Tailgaters gather in the Tusk to Tail tent Sept. 4 prior to the Arkansas-Rice game.

Tusk to Tail: A long-awaited tailgating return included vodka, gin, and hippie Santas

Rarely has a win looked so bad or a hangover felt so good. Arkansas rallied to score 31 unanswered second half points to outlast and eventually outclass the Rice Owls 38-17 in the 2021 season opener.

About 64,000 showed up on a sweltering Saturday afternoon for the first Razorbacks football game without attendance limitations since 2019. It was also the first time tailgating was allowed on campus since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tusk to Tail was there for it.

“First 9 am shot of liquor in 700 days,” I told Brad as he passed a round of green tea shooters made with Jameson Irish whiskey once we finished setting up.

The campus was starting to show signs of life. A few fresh faced students trickled out of the dorms for fraternity bid day and all the football festivities. The InTents staff delivered TVs and generators throughout Victory Village like so many hippie Santas. Various vendors unloaded their wares as Associate Athletic Director Elvis Moya meticulously oversaw every detail of his SimCity come to life, HogTown on Maple Street. Members Only, an 80’s tribute band that happens to share a name with the Razorback Foundation motto, soundchecked a few songs from the HogTown stage.

Members Only played two enjoyable sets that could have been inspired from my cassette collection back in the day. The singer nailed a medley of Journey covers, as well as Steve Perry’s other hit, “Oh Sherrie” because why not? When you’re rocking the Ozarks in wigs and parachute pants, you keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

It may be cliche to call an atmosphere electric, but there was a palpable sense of joy and even optimism throughout the fan festival and tailgating areas. For many, the gathering was the first opportunity to reconnect with old friends in nearly two years. Reactions ranged from sanitary elbow bumps for the COVID-conscious to full fledged handshakes and hugs.

Everyone missed Mark, Sean, and Forrest from our usual local crew. Most were attending to personal matters, but Forrest may have been serving a one-game suspension for targeting. They all return next week, as will Jeff from Atlanta.

Some people wore masks, but many others did not during the outdoor festivities. University employees, HogTown vendors, and local authorities including the Washington County Sheriff’s Department adhered to an apparent mandatory masking policy. You can’t say the same for Joe Six-Pack. However, actively eating or drinking a sixer supersedes most mask mandates.

And what is a tailgate without eating and drinking? Master tailgating strategist Dale had suggested keeping things simple for this week’s early kickoff. For TTT, simple means feeding at least 70 guests a feast of brisket, Italian sausage and peppers hoagies, and multiple trays of tenders and nuggets from the Big Chicken purveyors. Pastries included donuts, cookies, cupcakes, and some mangled brownie cluster that bordered on superspreader status until someone wisely re-sealed the lid. Chips, dips, chains, whips … you know, your basic Tusk to Tailgate.

It didn’t take long to get our officially branded Arkansas Razorbacks bar up and running. First Lady of Tailgating Kara and her co-conspirator Casey run a tight ship slinging drinks. Must be 21 and (almost) no shots allowed, much to the chagrin of some of our collegiate kids and a portion of the Kappa Sig pledge class. We still managed to drain a few bottles, while offering a better variety of beer than your corner store.

Our guests claimed vodka paired best with ivermectin, but gin and hydroxychloroquine was my drink of choice. Of course that’s a joke. You’d have to be really sick to ingest horse dewormer, right? Tranquilizers I get, but dewormer?

Naturally the Coronavirus was a popular topic, which made for strange cocktail banter. I enjoyed visiting with my nephew Dr. Rice and his medical colleagues. They cautiously sterilized their throats with copious amounts of alcohol before the game. Applying Arkansas’ 42% fully vaccinated rate, we estimated that more than 37,000 unvaccinated people may have entered the stadium Saturday, higher than the 25,000 total limit last year before the rollout.

The sound of a stadium explosion signals that it’s 30 minutes until kickoff. It’s really just pregame fireworks, but it scares Victory Village every time. You can hear the gasps and shrieks among the crowd.

“Time to drink up and get the hell out,” shouted Greg, channeling the late great Maxine and her eponymous taproom.

The pageantry and tradition of college sports is what sets them apart from the pros. Most of that was taken away by the pandemic last year. Tusk V, the live wild hog, made his triumphant return Saturday. The Razorback marching band and spirit squads were also back on the field for the players to run through the “A.”

Arkansas works hard at creating a memorable game day atmosphere, blending the classics with new trends utilizing the giant video boards and a DJ. Once stodgy and predictable, the modern stadium experience is clearly meant to appeal to a new generation. While the Hogs slogged through a 7-10 deficit, a shot of Coach Eric Musselman and the basketball Hogs received the loudest cheers of the first half.

The past 10 years have taught us that all the festivities and gimmicks in the world are worthless if the product on the field is crap. Saturday’s first two-and-a-half quarters were just about as bad as anything we saw under Chad Morris, Bret Bielema, or even John L. Smith as the Owls and their “intellectual brutality” led the Hogs 17-7. Penalties, turnovers, horrendous special teams, and a virtually non-existent passing game were on Saturday’s bingo card before things got turned around.

“If we put on a tailgate like we played football, we’d have two bottles of water, a ham sandwich covered with flies, and a 2×2 shade tent,” Craig angrily texted the group. The godfather’s relationship with the Razorbacks often reminds me of Ike and Tina Turner.

But as Trey Biddy points out, our players under those previous coaches would have never recovered from being down like that. They would have given up and accepted the loss like they did every time between Lousiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky. There would be gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as TTT continued wondering why God hates Arkansas.

After his first four passes fell incomplete, Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was just 4 of 11 for 21 yards in the first half. Jefferson battled back, completing 8 of 10 second half passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. KJ added a rushing touchdown in each half. The defense played their guts out, and safety Jalen Catalon might have singlehandedly saved the game for the Hogs with his two interceptions and 11 tackles. Unfortunately, linebackers Hayden Henry, Grant Morgan, and Bumper Pool were all forced to miss time in this game or the next due to targeting penalties. The Razorbacks don’t have the depth to sustain that kind of attrition.

Everyone knows Arkansas will have to play significantly better to have a chance at upsetting Texas this weekend. But at the end of the day, the Hogs are 1-0, and the first football tailgate in two seasons is successfully in the books.

Rarely has a win looked so bad or a hangover felt so good.

Editor’s note: Now in its 10th year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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