Black Gold & Grilled

Tailgating has become part of the sports DNA here in Pittsburgh Steelers Country. It's a cherished tradition whose roots grow deeper and its appeal grows wider with the passing years. Find out what fuels this cultural phenomenon (besides beer, that is).




It's 6 p.m. on a cloudless Sunday in September. On a patch of asphalt just west of Heinz Field, Bob Sabilla of Swisshelm Park is serving up sausage and peppers with a side of creamy mac-and-cheese. His friends, dozens of them, are eating and talking. Guys in Steelers jerseys are flirting with girls in Steelers jerseys. Somebody's tending the grill. And just about everybody is helping him- or herself to cold beer from the tap, which has been permanently attached to the side of Sabilla's black-and-gold, amazingly customized truck.

Meanwhile, over on the east side of Heinz Field, Dale Yakish is grilling lamb chops. His truck, a Christmas gift from his wife and kids, is almost as tricked out as Sabilla's. But it's got a sleeker vibe, as does his party. There's beer, of course, but there's also a bottle of wine or two. And yet, for all the posh comforts, there's no air of exclusion here: "We've got CEOs of health companies and we've got contractors," says Yakish, who lives in Beaver County. "Everybody's welcome."

Just a few hundred yards to the south, five young guys from Brooklyn huddle around a small charcoal grill. Their tailgate party is pure simplicity: car, beer, burgers. They're talking football and loving the fact that they're spending the day - the entire day - at the home of the world-champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

A good tailgate, the regulars will tell you, has room for everybody. "Doesn't matter if you're wearing a tuxedo or a bikini," says Kevin Miller, the Alabama-based publisher of Tailgater Monthly magazine. "All are welcome here. It's a rare thing when you find that type of environment."

Rare? Well, for the moment, anyway. It's actually becoming a whole lot more common.

In recent years, this beer-fueled pastime has become increasingly popular around the country, busting out of football stadiums to include NASCAR races, baseball games, hockey games, even Jimmy Buffet concerts. Wherever people congregate before a big event these days, you'll find someone grilling dinner behind his vehicle. "It has really exploded in the last five years," says Miller, whose magazine aims to have a half-million online subscribers by the end of next year. "It's not just a pastime anymore. It's an industry."

Here in Pittsburgh, regulars will tell you that tailgating has been elevated to an art form. The kind of environment Miller describes - where everybody's welcome at the party, especially if he or she is cheering on the local team - comes natural here. We love our teams; we love good food and drink, and we love gathering for some serious revelry. We're also a practical bunch: Pregame tailgating is the perfect way to offset the staggering cost of NFL ticket prices. Who wouldn't want to extend a pricey three-hour experience into a celebratory eight-hour one?

Pittsburghers swear tailgating really is different here, just as being a black-and-gold fan is different from following other teams in other places. Is it true? And if so, why has this unique and exceptional kind of tailgating sprouted in this particular spot, along the shores of the Allegheny?

Braving the heat of late summer and the chill of early fall, Pittsburgh magazine set out to explore the tailgating culture here in our sports-loving city. Wandering among the tents, RVs and even boats that form sprawling villages in the hours before games at PNC Park and especially Heinz Field, we sought out the heart of a true Pittsburgh Tailgate.

Here's a taste (sausage and peppers not included, unfortunately) of what we found:

Pittsburghers swear tailgating really is different here, just as being a black-and-gold fan is different from following other teams in other places. Is it true? And if so, why has this unique and exceptional kind of tailgating sprouted in this particular spot, along the shores of the Allegheny?

Braving the heat of late summer and the chill of early fall, Pittsburgh magazine set out to explore the tailgating culture here in our sports-loving city. Wandering among the tents, RVs and even boats that form sprawling villages in the hours before games at PNC Park and especially Heinz Field, we sought out the heart of a true Pittsburgh Tailgate.

