Football? You bet!

Published 11:27 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lina Edwards prepares to stir the chili she’s been working on for a couple of days ahead of the Blacksburg party

By Andrew Giermak and R.E. Spears III

What do you get when you combine a fanatical devotion to college football and season tickets to your favorite team’s home games? Tailgating, of course.

Mark Edwards lays out a line of bratwursts for his son, Will, to cook on the grill.

It’s a staple of the college football scene, and fans take part in the tradition all across the nation, with lively debates over who does it best. Are the linen tablecloths and catered appetizers at one school more appropriate for the pregame celebration than plastic cups and grilled bratwursts of another? It might be harder to reach an agreement on that topic than to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on a way to reduce the deficit.

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Clearly, the ways to enjoy a good tailgate party are as varied as the universities and colleges where they spring up on Saturdays throughout the fall. After putting out a call to veteran tailgaters from several of Virginia’s top schools early this fall, the Suffolk Living staff tagged along one cold Saturday with the first to call us back with an invitation.

Our assignment could have taken us to the University of Virginia, James Madison, Old Dominion, William and Mary or any one of the commonwealth’s other fine institutions of higher learning. But the Hokies were quickest on the draw, so we headed to Blacksburg, where for years the Edwards family has been setting up an elaborate spread on football Saturdays in a parking lot near Lane Stadium.

To say that Virginia Tech fans enjoy their pregame festivities is about as much an understatement as saying they get excited when “Enter Sandman” blasts throughout Lane Stadium and the Hokies storm onto the field a couple of minutes before kickoff.

For people like 1984 Tech grads Mark and Lina Edwards, the tailgate party is an art perfected through years of devotion. They’ve been tailgating at home games and bowl appearances for so long that the art has become science.

Every time there’s a home football game, the Edwards family packs up the Yukon and heads to Blacksburg. Grill, card tables, slow-cookers, radios, blow-up decorations, tents and a variety of beverages fill the back of the vehicle, with Mark and Lina and 15-year-old Will sitting up front. In Blacksburg, they’ll meet daughter Carly, a Nansemond-Suffolk alum and Virginia Tech senior, and son Tyler, who is a couple of months into his freshman year at Tech. By the time the game starts, the tents will be full of food and dozens of old and new friends there to enjoy the party.

“I graduated in ’84 and have been coming to every (home) game possible ever since,” Mark said. “We go to most of the games at Virginia, Wake, Carolina. We’ve been to Charlotte for the ACC championship, Atlanta and Miami for bowl games.”

Each football weekend is a family reunion. It’s always, homecoming or not, a class reunion, as well.

On this Saturday, with a kickoff under the lights against Clemson drawing closer, friends from Dallas, Seattle and New England know where to find the Edwards’ tailgate party.

Beneath a pair of large tents a long field goal attempt away from Lane Stadium, they find enough chili, brats, nachos, ham biscuits and fried chicken to make any Southerner happy, along with snacks, sweets and beverages of all types.

Will, 15, is the grillmaster and true Hokie football historian. He’s right on point for anything Virginia Tech’s done on the gridiron in the last decade. Dad turns to him for any score, stat or trivia that stumps him, even if they were both at the same game.

The opportunity for joking, remembering, razzing and breaking down football with friends — as though 30 years is the same as last weekend — is what draws everyone to the food and the seven-foot-tall inflated orange and maroon turkey that stands beside the Edwards’ tents. Camaraderie spreads equally from father to son, as well as between classmates who’ve seen the Hokies for decades.

Ray England, also VPI Class of ’84, made a 24-hour round-trip drive, leaving Rhode Island on Thursday to make it to the game.

“The stadium, both sides, were wooden grandstands,” England recalled of his years at Tech.

Now, Lane Stadium rivals an NFL stadium with the number of luxury suites and can hold just under 70,000 fans.

“It was nothing at all like it is now,” England said. “We were big fans. We loved coming to the games, but you’d come to the game, and that was about all.”

Things are, indeed, different today.

Early in the afternoon, there seems to be an incredible amount of food arrayed beneath the Edwards’ tents. But about two hours before kickoff, the younger Hokies show up and suddenly, the buffet seems smaller. The chili doesn’t stand a chance of returning to Smithfield.

“I think Tyler goes into the dining hall, stands up and says, ‘Hey, does anyone want free food?’” Mark joked.

Once a friend, or even a friend of a friend, joins the Edwards tailgate, he or she is invited back for good.

Even opposing teams’ fans are invited into this Hokie huddle. Clemson fans, met while hanging out in Blacksburg Friday night, were invited. Texas A&M and Nebraska fans, when the vaunted Aggies and Cornhuskers traveled to Blacksburg, were outstanding people to get to know, Mark said.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a football game. You’ve got to have fun. It’s all about enjoying the time here,” Edwards said.

But football is still the reason for the party, and these are hardcore football fans.

With kickoff nearing, Mark puts on his lucky No. 50 Hokie jersey, a jersey old enough to have a Big East logo on it. Will recalls that it hasn’t always been so lucky, mentioning a Miami game in 2005 and the 2010 James Madison game as blemishes on the power of the jersey.

And on this cold, rainy Saturday night, before a crowd of 70,000 and a national audience via ESPN, the lucky jersey proved powerless before the might of a Clemson team destined to be ranked in the Top 10 and set on making the Hokies’ tailgate parties the highlight of the home fans’ day.

Sunday would find the Edwards family saying their goodbyes, packing up the Yukon and heading back to Smithfield, mourning the Hokies’ first loss of the season. But there would be other Saturdays, and, as the University of Miami would learn the following week, there’s still a bit of luck left in Mark’s old jersey.