Tusk To Tail: No ‘Devil Juice’ for a Christmas in September
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It may be cliche to say the opening weekend of college football feels like Christmas, but how else could Tusk to Tail describe it? Our seven men, at least three considered wise, made the pilgrimage to Victory Village bearing gifts of sausage, cheese, and beer to celebrate the birth of another Razorback season.
The fact that the team may be worth a damn again made a fine gift, like an unexpected check in lieu of a sweater from a faraway aunt. Pre-game anticipation often leads to a restless night, and an early wakeup on the big day is guaranteed. Dale Cullins checked his list twice, staging all the goodies in his workshop before loading the sled pulled by Greg Houser's Avalanche.
Craig May picked up Sam Atkinson outside of Maumelle at 6 a.m. Saturday before heading up the hill. The game would be May's 200th of the last 201 the Hogs have played, missing only the 2005 trip to Georgia since he became a season ticket holder in 1999. Jack Clark left shortly afterwards, still basking in the afterglow of his alma mater Catholic High's upset of North Little Rock the night before.
The rest of the gang stayed in town with plans of setting up our tent around 8 a.m. Of course yours truly was late, showing up after most of the heavy lifting was done. I apologized to Dale, who by that point was drenched in sweat. Cullins responded with the same disappointed dad face that Nick Saban gives his Alabama players following a turnover, relegating me to slicing Velveeta and opening cans of Ro-tel tomatoes. I have earned the reputation as the guy who waits to meet the new neighbors after their moving boxes are on the curb, not while they unload the truck.
At 9 a.m. Paul Finebaum and company began broadcasting SEC Nation live next to our tent, and the atmosphere was electric. Hundreds of fans crowded behind the stage with clever signs, hoping for a few seconds of camera time, while the marching band and cheerleaders did their thing. Our children braved the crowd, having their patience rewarded by a photo opportunity with co-host Marcus Spears, the former LSU and Dallas Cowboys defensive end.
By the time the show ended at 11, Victory Village and the Tusk to Tailgate were rocking. We have rented our space on Maple Avenue since the tailgating area opened in 2012. That was the season after Bobby Petrino was fired, making this one of the first games that Arkansas was ranked in the Top 25 since we moved operations to football ground zero.
Winning certainly brings out the fans. Despite the blazing Labor Day conditions, the entire campus was awash in Pantone color 201 as each tent squealed deeply in the throes of Razorgasm. The growl of generators and spirited conversation were drowned out by the games on TV and PA systems blaring gameday playlists. The aroma of grilled meats, liquor, perfume, and sweat permeated the humid air.
Tusk to Tail hosted about 60 of our closest friends, dearly missing a few regulars like Clay Curtner and Andrew Woody. Craig the Cable Guy was frequently missing in action as well, helping multiple tents get their satellites dialed in just exactly perfect. Thanks in part to Casey Huselton, our menu featured street tacos for breakfast, whiskey sours for lunch, with a little grilled bratwurst on the side. Chicken tenders were delivered from the hot new chicken place, earning an extra cluck from Todd Rudisill.
Of course the key to a successful tailgate is a well-stocked bar, and Tusk to Tail leaves no left turn unstoned. Firefly Sweet Tea vodka is the drink of choice, but others sipped on a variety of cocktails ranging from Bloody Marys to magaritas, anything-and-tonic to whatever-and-Coke. While many drank water or soft drinks, they probably had to push aside a 12-pack of Bud Light to find it. But Fireball Cinnamon Whisky was on the banned substances list for this party. We found late last year that the Devil Juice added something to the aquarium that negatively impacted the species.
A staple of any tailgate is the red Solo cup, and we go through a lot of them. The only drawback is that every drink looks the same. Setting a cocktail down on a table filled with other cups becomes a street hustler's shell game, as our guests attempt to choose which one is closest, coldest, and fullest. It is game day. Do you know where your beer is?
True tailgating veterans like Cullins and May bring their own insulated cups with lids. I drank gin from a space age plastic cup that turned a psychedelic shade of purple when cold. But due to the heat and perhaps the potency of the pour, my cup was rarely purple. I made more trips to the bar for handfuls of ice than I did to refresh the drink.
The entire tailgate was remarkably devoid of drunken disorder or drama this go-round. In fact, I may have been responsible for the largest social faux pas. Excuse me for not knowing that gerbil stuffing was inappropriate cocktail party banter. Clearly I was mistaken assuming that everyone knew the Richard Gere rumor from the 80s.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves nonetheless. Jack doesn't drink, so he tends to look like he's taking a whiff from an expired milk carton once our party gets turned up. But on Saturday, Clark was all smiles as he visited with our group's newest addition, John Scott. Sean Casey, who we still call the Tusk to Tail rookie five years after he joined, is frequently the butt of our good-natured ribbing. But Saturday was nothing but bro hugs and I-love-you-mans.
Nobody's going to mess with Houser. The dude's forearm is as big as my thigh. He is an anchor tattoo and can of spinach away from becoming Popeye. Greg has become a CrossFit fanatic, performing his CrossFit regimen at CrossFit540. Some of his CrossFit friends stopped by to see Greg and talk CrossFit, because apparently once you are into CrossFit you can only talk about CrossFit.
Mark Wagner snapped several group photos before leaving to shoot the game once the team arrived. His shot of my father and I, taken nearly 40 years after the first game we attended together, is destined for a special place on my mantle.
After another couple of rounds, it was game time. Early season non-conference opponents make a lousy barometer for how good the Razorbacks will be, but you have to play the hand you are dealt. That hand on Saturday was Texas-El Paso, a physical team with a similar run-and-stop-the-run gameplan as the Hogs. It was a tad disconcerting that a school of this caliber was able to limit the running portion of our gameplan, but quarterback Brandon Allen responded with the best game of his career, completing 14 of 18 passes for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns. The birthday boy's performance was the first 300-yard passing day by Arkansas since Tyler Wilson threw for 369 yards against LSU in 2012.
The screen passes installed by new offensive coordinator Dan Enos were simple and effective, and opened up the field for the occasional deep throw. Allen spread the ball around to six different receivers, led by Keon Hatcher's six grabs for 106 yards and two touchdowns. As many as three of Allen's incompletions would have likely been touchdowns had the passes found their mark.
The defense picked up where they left off last season, which was bad news for the Miners. Linemen Jeremiah Ledbetter and DeMarcus Hodge may not be household names yet, but they pummeled everything that got in their way near the line of scrimmage. The starting linebacker trio of Brooks Ellis, Josh Williams, and Khalia Hackett had seven tackles apiece, and cornerback Henre Tolliver was all over the field making plays.
Of course there were things the Razorbacks could improve on. Coach Bret Bielema will certainly address the six Arkansas penalties, not to mention UTEP's seven third-down conversions. It's also worth noting that Texas-El Paso scored more points than the University of Texas could muster against the Hogs last January in the bowl game.
But at the end of the day, Arkansas was 1-0 and Tusk to Tail was celebrating the win back under the big top. It was the end of Christmas in September, and our tailgating family was exhausted but filled with joy.