Here's a taste (sausage and peppers not included, unfortunately) of what we found:

STEELY RESOLVE

The mythology that surrounds the Pittsburgh Steelers is inextricably linked with the region's history and its people. We think of our team, and ourselves, in terms of hard work, physical struggle and achievement against tough odds. They win games in the driving snow, and we don't back down from challenging times. Our team stays true to its values; our people don't take the easy way out.

Bob Sabilla spends eight hours each week shopping for tailgating groceries and supplies, coordinating the contributions of friends and packing his truck so it can hold everything from tables to hot plates to tents. There's something about the effort and preparation that serious tailgating requires that meshes perfectly with Pittsburgh's "If it's hard to do, let us give it a shot" sensibility.

Add in the fact that these outdoor parties mainly happen in the freezing cold, and you've got just the kind of challenge that Pittsburghers love to tackle. Tailgating is huge among fans of college football in Southern states for a good reason: The weather is lovely year-round. It's a pleasure to grill outdoors in Louisiana in December. But it takes Steeler-like commitment to be flipping burgers outside when the mercury dips into single digits and icy winds are whistling off the river.

Add in the fact that these outdoor parties mainly happen in the freezing cold, and you've got just the kind of challenge that Pittsburghers love to tackle. Tailgating is huge among fans of college football in Southern states for a good reason: The weather is lovely year-round. It's a pleasure to grill outdoors in Louisiana in December. But it takes Steeler-like commitment to be flipping burgers outside when the mercury dips into single digits and icy winds are whistling off the river.

"We've been out here when it's 5 below, and it's really not bad," says a smiling Brady Lecker, who never misses a home game at Heinz Field. He and his extended family arrive about five hours before each game, driving from their home in Oakdale in an RV bought specifically for tailgating. It sports a custom-made flagpole, with the black-and-gold flying high alongside the red-white-and-blue, and even a homemade "Steelers angel" mounted on the dashboard.

Pittsburgh tailgaters will tell you they don't just endure the cold and wind. They celebrate it. "You don't even put on a sweatshirt until it's in the 30s," explains C.J. Loeffler of Butler County. He was tailgating before the Steelers' home opener alongside a group whose name captures the gritty strength that personifies 'Burgh tailgating: They call themselves The Hellgaters.

Now, here's where it starts to get interesting:

As you quiz The Hellgaters about what Pittsburgh tailgating is all about, another strand of what it means to be a Pittsburgher emerges. You see a warmth and inclusiveness among The Hellgaters, despite their intimidating name, that is classically Pittsburgh. Rich and poor, old and young, locals and out-of-towners all party together when The Hellgaters gather. Even during the off-season they stick together, attending each other's weddings and family celebrations.

Somewhere around 1976, The Hellgaters adopted into their clan a smiling visitor named Elvis Migotto. This Canadian, who claims the title of "Canada's Biggest Steelers Fan," is as hardcore as the rest. When football season arrives, he drives about 400 miles from his home north of Toronto just to tailgate at Heinz Field. The Hellgaters count him as one of their own, and he returns the love: "I can't bring food across the border," Migotto tells us, smiling just as broadly as the rest of his crew, "so I bring the pots and pans."

WE ARE FAMILY

"My mom was pregnant with me when I started tailgating," says Brian Meyer of Trafford, who recently returned from a tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He happily tailgated at the Steelers' home opener with a large group hosted by Delmont auto dealer C.J. Valero. Standing outside an eye-popping, enormous Valero Century RV painted a shimmering black and gold, Meyer and friends talk about growing up at Steelers tailgate parties.

Nearby, C.J. himself is seated in a lawn chair, surrounded by adorable kids. "This is a family-based company," he tells us. "And tailgating, the way we do it, is something for the whole family." The Leckers, who party nearby, agree completely: They've shared Thanksgiving turkeys (deep-fried, of course) with relatives at their tailgate and have mounted a black-and-gold Christmas tree on top of their RV. Family birthdays, anniversaries - they're all a part of the Pittsburgh tailgate experience.

Tailgating expert Mark Bradwick isn't surprised to hear these stories. Bradwick, who lives in San Antonio, blogs under the name Texan Mark and offers comprehensive guides for tailgating at venues across the country. He says the dedication and family focus you see among Steelers fans is like college-football tailgating rather than the typical NFL variety.

