Above: Billy Morrow, left, and Tony Jones grill chicken for a tailgating supper before a Kennesaw State University football game. Photos by Phil Mosier

Back when Billy Morrow lived in California, he liked to go to San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants games. He’d been a 49ers fan since age 5, he said, and he had season tickets to see both teams play.

The Morrows went for the full fan experience. The family regularly picnicked in the parking lots outside stadiums as part of the game-day ritual known as tailgating. “Our kids thought they grew up at Candlestick Park,” he joked recently.

KSU Milton Overton and Billy Morrow
The new director of athletics for Kennesaw State University Milton Overton, left, talks with KSU Owl’s fan and tailgater Billy Morrow.

After Morrow retired from a management job with Pacific Bell in 1997, he and his wife, Kelsey, settled in Woodstock. They like the Georgia climate and the opportunity to play golf regularly in their community. But “we missed tailgating,” Morrow said.

Loyal to the California teams they had cheered growing up, they never quite connected with any established Georgia sports programs. Then, about four years ago, Kennesaw State University started a football program. The Morrows decided it was time to start tailgating again.

“We’ve had a great time ever since,” said Morrow, who estimated they had tailgated at 22 KSU games over the past four seasons. They even were named “tailgaters of the week” at the first game, he said, and he figures they’ll stay at it “as long as they have football.”

That could be a long time. Fall means football in Georgia, and at colleges across metro Atlanta, the Morrows and other senior football fans regularly gather family and friends in stadium parking lots to show support for their favorite teams.

Decked out in team colors and armed with coolers full of goodies, they cheer and dine al fresco on anything from freshly grilled steaks to homemade chili to grocery store takeout while they, perhaps, toss back a drink to two.

College Football in Atlanta

Like other schools across the South, metro Atlanta colleges have adopted tailgating at football games as part of the fabric of local sporting life. Tailgating has become so embedded in sports culture that it’s featured on sports broadcasts to show the excitement surrounding a team and it regularly crops up in TV commercials.

It’s important to the schools, too, as it helps creates loyalty among fans. “The atmosphere surrounding our home football games is crucial to the game-day environment and ultimately creating a home field advantage for our team,” said KSU Director of Athletics Milton Overton. “Kennesaw State has extremely passionate fans and even though our football program is only in its fourth season, we are starting to create game-day traditions that will be in place for years to come.”

KSU tailgaters
KSU tailgaters, at left, Tony Jones, Kelsey Morrow, Penny Jones, at right, Reed Johnson and, at bottom, Tom Vipond share snacks and football tales before the start of a game.

The Morrows and another couple from their neighborhood, Tony and Penny Jones, regularly spend a few hours tailgating together before KSU home games. Although none of them attended KSU, they like watching the football games and the atmosphere on game days. Besides, they said, it’s only a short drive from their homes to KSU’s football stadium.

Before each home game, they set up a tent, a grill and some chairs and tables in a parking lot right across the street from the stadium. They picnic, drink and chat with KSU cheerleaders, university officials and other fans who wander past. “You get to know a lot of people,” Morrow said.

Their tent brims with tributes to KSU football. They fly a black-and-gold KSU flag. On a table at the front, they display a football signed by the coach alongside bobblehead statues of KSU’s owl mascot, “Sturgis,” and an assortment of ceramic owls.

When time came for the KSU team’s pre-game march into the stadium, the Morrows and Joneses had front-row seats. They and their guests lined up on the sidewalk and high-fived players as they passed. “Go Owls!” Kelsey Morrow cheered recently as the players strutted past.

After a few hours, they lit a small portable grill and began to cook dinner. The menu: grilled chicken on croissants. “The football is almost secondary to the tailgating,” Tony Jones joked.

GSU Tailgaters

A couple of dozen miles to the south down I-75, Georgie Pierce and Sid Crow spent part of that same Saturday afternoon downing hot wings and sipping cocktails in the parking lot across Hank Aaron Boulevard from the stadium where the Atlanta Braves once played baseball and Georgia State University’s football team now plays its home games.

GSU fans Sid Crow and George Pierce
Georgia State University football fans Sid Crow, left, and George Pierce, meet and dine before games outside the school’s stadium, which in the past hosted Olympic Games and Braves baseball. The two have tailgated together before GSU home games since the university started playing football.

Both wore blue shirts and caps bearing GSU logos. At 71, Pierce teaches microbiology at GSU. Crow, 73, retired from a career teaching the same subject. They’ve been tailgating together since GSU’s first football game in 2010, Pierce said. They devote a couple of hours to tailgating together before every game.

Pierce even tailgates at a few away games, having traveled as far as Memphis and North Carolina to watch his team.

“It’s part of the college of experience…,” Pierce said. “When we grew up, that’s what you did on fall weekends. There were not a lot of TV stations back then.”

The appeal, as Pierce sees it, is simple: “You get food and you get football.”

Pierce and Crow beat the mid-day sun by sitting beneath a GSU-blue tent pitched between their parked vehicles. The smell of grilling meat drifted across the parking lot. Up the hill, a tent filled with a large family of GSU fans blared music. Tailgaters were scattered around the parking lot.

They make a signature cocktail for each game. In the past, it’s been mojitos or mint juleps. For this game, it was a pitcher of cosmopolitans.

Pierce believes that because GSU’s football program is relatively new, tailgating before games helps the program get established. “It’s starting something,” Pierce said. “How many chances do you have at over 70 to be a pioneer in starting a tradition?”

Georgia Tech Football Fans

Tailgating already is a long-established tradition at Georgia Tech, where football fans with cars and coolers fill fields and parking areas before home games. Marvin Lewis, a Tech graduate who turns 73 this month and lives in Dalton, says he’s been tailgating at Tech home games for more than a dozen years.

Georgia Tech tailgaters
Joanne and Marvin Lewis and Mitch Hardigree tailgate at a Georgia Tech game. SPECIAL

Lewis says his tailgating group brings together friends from other Georgia towns and from as far as South Carolina. They bring along their children and grandchildren and old friends and everyone has a chance to catch up.

The real appeal is “just the companionship, the camaraderie,” he said. “We all live in different places. It’s a chance to renew friendships… We don’t spend a lot of time talking about football. For the most part, our tailgating is just a chance to see each other and say, ‘I’m glad we’re together.’”

And, of course, there’s also the chance of a cold beer and a game of football on a sunny fall afternoon.

Where to Cheer

The Atlanta metro area has several exciting college football teams. Start here to get info on game schedules and more.

University of Georgia Bulldogsgeorgiadogs.com

Georgia Institute of Technology Yellow Jacketsramblinwreck.com

Georgia State University Panthersgeorgiastatesports.com

Kennesaw State University Owlsksuowls.com

Clark Atlanta University Panthersclarkatlantasports.com

Morehouse College Maroon Tigersathletics.morehouse.edu

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.