By Ken Billett
Ted and I looked around a room that had become an impromptu cooling station. We were easily the oldest guys in here by fifteen or twenty years. Brandon, an Ole Miss alum, watched his year-old daughter grin and coo at a couple wearing Mississippi State maroon. The Bulldogs, he explained with a smile, are his wife’s friends.
Another young father, dressed head-to-toe in Tennessee orange, munched on bar-b-que while listening to our conversation with Brandon. A baby boy, several weeks old, dangled from the young man’s chest in a harness contraption that reminded me of a paratrooper’s reserve chute. The little one was wide-eyed as he appeared to take in his surroundings.
Ted and I continued our chat and caught up on family and mutual friends. We’ve both lived in Memphis probably longer than we’ve lived in our home state of Florida. We’re the old guard of college alumni, surrounded by the new guard, along with their very young children and their very cool, modern baby accessories.
* * *
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, the 2019 college football season unofficially kicked off on the grounds of the Junior League’s Community Resource Center, which is located in the East Buntyn neighborhood.
This was the second year that the Junior League of Memphis (JLM) hosted the College Football Kickoff Party, a fundraising event to celebrate the start of another college football season. The party was an opportunity for MidSouth alumni and fans to get together and renew acquaintances, welcome new members, and show off their school pride. This year, twenty local alumni groups participated in the event, reserving tent space on the JLM’s front lawn.
The Kickoff Party was a fun, family-oriented affair, which reminded me of a pregame tailgate, except for the absence of flat screen televisions and satellite dishes. There were several food trucks, including Mister Softee– much needed on a hot afternoon. The face painting station did a brisk business. Cornhole boards were strategically placed alongside many schools’ tents. The competition was friendly between the alumni associations. Gator fans played at Tennessee boards and Auburn fans were found tossing red and blue bean bags at Ole Miss cornhole boards.
Why is it called cornhole? Or corn hole?
The savory smell of bar-b-que – and its smoke – filled the air as music – courtesy of the South Carolina Gamecocks’ resident DJ – blared in the background. Fans swapped stories and predictions for the coming season. As one old timer reminded me: today we’re all friends and football fans, but in a month or so, we’ll be mortal enemies.
Lauren Reaves, the Junior League chair for this year’s Kickoff Party, was pleased with the results. “I am extremely happy with how this year’s event went. Everyone had a great time.”
Reaves, who is an UGA grad and president of the local Georgia alumni association, said over 300 football fans attended the 2018 Kickoff Party. Based on preliminary ticket sales, she expected an increase in attendance this year, along with increased support from vendors and food trucks.
Proceeds from the College Football Kickoff Party go towards the Junior League’s community partnerships and programs that focus on the Binghampton, Berclair, and Highland Heights neighborhoods.
* * *
As Memphis continues to grow and evolve, so, too, does the local landscape of college football fans. A quick online search reveals websites or Facebook pages for more than forty established alumni clubs in Memphis and the Mid-South.
With all due respect to the hometown Tigers, Memphis has long been SEC country. But now it’s more than SEC schools and their southern cousins. The Big Ten was well represented at the Kickoff Party with Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Penn State hoisting their tents. Even newcomers to Saturday’s party, like Florida A&M University, had a great turnout with dozens of fans and alumni.
What occurred on a hot Saturday afternoon was more than an extended tailgate party. For me, it was a changing of the guard. I remember the mid 1990s, when the Orange and Blue battled the Big Orange of Knoxville for SEC dominance. Both Ted and I served on our alumni club board and hosted countless game-watching parties at bars and taverns no longer in existence. My children grew up – like many children in the South – knowing that every Saturday from Labor Day to the first week of December was a Football Saturday.
So, too, will the children who attended Saturday’s party.
College football still has an old-fashioned, family feel to it. It was great to see young people – and some who were not so young – carry on the traditions of college football and school spirit.
On the grounds of the Junior League of Memphis in mid-August, the new guard – with a little help from the old – created a slice of college football heaven. I knew then that everything was still in good hands.
* * *
After we finished surveying the room, Ted finally turned to me. He had a serious look on his face.
“So, let’s get down to business,” he stated. “How are the Gators going to do this year?”
And just like that, the college football season has begun. <>
* * *
Ken Billett is a resident of Poplar Ridge Farms – within the Memphis city limits – and is a new contributor to StoryBoard Memphis.