Pony UpAt first, when my colleague Tricia told me that one of her favourite things to do was to “tailgate”, I imagined that she would probably get on rather well with my good friend Doug, who (in his early 20’s) was known for his proclivity for attaching himself to the preceding car’s bumper. It turns out that “tailgating” has a very different, slightly safer connotation in the US than it does in New Zealand.

I was fortunate enough to join Tricia and a few of her friends from her university Southern Methodist University (SMU), to watch a football game. Part of the whole college football experience is the pre-game socialising, of which, tailgating is an important part. The image here is of me, wearing SMU colours (red & blue) and an SMU cap, proudly performing the “pony-up” hand-sign. Hopefully, all this “pony” business will make sense in time.

Mexican Tailgating foodThe term “tailgating” probably derives from the tailgate at the back of a pickup truck. These events usually involve people bringing a large amount of food to the venue and serving it out of their vehicles. In some cases, I suppose, on the tailgate itself.

In many ways, it’s similar to the sorts of get-togethers my dear Uncle David (big man) Reid would arrange at Midmar dam in the summer: lots of food, lots of friends and family, lots of things to do.

Boulevard at South Methodist UniversityI got there early with my mini cooler box filled with water, sprite and chocolate (the three major food groups), my camera dangling conspicuously around my neck. I took in the sights as I waited for Tricia to turn up. Sitting down on my cooler box, I consumed a chocolate and a little can of sprite, watching with interest as a group of Americans around my age arrived and set up a tent, satellite TV, chairs and food. All the comforts of home right here on the boulevard. It was a warm and pleasant day, I great day to be outdoors.

TailgatingWhen Tricia arrived on the scene, it transpired that this group of people I had been spying upon happened to be the very group I would be spending my afternoon with.

Among others I met a very nice grad student with the palest green eyes you’ve ever seen.

He’s working on his PhD in nanotechnology and hopes to move to Sydney when he’s done, exciting stuff.

Playing WashersI watched curiously as they played a game of “washers”. As the name suggests, it involves throwing washers into a hole. It’s similar in nature to that French pastime appropriated by New Zealanders: petanque.

If you get a washer in the hole it’s 3 points. If you are the closest to the hole, you get a point for every washer that lands on the board. If you’re not closest to the hole, even if you land on the board you get 0 points.

TailgatingLunch consisted of Tex-Mex (my favourite) then I decided to take a bit of a walk and figure out what all the fuss was about. There certainly was a lot of fuss going on. I was near the southern end of the boulevard and everywhere I looked, there was a group of people, most likely related to the university in some way, sitting around, chatting, eating and watching (you guessed it) football on TV. As I moved further north, the crowd became younger and more hip. Here were the actual university students, their clubs, societies and, of course, the infamous fraternity/sorority houses.

FraternitiesNow, perhaps I should take a moment to reflect on this phenomenon. When I was in high school, we were given these artificial associations called “houses”, each “house” was pitted against the others in sporting and athletic pursuits (not so much academic or cultural, of course, because no one cares about that namby-pamby stuff). We cheered our respective teams on perhaps twice a year: swimming (at which it invariably rained) and athletics (mandatory participation guaranteeing the likes of me supreme embarrassment for that week).

Pony Fans?Later in life, however, at University, these artificial groups disappeared, we were a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-lingual, cross-disciplinary hodgepodge of people. The goal at University was to drink as much as possible and perhaps read a book or two. I forwent the former and still enjoyed myself thoroughly. I am sure my university had a rugby team, but I didn’t give half a hoot and I certainly felt no need to join a group of people who labelled themselves with Greek letters simply so I could have a sense of belonging to anything.

Painted BoysSo, for this reason, I was fascinated to see all these groups, alpha, beta, delta, epsilon etc, taking such prominence in this place of learning. What purpose do they serve? Why make an already intensely “clicky” and exclusionary environment more so? I don’t rightly know, but it all seemed very juvenile to me. It reminded me too much of sitting on a bench in my soaking wet long pants and blazer in the rain, cheering for no other reason than the boy wearing the blue swimming cap had just won his 100m freestyle heat. At 13, these things seemed to be very important to me, but at 18, not so much. The world gets smaller and our sense of what defines “us” and “them” continues to broaden as we get older.

