: All that screaming didn’t help things. I feel awful. A friend texts to say they saw me on TV. With my mission accomplished, I wonder if I should leave. I decide to give it one more segment.
9:25 AM: Sunburned. Hoarse. Hungover. I feel like I’m letting the Horns down, but I have nothing left to give. If I have any hope of making it to the game tonight, I need to go home. I roll up my sign, say my farewells, and worm my way out of the crowd. It’s huge now, with folks filling up the hillside nearby just trying to get a glimpse. Here is the part where I expected I would write about how, during this walk home, I reflected back on the whole experience and felt reassurance in the good of humanity, that I had a sudden realization about why we cheer for teams to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, or about how I realized that I couldn’t let my Hellraiser friend in jorts just disappear into the crowd, and so I turned around, hurdled a security guard, muscled my way to the front row and told him, “I love you, man. Keep being you,” and then we shotgunned Red Bulls together and were officially anointed bros for life. But none of that happened. I don’t remember much from the walk other than almost getting run over by a gaggle of LSU fans on scooters. My brain was fried. I felt awful. I stumbled into my room, fell into bed, and went to sleep.