A chat with Black Gopher tailgaters

Vince Wright and his wife (far right) with friends at their Gopher tailgating party
Photo by Charles Hallman

Tailgate parties—the name derived from people holding social events on and around the open tailgate of a vehicle—are very popular in the United States and Canada during the early fall months. They are held in parking lots of stadiums and arenas before games and usually wrap up afterwards. Tailgating also takes place at festivals and concerts.

Most college football Saturday games around the country aren’t complete without some kind of tailgating. Those attending usually bring food, drinks, and other nourishments. The usual fare includes burgers, brats, hot dogs, and sometimes ribs and other meats suited for grilling.

Tailgating is a Gopher football thing, as many parking lots near the stadium are full of people having pre-game fun, food and fellowship—but they are usually White. Longtime Gopher fans Vince Wright and his wife are regular tailgaters. “I love tailgating,” he admitted. “It’s not LSU. It’s not Ohio State by any means. But it is a lot of fun.”

It certainly isn’t an HBCU where tailgating is almost automatic, but Wright, who usually sets up in Lot 58 next door to Maturi Pavilion and across the street from Ridder Arena, nonetheless is an enthusiastic rarity in these parts—a Black Gopher football fan who attends games even though not connected with a player by blood or friendship.  

I first met Wright a year ago. His sister Kim Bell once played for the Gophers women’s basketball team, and he is a graduate of the school himself. He invited me to attend one of his tailgating parties, and we finally took him up on it.    

“We got doughnuts today because it’s in the morning, so we kind of got a lot more breakfast food here,” explained Wright last Saturday, Homecoming Day. Usually, it is burgers and brats, “obviously tons of beer and alcohol and everything else. It doesn’t take too long at all—it probably took us literally 10 minutes to set it all up. We got some friends who just showed up. I don’t think they’re going to the game. They just came down to tailgate.”

As both of us looked around, we found ourselves the only non-Whites in the place. “It’s disappointing when you look around and you’re one of the few,” Wright noted. “College football in general and Gopher games are a lot of fun.”

Wright also taught me something else last Saturday—at least at the U of M, tailgating isn’t cheap.

“We only have a few of these tailgate lots around,” he pointed out.  “They get you for season tickets, seat licenses—that’s another [cost] on top of your tickets—and a donation to be able to park in this lot. God bless, we’re able to do it. But these are the hurdles” he believes stand in the way of seeing more Blacks at Gopher football games.  

It was Homecoming last weekend, but as Wright pointed out, outside of the tailgating lots and the stadium, the Minnesota campus didn’t reflect it. “If you walked across the street on campus right now, you probably would never be able to tell this is Homecoming. You know that ain’t gonna be the case at South Carolina State.”  

Gopher tailgating is family-friendly. “It’s a lot more chill over here,” Wright observed, as opposed to Vikings tailgating, which can be a little rowdier. But he suggested that school officials must do better outreach to make this more known, especially in non-White communities. 

“You really got to make it affordable for people and show them what you got… But in terms of getting people to come down here from underrepresented communities, Black folks, whoever it is—it’s a good time.  

“I tell people to just come down and check out the tailgates, [then] go to one of the local establishments and watch the game [if you don’t have a game ticket].” 

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