By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
On select autumn Saturdays in Morgantown, W.Va., John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- so gentle, so sweet, so aw-shucks wholesome -- becomes a menacing battle cry. You can hear threatening snippets of the song being chanted for scenic miles and miles around Mountaineer Field, the looming concrete home of the West Virginia University football team. It's the tailgate-party anthem here, and if you're gutsy enough to flaunt enemy colors, there's a strong chance you'll be beaned by an ice cube by the time they get to "mountain momma."
The targets of mass derision today are Wisconsin Badgers fans, who are visiting this gray, drizzly weekend for the first game of the season for both teams. The out-of-towners are wearing bright red -- not exactly the best color when you're trying to sneak through a roiling sea of blue and gold.
When the Badger faithful, including cute little old ladies with fluffy pompoms, stroll past "the Pit" -- a sunken gravel-and-mud keg zone where hundreds of WVU students get rowdy before games -- they are greeted with four-letter words and one-finger salutes. The old ladies, God bless 'em, simply wave back.
Welcome to what the Princeton Review, Playboy magazine and ESPN have all agreed is one of the wildest parties in the country. And seeing as how America is a tailgate-loony nation -- we're second to none at guzzling Bud at 9 a.m. and zipping Nerf footballs around asphalt wastelands -- that's saying something.
Tucked away high and isolated on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains -- to get there, you basically go up, up, up, often surrounded by nothing but nature -- Morgantown is normally a laid-back, blue-collar burg, proud of its rich mining history. Its pastoral surroundings are perfect for hikers hungry for trails and kayakers intent on conquering the Monongahela River, which winds lazily through the city. The sprawling WVU campus, a handsome mixture of Colonial-style old and modern new, sits regally over the historic downtown.
But when the Mountaineers -- or simply "the 'Eers!!!" if you're in the know -- are playing at home, this town of 27,000 pulls a gridiron-induced Jekyll and Hyde. It wakes up in blue and gold, the beer stores make a fortune, and some 63,500 alums, locals and students swarm 20-acre Mountaineer Field and parking lot.
In Morgantown, the game is important -- it's the only "big" game in the state, really -- but the party is key. Just about every one of the 3,000 parking spaces is throwing its own food-stuffed, beer-fueled shindig. They call this place Touchdown City, but with so many denim-clad people crooning John Denver tunes, flashing tanned flesh and waving around open containers of tight-budget alcohol, it feels more like a mountain Mardi Gras.
"Big Cat," the self-proclaimed "No. 1 Mountaineer fan," is the Gandalf of the tailgating masses -- except instead of carrying a wooden staff he carries a yard of cheap beer. When the 3,000 kids in the Pit get riled up by a suicidal Wisconsin fan mocking them with a red flag, Big Cat calms the mob by slowly raising his arms -- and then raising his blue-and-yellow apron, which hides a nasty rubber prop that's definitely not for the squeamish.
It's not even 10 a.m. There's still more than two hours until kickoff.
"I'm kind of famous around here," says the Morgantown native, who refuses to give his name -- "just Big Cat" -- or his age -- "whaddaya need my age for?" (Quick lesson: You don't argue with someone named Big Cat.) "I've only missed four games in 23 years. There's nothing like this anywhere."
Dressed head-to-toe in WVU-splattered garb -- gold hard-hat, XXXL shirt, sweat pants, that naughty apron -- the construction worker says he helped build Mountaineer Field back in 1980. Today he wanders the wide expanse of the Blue Lot, the main tailgating area that features dozens of party tents and hundreds of baby-grand-size grills sending up a thick smoke of sizzling meats. Big Cat also stops every few feet for people requesting a snapshot -- usually with the apron up. It takes him an hour to go 100 yards.
Big Cat gives a happy wave as he passes Doug Gray, who, as president of the alumni-driven Touchdown Club, has the best tailgating spot in all the land. His fortresslike 1975 Vogue Motor Home (five miles to the gallon) is parked right in front of the entrance to the stadium -- and far enough away from the terrors of the Pit. A legitimate challenger to Big Cat's No. 1 fan throne, Gray's been tailgating here for 19 years and collecting Mountaineer paraphernalia for even longer.
"This is my only hobby," he says.
Inside his motor home, the 61-year-old Gray shows off his prized possessions: WVU fluorescent beer lights, WVU bathroom towels, WVU night lights, WVU autographed footballs, and a navy blue suit and tie featuring -- you guessed it -- hundreds of gold W's, V's and U's. "I had this made special," he says.
Gray has a full spread of veggies, chips and cookies set up for passersby, but "this is nothing. We'll fire up the grill in a little bit. You should see that." He arrived at 7 a.m. to start setting up and says he'll be parked here "until 11 a.m. Sunday. It's the same mood if we don't win. We'll still be here the next game and the next."
Gray admits that Morgantown's tailgating scene is certainly a whopper, but adds with a frown that "Ohio State's is probably just as good." It should be noted, however, that Columbus, Ohio, has a population of more than 700,000. Also, the Mountaineers, although a Division I school in the Big East Conference, are not exactly a powerhouse. Last year, Ohio State won the national championship.
Mountaineer Field, a no-frills, open-air stadium that shakes and shimmies when the home team makes a first down, does not serve beer, so at halftime -- with WVU up by 6 -- fans are given appropriately named "pass out" cards, so that they can leave the stadium, tailgate for 20 minutes and be allowed back in.
Today, however, the fans would have been better off staying outside: The 'Eers play a lousy second half and eventually lose to the Badgers, 24-17.
Maybe that's just as well. Last year, when West Virginia beat hated rival Virginia Tech -- that is, beat them on the road -- Morgantown made national newscasts not for the win but for a series of fires that were started around town. Since then, there's been a stronger police presence on football Saturdays, giving the citywide party a slightly sinister vibe. (Fair warning: The Virginia Tech game is here this year, on Oct. 22.)
Walking down bustling High Street -- downtown's bar-packed main thoroughfare -- with three former classmates, Lisa Allen, 32, says not to believe the bad stuff. Well, at least not all of it. In fact, she says things were a lot worse when she went to school here in the early '90s: "Oh yeah, it was like 'Animal House.' "
Allen's friend Noel Goldberg, 32, says the group chose Mountaineer football over a beach or spa trip. "It's a football weekend in Morgantown with your girlfriends. It doesn't get any better than that."