Location: Harrisonburg, VA
I’ve never done anything to make myself remotely famous. Like anyone, I’ve been curious about what it might be like to attain celebrity status. And perhaps, yes, I’ve even fantasized about winning an academy award for best director and later going on to become president. Honestly, who among us hasn’t? Thus far, my undertakings have been pursued in relative anonymity. I chat up people at their tailgates, trying not to appear too creepy in my approach. They look at me a bit cockeyed, then learn what I’m up to and immediately profess their jealousy before telling me their stories. But when I made some contacts in advance of arriving at Bridgewater College, they eagerly helped me make friends, and before I knew it, the town was buzzing with news of my arrival.
I chose to visit Bridgewater this weekend for a number of reasons. I resolved to check out non Division I action on this trip, and this particular weekend fit my schedule best. Bridgewater was in the right location for me and happened to be celebrating homecoming this weekend. But it wasn’t mere coincidence that brought me to the Shenandoah Valley. Bridgewater’s history in football is a rather unique one. For roughly 80 years, they were one of the worst football programs at any level. After a(nother) 0-10 season in 1998, they played themselves all the way up to a three-point loss in the 2001 D-III national championship game. Since then, their team has remained competitive, routinely winning their conference and making the playoffs every year but one. I was curious to learn the fans’ take on their sport. Like every place I’ve been so far, they did not disappoint.Matt Barnhart, who runs bridgewaterfootball.com put me in touch with various people close to the program as well as some fans whose passion rivals anything I’ve seen at the D-I level. My first official interview was with college president Dr. Phil Stone who was willing to delay his next meeting when our interview ran over. Friday morning, I met with head coach Mike Clark at his house where he not only gave me a candid interview, he fed me breakfast. I’m not going to start expecting such treatment going forward. However, if coach Schiano is reading, I take my coffee black and will generally eat anything you put before me. While those meetings were extremely gracious and gave me a ton of insight into the program’s past, present and future, I couldn’t wait to see what the typical fans of Bridgewater were all about.
The nationally recognized tailgate crew, Stone Station, served as my entry point to the Bridgewater fan. Their name comes from their location. Every home game, they set up directly in front of the president’s house. While they’d likely never admit it, these guys and gals strive for tailgating at its highest level. That means a ton of food, plenty of drink, and genial generosity galore. With everyone pitching in at different points throughout the day, this tailgate provided the following: slow-cooked chili, crab soup, deep fried turkey, bacon-wrapped shrimp, , fried mahi-mahi, low country boil, grilled tuna bites, BBQ brisket, special recipe BBQ chicken, and ham pot pie which someone aptly referred to as “belly food.” Mind you, that’s only the main courses. There were also plentiful salads, side dishes, and desserts. I’m fairly certain I will smell of barbecue for the next several days because all of the above were cooked on site. To quote one of the chefs, “It ain’t tailgating if you bring it in already cooked!” A group of seniors at the next tailgate over purchased a live goat which they slaughtered and then slow-cooked on an outdoor fire pit. Say what you want about the ethical and literal messiness of such an endeavor, but that was one fresh hunk of meat. Other tailgates offered barbecued beef, tacos, and of course burgers and dogs. I ate until I felt like I was going to burst, and then I somehow packed in more food. The only place I’ve been with better cuisine thus far was LSU, and even that’s a close call.But the pride didn’t end with just the eats. Throughout my travels, I have encountered fans who eagerly told me how they adore the college game and find the NFL uninteresting by comparison. While the BC fans don’t levy much criticism on I-A football, they are all devoted fans of their division. Bridgewater comes first, but all D-III play maintains everyone’s attention. Due to the lack of mainstream media coverage and the concern each fan has for their own school, the entire populous of D-III fans is a brotherhood. They have to defend their sport from the likes of Colin Cowherd (who apparently called it “high school football”) and others who choose to disparage a game they do not understand. I’m not going to say that Mount Union could beat LSU, but high school competition it is not. I referred to Stone Station as “nationally recognized” at which point you may have said, “Whatevs, I’ve never heard of ‘em.” Ah, but if you were a fan of one of the 238 D-III teams, there’s a good chance their name would ring a bell. They bring their tailgate to the D-III championhip game (aka the Stagg Bowl) every season, regardless of whether BC plays in it. That sums up the situation rather well I think.
The game I watched, unfortunately, did not live up to its billing. Guilford College came to town slightly favored to win a key conference battle. By early in the second quarter, the game was done. BC was up 76-6 early in the fourth and used 93 of their 95 players. The stomping kind of took the air out of the day, as you couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the Guilford team. They had their worst day against a team having their best. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, their hope for a conference title and a playoff appearance was gone. Bridgewater doesn’t control their own destiny, but you have to think they’re on the right track after bouncing back from their only loss of the season.Throughout the week, people I spoke with were thrilled to meet me, pleased that I included D-III in my tour, and ecstatic that I came to Bridgewater College. Every last person I met asked me, “How’d you pick BC?” While I’m still a bit reluctant to throw around the “SI” letters, I had no choice but to embrace my status as the SI On Campus Tailgate Report Card Guy because that’s how I was often introduced. One woman who wanted to talk to me saw me walking by and called, “Hey! Sports Illustrated!” Late in the blowout, the radio broadcasters announced my presence and the fact that I could be found at Stone Station after the game. While that hardly puts me at George Clooney status, I felt a mix of “Really, I’m not a big deal – just a guy working on a book,” and “Yeah, that’s right – I’m bigtime. Feed me some goat, dammit.” Though I have to admit, it was like 80/20 skewed toward the former. Maybe if I ever win that Oscar, I’ll be comfortable with demanding pre-separated Oreos and large bread.
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