It's a tradition passed on among generations, and that brings with it a certain level of accountability. At Heinz Field, the parking lots are pre-sold, so the same families tend to come each week. Seeing the same people regularly means you have a reputation to uphold, Bradwick says, and that adds to the neighborly vibe that you find at a Pittsburgh tailgate.

Also, he says, college teams tend to give a town its identity in the same way that the Steelers (and, these days, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also draw their share of tailgaters despite the weather) are so central to Pittsburgh's identity. Steelers fans associate themselves closely with their team, so it's not their habit to trash the parking lot or brawl with other tailgaters. They respect the space. "It's not about fighting. It's a chance to swap stories," Bradwick says, "and you may rib and razz fans of the other team, but that's usually all it is. It's more of a good-natured ribbing."

At other NFL tailgates, especially connected to teams like the New York Giants - Bradwick mentions that you see few families at a Giants tailgate and the all-guy atmosphere can get pretty aggressive - Bradwick says you're more likely to see men "out in the lots, and they're getting obnoxious with lots of liquor." When they see fans of the opposing team, he says, "next thing you find is an altercation."

Pittsburgh tailgates do have their rowdy moments, and certainly the beer is flowing (we're told it's a useful way to stay warm out there). But Bradwick says he's noticed a real willingness among Steelers fans, and also among University of Pittsburgh Panthers fans, to party with fans of opposing teams.

Regulars tell us that the rowdiness level at Heinz Field sometimes gets ratcheted up in the hours before Monday-night games because season-ticket holders who work late may have sold their seats to strangers. It's those strangers, usually young guys who rarely get to attend a Steelers game, who tend to drink hard and sometimes fight. You also hear a bit of mild grousing from people in the outer lots about the "Volvo and white-wine people" who party in the priciest lots closest to the stadium. But their complaints come across more as irritation than as real anger.

There's really just one caveat to the open-arms policy at a Steelers tailgate. Sabilla, Yakish, the Leckers and C.J. Valero's crew all tell us they've drawn one important line in the sand: They can't let every stranger who asks use their private PortaJohns. "That," Sabilla says with a shrug, "would be unmanageable."

PAST AND PRESENT

Local tailgaters tell us they picked up this hobby during the championship years of the 1970s, and its popularity has continued to grow during good times (for the teams and the economy) and bad.

In flush times, they say, Pittsburghers work at elevating their tailgating in order to be worthy of the city's exceptional teams. So the tents get bigger; the spreads of food get even more elaborate, and the accessories - state-of-the-art sound systems and even flat-panel TVs are becoming a common sight - are light years beyond the transistor radios and car stereos of the 1970s.

Miller, from Tailgater Monthly, says tailgating was able to flourish even during Pittsburgh's downturns because it's not just recession-proof but recession-friendly. "Even a feast is affordable if everyone pitches in," he points out. "You can bring the potato salad; I'll bring the ham; someone else can bring the beverages. It's not a tremendous burden on any one individual."

Even with the cost of renting a parking space, tailgating is a bargain. Try this same kind of partying - five hours of ample food, drink and music - at a bar or restaurant, and you'd be left with a wildly expensive tab. With tailgating, if each person drops $15 at Giant Eagle, you're set for the whole day.

Tailgating is also focused entirely on the positive. More than a dozen of the people interviewed for this story mentioned that when they're tailgating, work doesn't matter and outside pressures melt away. For those hours, it's just about the food, the drink and the game. Hours of preparation and effort are a welcome distraction from the ups and downs of daily life. In a complicated world, tailgating is a clear distillation of our simplest needs: food, shelter, family and friends.

Now more than ever, Americans are embracing this affordable and uplifting pastime. The trappings you see here - the grills, the kegs, the jersey-clad partiers - are the same ones you'll see across the nation at all kinds of events every weekend.

But here, it seems the heart that beats beneath tailgating's mesquite-smoked surface is uniquely Pittsburgh. Like the perfect barbecue recipe, it's strong but sweet, meaty and memorable. And it packs a hell of a punch.

