Tusk to Tail: Sometimes football is about finding your happy place. And blobs of booze.
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story by David Rice
Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth season of Tusk to Tail – 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. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by The City Wire. Legal representation is iffy at best and professional psychological help is typically ignored, if not mocked.
The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail
If 64,000 tickets were sold for Saturday’s Halloween massacre of the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks, several of the fans were dressed as empty seats. Horrible weather, a second rate opponent, or commitments to parties and trick or treating are all rational explanations why a reasonable fan would stay home. Nobody ever called Tusk to Tail reasonable or rational.
Nothing beats the electricity of a bigtime opponent coming to your campus, but perhaps our gang of tailgating all-stars shine the brightest in these less heralded contests. Consider it the party equivalent of the little brother backup quarterback finally getting his chance to chuck one deep. To choose to come out in these conditions requires a special kind of dedication or affliction. Either way, Tusk to Tail has you covered.
I swung by to pick up John Scott at quarter after eight Saturday morning.
“At least we should beat the traffic,” Scott deadpanned.
By that point, Craig May and Sam Atkinson had been underway for a couple of hours. May and I had our 13 year old sons in tow, and Craig’s son brought another friend. We all met Mark Wagner, Dale Cullins, and Greg Houser at Victory Village for the soggy morning load-in. By the time our bar was erected and flowing, you could have fired a cannon through the University’s tailgating grounds with little chance of hitting anyone outside of those assembled under our tent.
Jack Clark had spent the week in Nayarit, Mexico, aiding Hurricane Patricia relief efforts in the village where he owns a second home. Weary from travel, Clark considered eating his tickets and staying home in Little Rock. Upon learning that staying home would put him in charge of his family’s trick or treating, however, he snatched up his son and began the trek up the hill.
Sean Casey was not so lucky. Youth sports and Halloween kept him committed to his brood in Bentonville. He was the only card carrying Tusk to Tailgater en absentia.
Once both televisions were beaming and the muddy ground floor had been covered with straw, it was time for our better halves to add some Halloween flair. Kara Cullins, Casey Huselton, Kara Woody, and Whitney Fitts strategically hung vampire bats, spider webs, and spooky candelabra chandeliers under the Big Top. Skulls with ping pong eyeballs and decorative painted pumpkins adorned our tables to wish our guests a “Happy Hog-o-ween,” while cheering, “Woo Pig Boooie.”
We kept the menu simple with burgers, bratwurst, and hot dogs while dessert chilled at the bar: dozens of apple cider Jell-O shots made with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. The 24 Razorback-shaped shots were slurped off a Halloween platter while Kara Cullins began winging covered cups of her gooey brew to those who dared look her way. If you didn’t catch the first one, no matter. Another barrage would soon follow. I think she was 30 of 43 with two touchdowns and an inebriation on the day.
Scott ingested a gelatinous blob every two hours as if medicinal, finally retching on his 12:30 dose.
“We have other ways of consuming alcohol,” I reminded him.
My stint behind the bar led to friends and loved ones telling me I had a heavy hand. It seemed as if I was pouring for an 11 a.m. game, rather than the more party-friendly 3 p.m. kickoff. Maybe it was the stronger drinks, maybe it was the globs of Devil’s Juice. Maybe it was because the conditions kept everyone at home but our core group of diehard revelers, leaving us more room to rage. All I know is that by the time the team showed up at noon, everyone had found their happy place.
May took the boys across the street to greet the players and coaches. Coach Bret Bielema bumped knuckles with the youngsters, telling them, “Let’s go boys.”
Billye Veteto was winding down from a hectic week, and found solace in the muffled sound of falling rain and televised sports. She used the downtime to rest her eyes. I fired up our grill in the rain with Houser and Cullins, flipping more beef than a Texas livestock auction. With a few drinks under our belt, Dale’s iPod was starting to get it. People bobbed their heads or sang with nearly every track. John attempted to overtake the speaker with a Phish app, but soon felt the iPod-shaming wrath of the mainstream fans who have not acquired the taste.
One advantage to the lighter attendance was that everyone had extra tickets. Jack’s stack of extras was formidable enough to spread into a wide fan. I plucked a pair with the intent of gaining re-entry in the event of worsening weather. But a call from my sister took away my need to do so. Tina had four extra tickets to an indoor suite courtesy of her husband John Hagberg’s business partners. Though my son and I prefer to jump and shout at a level generally frowned upon indoors, the allure of remaining dry and comfortable overruled. Besides, Tina and John had beer. I invited Clark and son to join us, and away we went.
Sitting in a luxury suite is a bit like watching a game on TV with the volume turned down at a cocktail party. The action unfolds right before you, but it is not uncommon to be asked something like “So what do you do for a living?” during a crucial third down.
What I did see from our offense was encouraging. Alex Collins is a stud, our American Pharoah galloping down the stretch. His five touchdowns and 173 yards Saturday were enough to singlehandedly defeat the Skyhawks. When Collins raced 63 yards for a touchdown, it was his first long run I can recall where he was not caught from behind.
It was little surprise to see Brandon Allen win the Crip Hall award for best performance by a senior during Homecoming. His 265 yards featured long touchdown passes to Damon Mitchell and Dominique Reed, and moved him into 4th place on the career passing list over Casey Dick and Matt Jones.
Our defense played down to the competition, allowing 519 yards and 25 first downs to FCS school UT-Martin. That is more than what was gained by offensive juggernauts Texas A&M and Texas Tech. If we don’t see improvement, I fear that Ole Miss will exploit our weakness and pick us apart over the middle. It could get ugly.
Saturday was all about finding joy amidst unsatisfactory conditions, and nobody left our tailgate unfulfilled as far as I could tell. On our way back to the car, the boys had a chance encounter with tight end Hunter Henry. Henry was friendly and gracious while posing for pictures, and insisted we include his girlfriend in the impromptu photo shoot.
In a disappointing season where the Hogs may be lucky to make it to a bowl game, it is this type of moment Tusk to Tail will never forget.