A tailgate without beer: Only at Ohio State

I am learning to respect ritual as well as adventure while on the road, although nothing can be taken for granted – not even the commonplace tailgate party, particularly when you’re in Columbus, Ohio.

First, let me tell you about the crowd that I’ve been running with for a few years, The Guy’s longtime circle of friends. This is a seamless mix of singles and couples, age range 40s to 60s. Two generations of families, plus brothers and sisters, are a part of the history.

Somebody just got married. Somebody else is awaiting the arrival of twin grandchildren. This large and solid circle is sometimes like family, and they tend to be in bed by 11, if not 10.

For about 30 years, there has always been a subset of the group that attends a Badger football game in another city. There is predictable behavior more than surprises for the dozen or so people who go on this annual road trip.

But there are exceptions. They’ve sat in a dark Las Vegas stadium, waiting for electrical power to return. They’ve made lodging reservations in the wrong Iowa city. They’ve drawn blood, accidentally, while playing washers – an odd game that requires two coffee cans and, well, washers – too long after sundown.

Usually, though, this group is responsible and competent, perhaps overly so. We use the same packing list from one year to the next and tend to bring the same kind of treats. We pay a $20 per person boarding fee, to cover miscellaneous expenses before we incur them. We will eat doughnuts as we leave town, and we will eat sub sandwiches in a park for lunch.

We spend much of our time in a motel room or suite, drinking beer, watching sports on TV and sometimes playing board games. We turn in expense receipts. We count how many cans of pop and beer remain when we get home.

The trip stats are documented in a three-ring binder (and if that binder actually has two rings, I will hear about it). We pay attention to detail and seem to find comfort in what is familiar.

That’s what makes this year’s trip all the more interesting.

Until this month, the group had never taken a road trip to Ohio State University, because of the lengthy drive. But now that destination is history, and it is a good example about how you simply can’t predict or plan everything.

We rode an RV into the city, stayed at a motel on the outskirts and found out which campus lot to park in before the mid afternoon kick-off. The fee was $50, steeper than expected, but there were dozens of other over-sized vehicles, many elaborately painted or equipped with giant-screen TVs and/or explosive sound systems. There were fat buffets, inflatable Buckeye mascots, OSU flags flapping.

People were playing washers here, too, and tossing beanbags through holes to pass the time. Nationwide – the insurance/financial services company – was giving away hot dogs, candy bars, pop, water, salted snacks, golf towels, bottle openers.

The place looked like it rocked. It was five hours before gametime.

So our group hauled out its card tables, the cheese and sausage slices, the raw veggies and dips, the homemade cookies chockful of chips.

Then came the lawn chairs and the coolers, one for pop, two for beer. A couple of Badger flags were hoisted, and we settled into an innocent pre-game routine, until a parking attendant clued us in.

“No open containers,” he said. “They’ll fine you.”

No signs to that effect had been posted, but there was earnestness in his voice.

“Just pour it into a plastic cup,” he advised. “Nobody’s going to ask to see what’s in it.”

Away our confidante walked, and the befuddlement began. We checked out a few neighbors. Evidence of food and pop, and no Millers or Buds in sight – except for the occasional 12-pack that was being carried, intact.

Our stoolie reappeared. “Now they’re checking the cups, too. If somebody asks to buy a beer, do NOT give them anything.”

So we walked around the parking lot and looked for The Enforcers. Eventually we found them on the sidewalk in front of us. Some of us were cowering in the RV.

The half-dozen, twentysomething Wisconsin guys who parked next to us had been alerted, too. Yet they left town with two fines, each $100, for having open containers of beer.

Some of us wonder whether that’s because the guys insisted on playing – loudly, and over and over – sportscaster Matt Lepay’s broadcast of the play that did in OSU during its water-logged game in Madison last year.

All told, it was enough for many to huddle indoors on a beautiful autumn day, sipping their beverages cautiously while watching two or more fines being written at a time.

The Enforcers disappeared, briefly, only to reappear from another direction, plainclothes guys who were trailed by others in uniform. They were still at work after the game, as we pulled out of the parking lot after minimal lingering.

Ohio’s state House of Representatives this summer voted to allow open containers on public property while tailgating, if the campus has an F-7 license, makes an attempt to fence in the party area and hires a security guard.

Will the bill become law? It won’t matter at Ohio State.

Campus spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk has told the media that OSU doesn’t intend to promote the consumption of alcohol. Case closed.

“Ohio State does not oppose tailgating,” she told The Lantern at OSU. “We oppose public drunkenness.”

The legislation “sends the wrong message to our students, that they need alcohol to enjoy sporting events,” she told the Associated Press.

“We believe we have begun to create a positive environment by actively controlling open containers,” she told The Columbus Dispatch. “It would be unfortunate to slip backwards.”

That’s all well and good, but it also may prompt a few visiting team fans to look elsewhere on the Big Ten schedule before they gas up the car.