Tailgaters don't leave all the fun to the athletes. Many of them bring along games of their own and stage epic competitions on the asphalt. They play:

Cornhole: Players score points by tossing beanbags (often filled with dried corn) into a hole in a large, rectangular wooden box that's propped up at an angle. This is by far the most popular game at Steelers tailgates and at tailgates nationwide. Some tailgaters craft their own sets, but many buy the wooden board and accessories ready-made. Hardcore tailgaters customize their boxes (black and gold, of course). Cornhole.com offers boards and accessories, plus instructions for building your own.

Washers: Same principle as Cornhole, though the board is generally square, often carpeted and a bit smaller. Players toss small metal washers, aiming to have them land in a specific spot. Some tailgaters make their own; others buy. (TailgateWashers.com offers boards, accessories and even a battery-powered light for nighttime play!)

Ladder Ball/Bolo Toss: Two weighted objects (often golf balls) are attached by a string to form a bolo, which is tossed toward a metal frame resembling a ladder. Each of the three rungs on the ladder has a different point value, so players aim to have their bolo wrap around one of these rungs. (Also known as Redneck Golf, Hillbilly Horseshoes and a long list of other, less-than-polite names.)

Football/Frisbee: These are natural choices for pre-game entertainment, and you will see tailgaters tossing these items around. But with so many people crowded together in a parking lot, it's tough to keep a projectile from landing in the middle of someone else's party. Even the friendliest of tailgaters doesn't want your football in his beer. So footballs and Frisbees are more common at college-football tailgates, which often take place in larger spaces than NFL tailgates.

Beer Pong/Quarters: Drinking games are popular at tailgate parties, though we're told that some colleges attempt to ban the practice at their football games.

Tailgate Etiquette

As laid-back a hobby as tailgating may be, there are fairly strict rules of etiquette that veteran tailgaters tell us must be followed. The main bylaws are:

  • Don't leave trash behind. Wrap up everything in trash bags when the party ends, then take it with you or leave the bags stacked together, neatly tied.
  • Keep safety in mind. Make sure grills have cooled before going into the stadium.
  • Share with your fellow tailgaters. If a nearby tailgater runs out of ketchup, offer some of yours.
  • Don't take anybody's usual parking spot. Respect the habits of the regulars.
  • Don't get drunk and don't get too belligerent about who will win the game.
  • Leave plenty of time to enjoy the party and let the food cook. Tailgating is all about relaxing, not rushing to eat and drink before the game starts.

Fun Facts and Stats (courtesy of Tailgater Monthly magazine)

Across the country, an estimated 50 million people will tailgate this year. Of those:

  • 81 percent are between 25 and 54 years old.
  • 75 percent are men.
  • 71 percent have college degrees and family incomes of $100,000+.
  • 69 percent have children.
  • 61 percent will tailgate at least five times per season; 41 percent will tailgate eight+ times per season.
  • 59 percent are season-ticket holders.

Ultimate Tailgating Gear

Five must-have items for a truly posh tailgate:

Tailgating on The High Seas (or, at least, the Allegheny)

Our waterfront football and baseball stadiums are prime spots to tailgate by boat. Before the Steelers' home opener this year, we spotted dozens of crafts in all shapes and sizes docked along the river. Among the slick speedboats and sprawling houseboats, some of our favorite sights were:

Boatgating

Above: Season-ticket holders who tell us they arrive by boat for every game, even in winter! Below: A flat-panel television and two rows of seats set up alongside a spectacular yacht docked in a prime spot near Heinz Field. Owner of the flat screen is Jim Geier.


yacht

Below Left: These boats have been docked in place for more than a week to save their prime tailgating locations. Below Right: Some boaters, like those here, nosh on everything from homemade hors d'oeuvres to takeout fried chicken.


boaters

Melissa Rayworth writes about American culture for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press and Babble.com. Her work regularly appears in publications and on Web sites across the globe, including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and CNN.com. She lives in Hampton Township with her husband and two sons.

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