As the kickoff of the Union College-Worcester Polytechnic Institute football game was announced over the loudspeaker Saturday, a group of male students trudged up a hill by Messa Rink carrying six-packs of cheap beer and shouting “Let’s Go U!” in gravel-voiced roars.
They were looking for the smoke, and there it was, just up the hill, in the season-ticket holders’ parking lot. Men and women, college-aged and older, sat in the back of SUVs and trucks in this lot, drinking, eating and laughing. A plume of grill smoke filled the air with the smell of barbecue.
“We have burgers and hot dogs, chicken and steak tips,” said Mike McGrath, pressing down on a patty to create a sear. “We cook the beer at a perfect 32 degrees and consume it in large amounts.”
For all the frat culture of a tailgate party, the Union College experience is mostly parent-inspired. McGrath and his pals come out whenever there’s a women’s hockey game, set up their grills, unpack their food and drinks and hand out the goods to anyone who wishes to stop by. On Saturday, they arrived early, knowing the crowd would swell for the college’s annual Homecoming & Family Weekend.
“We got here at 6:30 this morning to make sure we had the prime spot,” said McGrath from behind the grill. “This is the best spot.”
They were set up at the top of the hill, where the trees part to offer a pristine view of the action on Frank Bailey Field. The college boys were shouting down at the field, offering up a few whistles and cheers for the home team, which eventually won.
McGrath drives three hours from Chelmsford, Mass., a dozen times a year to see his daughter, Kelly, who is now a junior, play hockey. Over the years, he has become friends with her fellow players and their parents through the tailgating experience.
“That’s how Mike and I became good friends,” said Doug Panchuk. “It’s not always this big. It’s different for the girls’ hockey team. It’s really important to create this atmosphere for them, because they don’t get the turnout of a boys’ football or a boys’ hockey game. So for us, this is also a way to spread the word. If somebody’s recruiting a girl to come here form Minnesota or wherever, this is part of it. They’ll see the food and the fun that goes with the team.”
To attend his daughter’s games, Panchuk flies four hours from his home in Alberta, Canada, to Montreal, then another hour to Albany International Airport. He then drives the 30 minutes to campus.
Homecoming weekend is a big event for parents like him, he said, who come a long way to see their kids play. They can’t always make it to every home game, or even one or two home games a year, so they make an effort to get out for homecoming weekend, he said.
“This is a big weekend,” said Panchuk. “The parents who can’t make those other games because they’re from Canada or the Midwest, this is like a little reunion for us. We get to meet up again. This goes far beyond tailgating. Tailgating is the vehicle to have a lot of good memories and a lot of good fun.”
Closer to the field Saturday, Union was hosting an official pregame tailgate picnic under a giant white-and-yellow striped tent, complete with live music and rows of food, including sausage and peppers, barbecued brisket, corn bread, salads, chicken and more.
The scene was a bit more family-friendly, with young children roaming around or running off to a bounce house. Grandparents were also fond of the school-sanctioned event, which offered plenty of seating and shade.
“It’s a pretty neat experience for a small school,” said Bob Weckworth Jr., whose son is a freshman on the basketball team. “It’s a good way to meet other parents and students. It’s a very well organized weekend altogether. We got to see not only football, but rugby, lacrosse, field hockey.”
Nearby, Susan Burbage had just finished a plate of pasta salad with her daughter and her daughter’s friend. Both are freshman who experienced their first Union football game Saturday.
“It’s very energetic and lively,” said Catie Burbage, of Wayland, Mass. “The whole week, people are mostly into their studies because it’s midterms week, so this has been a nice break.”
Athletic Director Jim McLaughlin said the tailgating culture at Union is always welcome, despite reports campus security had put the kibosh on tailgating by Messa Rink at a recent home game.
“We have no change in our policies,” he said. “We allow and welcome tailgating. We want the families, alumni and community members to gather in support of our teams here, whether it be with food or beverage of whatever. The only thing we ask for is that it’s reasonable and responsible.”