SMU Mustangs BandI took a brief respite from people to take a few pictures of a butterfly and the beautiful chapel nearby. Pretty soon, it was 3pm, time for the game to start. I arrived at the tail-end of the pre-game show. The SMU Mustangs Band is a relatively small, marching jazz-band that play at all the university games. Tricia, a proud alumni from that band, filled me in on all their history and traditions as I watched. I must admit, the drum major was pretty cute in his little uniform.

SMU Alma MaterI managed to maintain a reasonable level of respect during the American national anthem: removing my cap and hoping no one noticed my lips weren’t moving.

Then, after all that, something unexpected happened: the band struck up and the entire crowd stood in unison with two fingers raised and sang what the disembodied voice of the announcer described as their “alma mater”.

SMU Fight SongNow, “alma mater” is Latin for “nourishing mother” which is not a particularly useful bit of information to be sure, unless you consider that a university itself could be seen as a “nurturing mother” or if you knew that the motto of the oldest European university begins “alma mater”.

So, alma mater refers to the school or university one studied at, as well as (for reasons that escape both me and Wikipedia) the school’s song.

That’s right. SMU have a school song, with words and a tune and everything. The last time I had a school song, I was 12 years old, at Pelham senior primary.

Our school song involved another Latin phrase “ad colles” or “unto the hills” (from psalm 121).

SMU CheerleadersAt an inter-school level, each school in the region played rugby or cricket against every other school, and support for one’s school was mandatory. I have fond memories of attending “shouting” practice at Martizburg College in Pietermaritzburg. The “shout” consisted of “wah wah, who are we? We are, we are, can’t you see? C-O-L-L-E-G-E, College!”. Except that rather perform this in a cheerleading kind of fashion, we would shout rather loudly: “wah wah hey werwercntuse…” etc.

Football Players on the BenchI have many fond memories of bending over with my hands on my knees practising shouting. No, really, I am serious. Anyway, back to the present.

As I stood there watching all this carrying on: the mascot, the cheerleaders, the band and mostly the crowd, I thought: “we’ve got the spirit, yes we do, we’ve got the spirit, how about you” except the last time I had ever sung those words was over half a lifetime ago.

Kicking the FootballThe game itself was interesting enough. Green-eyes had explained the mechanics of it to me. There are two teams, each consisting of 11 players. The team with possession are called “offensive” and the others (you guessed it) defensive. The objective is for the offensive team to get the ball over the “end zone” in order to score points. To achieve this, one can throw the ball in any direction or run with the ball. An offensive player has to be holding the ball at the end zone, but it doesn’t have to touch the ground at all.

Football Fans at SMUAny player can be tackled at any time.

Every time a player with the ball is successfully tackled, it is said to be a “down”. They perform a scrimmage (like a soft form of scrum in rugby) and offensive team gets to perform another play.

If, however, the offensive team fails to advance 10 yards of territory in 4 “downs”, they must turn over possession to the opposing side, swapping roles.

Football TeamsThat’s a very rough outline, but I am sure you have the idea. Something that surprised me was that I quickly realised that not a single one of these boys would play a full game of football today. Every time possession changed, each side would swap every single player off the field for fresh players. Did you hear me? Every Single Player. Why? Well, it turns out that each football team actually consists of at least three sub teams: offence, defence and special. When it’s your turn to defend, you send out your defensive team. When you gain possession of the ball, you let your offensive team have at them. This is why Americans yell “go defense!” I used to think they were encouraging their players to defend when in fact they were cheering on a sub-team.

Peruna the PonyIt was actually a very close, very riveting game. The SMU Mustangs were at the bottom of the leader board, so this was a must-win game for them. The “mustang” is the SMU mascot and the name of their football team. For some reason, someone thought that it would be a good idea to represent this concept with a tiny Shetland pony, named Peruna. I explained to the sports fans that ponies and feral horses are quite different things, but they just looked at me as though I was mad. Every time the home team scored a touch down, Peruna and his long-suffering handlers dashed across the field. I have to admit, it was a nice touch.

Unfortunately for my long-suffering companions, the game went into overtime, and the visiting team scored a touch-down which left the score at an impressive 45-48. An anticlimatic end to a long day, but not an unsatisfying one.