The food. The fellowship. The Walk of Champions. The Dawg Walk.
Tailgating is a tradition for many Northsiders, who descend on the Grove and the Junction each fall for the party – the party before the football game.
Northsiders this year are no less eager to travel to Oxford and Starkville to ring in the 2020 football season with their annual tailgates.
However, with COVID-19, many were unsure whether they would be celebrating their teams under tents outside the stadium or from their couches at home.
And even though some want to get back under their respective tents, they also don’t want to catch COVID or spread it others.
“It depends on how the numbers trend and whether it’s safe for our family,” said Lindsay Dehmer, who tailgates with the 39211 Rebels. “We have a grandmother we help take care, so we have to be really careful.”
Staying home would be a big change for Lindsay and Dodds Dehmer, who have been tailgating since they were both young. It would be even harder on Lindsay, who enjoys the tailgating experience even more than the games themselves.
“To me, the games are more of a family weekend, a chance to spend time with friends and family and people I don’t get to see that often,” she said. If you would ask my children, they would say not having tailgating wouldn’t ruin the season, as long as they get to go the game.
“But I look forward to the Grove in the fall.”
As of last week, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) had not announced plans for the college football season.
Meanwhile, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and Mississippi State University (MSU) had not announced rules for tailgating.
Citing concerns over the virus, several groups, like the Mississippi State Alumni Association, have already canceled tailgating for the 2020 season.
“Tailgating for the fall is an issue that is still unsettled,” said MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter.
Kyle Campbell, Ole Miss associate athletic director for communications echoed Salter’s comment. “I would anticipate an answer to coincide with other decisions surrounding the college football season.”
According to 24/7 Sports, SEC college presidents and chancellors are expected to discuss the football season at their regularly scheduled July 30 meeting.
Other conferences have already handed down decisions regarding 2020 football. The Pac-12 will start in mid-September and play a 10-game season, compared to the traditional 12 games. The Big 10 is playing a conference-only model, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which includes Jackson State University, has postponed fall sports until the spring.
Northsiders envision several options, from having reduced capacity at stadiums, to seeing tailgating, but not games canceled.
“What you have to do is look at what the NCAA is going to mandate, and then what the SEC is going to mandate, and then what the federal government is going to mandate, and then what the state is going to mandate, and then what the city of Oxford is going to mandate,” said Jody Varner, one of the members of the Cherokee Tent. “You can only really do what the rules will allow you to do.”
Right now, crowd size and social distancing remain a factor. Indoor and outdoor crowd sizes are limited by Gov. Tate Reeves’ Safe Return executive order. Also, under that order, individuals must stay at least six feet apart, something that could prove difficult at the Grove and Junction.
That order is currently in place until August 3. It was unknown if it would be extended beyond that date. It was also unclear whether crowd size mandates in the order would apply to college football stadiums.
The Cherokee Tent has about 40 to 50 families. The tent is named after the now closed, but well remembered, North Jackson restaurant and bar.
“A friend of mine had been at another Jackson tent, and then he came to ours, and he said, ‘that other tent was so fancy, I felt like I was at Shapley’s or something like that. I come down here to y’all’s tent, and I feel like I’m at the Cherokee,’” he said.
Varner and his family has been tailgating for years.
“We started it when our kids were in Eli (Manning) jerseys and cheerleader outfits and now some of them are college graduates,” he said. “We have a very good time, but the university will have rules and we will have to abide by those rules.”
Even with COVID, the Northside attorney is not that worried about tailgating, and believes that most, if not all, of the Cherokee Tent’s families will be there.
“It doesn’t bother me quite as much as it bothers some. I’m going to be there if it’s allowed,” he said.
Joe and Mary Prior Sherman have been tailgating at the Junction for 41 years.
They have seen tailgating grow from a simple occurrence where fans would pull up to the stadium, open the trunk and eat fried chicken and potato salad, to the much bigger production it has become today.
“We raised our kids on tailgating,” Joe Sherman said. “My son, who is 41, has been going since he was probably five years old. His kids have been going since they were five years old. It’s a tradition.
“We’ve made lots of new friends, reacquainted with old friends, made friends with people supporting opposing teams, made friends with players,” he said. “It’s kind of the heart and soul of football.”
Even with the tradition, Sherman said he is somewhat wary about tailgating this year.
Thousands of people make their ways to the Junction and the Grove each week during the fall football season, with many more coming to the larger SEC match ups.
With hundreds of tents set up, side-by-side, there is little room for social distancing.
“In conference games, the Grove is covered up,” Varner said. “I think there will be some people that don’t feel comfortable about going for fear of getting too close to somebody.”
Sherman also agreed that social distancing would be difficult. “The plus side of tailgating is that it is outdoors,” he said. “I would be wary of doing it. I would probably go to the game, but I’m not sure I’d got to the tailgate.”