Early Saturday morning, even while the sun was still rising and a college town like Bloomington should have been dormant from a night of partying, there were hints that something was different.
Before 8 a.m., a pair of college-aged men skipped across Third street, one of them wearing a pair of probably overpriced candy-striped pants that, nonetheless, were purchased because it was worth representing Indiana. At a parking lot near Bill Armstrong Stadium, a sign noted that a “special event” was taking place. Around 9 a.m., there was already a line snaking around the block outside Kilroy’s on Kirkwood.
The game, Indiana’s home opener against Idaho, was still 10 hours away.
Eryck Escobedo, who set his alarm for 6:30 a.m. to ensure he got into Kilroy’s, was among those waiting early in the morning. Escobedo and his friend Jorge Ortega, both seniors at IU, stood in anticipation for the bottomless mimosas that they planned on ordering once they made it in.
“We didn’t have it last year,” Ortega said. “It’s a whole different vibe now. I went to the bars before COVID, but I feel like it’s a different experience now. You got to get the most of the last year here.”
On Saturday, for the first time in almost two years, there was a somewhat normal gameday atmosphere in Bloomington, where a full capacity crowd was allowed at Memorial Stadium.
Part of what makes sports so special, particularly college football, isn’t always what happens on the field. That part was absent last season, where, during Indiana’s seismic rise, fans weren’t allowed due to COVID-19 protocols. Tailgaiting fields were barren and the stands were nearly all empty. Along with it, a sense of tradition, one associated with a singular geographic location and intertwined with the identity of so many people, was lost.
Saturday, however, was a revitalization of that tradition.
At 1 p.m., the tailgaiting fields near Memorial Stadium had become somewhat of a Hoosier mecca, with varying generations, all connected by the team they root for, blended together. On one side of the field, Drake’s new song “Way 2 Sexy” blared out of a speaker. On the other side, “Eye Of The Tiger” sounded. A group of grown men bumped fists after one hit a game-winning cornhole shot. Not far away, a group of young kids ran routes, tossing the football to each other.
For Adam Dills, his childhood helped shape his current Hoosier fandom. Dills, who was hosting a tailgate Saturday, grew up in Jasper, Indiana. He played youth football and would pile into a bus with his teammates to go to an IU football game once or twice a year. They’d make their way up to the nosebleed seats and watch Antwaan Randle El, one of his favorite players, work magic on the field.
Dills eventually attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, but those formative memories, watching games with his teammates and parents, kept him drawn to IU, where he’d come visit his friends for tailgates.
“It’s something that we look forward to and talk about all year long,” Dills said about tailgating and attending games.
On the northwest end of the field, a charred aroma filled the air as Darryl Ferguson leaned over a grill, flipping burgers and turning bratwurst. There was also a crockpot full of cheesy potatoes — made up of frozen potatoes, creamy chicken soup, sour cream and sharp cheddar cheese — a famous recipe from his wife Becci.
But this was more important than just food. Darryl and Becci first met at IU’s McNutt dorm in 1985. Becci went to football games and Derryl didn’t. Their relationship grew as they spent time on Kirkwood, frequenting a local arcade, where they’d take a handful of quarters to play “OutRun.”
They eventually got married. Two of their daughters have already graduated from IU. A third is currently a freshman. For the past six years, they’ve tailgated, making the drive from Indianapolis and bringing one of the neighbors with them. These gatherings have allowed them to remain in tune with the place that their relationship began.
“It made me feel a lot more connected (to IU) than I did for years,” Becci said of the tailgates.
Across the field, Joe and Micah Hedinger were taking pictures of their one-and-half year old daughter, who they requested not to be named. Their daughter was dressed in a striped IU onesie. This was her first ever tailgate.
Joe and Micah, who met at IU and have recently graduated, were both a part of the IU Student Foundation, which organizes the Little 500. They attended football games as students. Last season, their daughter sat facing the TV, taking in the action along with her father. This season, she will get to experience her first game in person.
“I’m hoping,” Joe said, “to raise her an IU Hoosier fan.”