Typically it might resemble an Old West showdown. Notoriously vociferous fanatic, donning silver and black attire, stares down rival zealot clad in lightning bolts with a powder blue hue. On any other occasion, these familiar foes might be on the brink of a turf war. Today, though, was no ordinary day. These fans set aside their differences for one common good. Tailgating.
There is an art to this pre-game ritual. In other parts of the country, fans have something to prove. Typically the colder the city the better the tailgating recognition. Buffalo, Philadelphia and Kansas City are all known for their passionate fan base that brave the elements to prove they are the best at this sports tradition.
While these teams share a common theme, freezing weather for the greater part of their football season, it’s easy to see why some (ignorant folk they are) might omit America’s Finest City from the conversation. In other parts of the country, people might roll their eyes thinking of how tough it might be for fans to get in a surf session before getting the grills ready. This would be a tragic oversight on their parts.
San Diegans know this isn’t the case. To be fair, the reputation for tailgating in San Diego is actually a well respected one. Today that reputation for fanfare was in full display at the first San Diego Fleet home game.
A large portion of SDCCU Stadium Lot C was filled with canopies, barbecue grills, live DJ action, radio booths and of course rabid football fans. I caught up with Billy Ray Smith from the Mighty 1090 Scott & BR radio show and was intrigued by his thoughts on Sunday’s festivities.
When asked if San Diego was hungry for some football Billy Ray half-joked, “I think they’re hungry for BBQ.” Having just enjoyed a plate from the Cali Comfort BBQ booth (which smelled ridonkulous. Yes ridonkulous) Smith figured fans priorities might be “Cali Comfort number one and then football. So we’ll go barbecue then football.” All this with a classic “B.R.” hearty laugh.
So with a collection of Raiders, Chargers and Rams fans together with a united cause, the afternoon seemed like a recipe for success. Fan groups like the R.W.O. which stands for Rams World Order were proudly flying their NFL team’s colors yet sporting San Diego Fleet colors as well.
Michael Martin a.k.a. “El Patron” like his nickname states is the president of the group. Martin said they are a national based group with Rams fans all across the country. Coming down to San Diego from Temecula just to party and watch some football was a no-brainer for them.
It was almost comical to see another fan in full Raiders gear enjoying some food and talking football amicably. Keep in mind this was just one pocket of the vast parking lot formerly known as The Murph. of the 20,019 in attendance, I can verify the vast majority were tailgating.
Sure, there was a decent amount of rain which is not ideal. But the grill kept cooking and the drinks seemed to keep flowing. Speaking of grills, Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali Comfort and host of Behind The Smoke Podcast, was partially responsible for the tantalizing aromas filling the air. He is what you might call an Expert Tailgater. My words, not his.
He did have this to say about tailgating and San Diego’s history with the pastime: “You know, San Diego, we love tailgating. We have a tailgating culture no matter what the sport is. Obviously, with the Padres and the Chargers, there’s a rich culture.” You could sense the nostalgia in his voice. This man is passionate about barbecue, San Diego and the tailgate experience.
Walchef continued, “And now the AAF, I mean, it’s just so cool to see people that I’ve known my life. To see their family, see their kids back out here, see radio stations out here. It’s really cool.”
Echoing Billy Ray I asked if he thought the fans were more hungry for football or BBQ. This is the owner of a top San Diego BBQ restaurant. He could have easily gone that route. His response was so fitting. “I think they’re just hungry to tailgate. That’s the best part about tailgating. It really doesn’t matter who wins the game. It’s about sports entertainment and showing off what we do best and that’s having a good time in the parking lot.”
Clearly, this man knows how to get himself, and from what I witnessed, all those who are in his vicinity in the mood to enjoy a football game.
What it comes down to is this, San Diego brings it. The fans get it. Sure, it’s football. You want to cheer on your team all the way to the end. In typical laid back So Cal style, the outcome of the game isn’t your only metric for success. This can only be decided by the company that you keep before the game even starts.
Next Sunday when the Fleet is avenging their week one loss to San Antonio as they welcome the Commanders to San Diego, make it a point to get there early and find the people in section C3. They are easy to find. Barbecue smoke winds to the sky like the road to the top of Mt. Helix. Tents of many team’s colors are lined up in rows while loud music keeps the party moving. All it’s missing is you.
Like Shawn Walchef eluded to, it’s not how you finish, it’s how you start. You can start by just showing up. The longstanding tradition of Tailgating in San Diego is alive and well.