They come to the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, each January from near and far, all-stars looking for an opportunity to display their skills under the watchful eye of professionals, looking to take their game to the next level, seeking to be the best.
Oh, and there’s a football game, too, in which the participants have similar goals. But the competition isn’t limited to the playing field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the annual event. Not by a long shot. While college all-star football players spend the week practicing in front of NFL scouts, general managers, coaches and personnel directors in hopes of improving their standing in the NFL Draft, there’s an equally fierce competition taking place in the stadium’s parking lot in the form of the Senior Bowl Tailgate Challenge.
For the football players, the practices leading up to the game on Saturday—this season’s Senior Bowl will be played on Jan. 28, 2017—are the most important part of the week, the time when those from the NFL get to evaluate the players most closely. For those taking part in the Tailgate Challenge, the days prior to kickoff are important, but it’s game day when their work is judged.
For all the pageantry that surrounds the game on the field, all the introductions and cheerleaders and bands and fans cheering for their favorite players, there is a definite energy and excitement that takes place in the huge tailgating area prior to kickoff. Certainly part of that is the excitement created by the game itself, but there’s also a vibe that exists that is created by all the activity taking place at the various tents and other tailgate areas. There’s a kinship and competition, a playful attitude and a distinct seriousness.
For folks in this part of the country, it’s the best of both their worlds—football and food. Toss in the fun and family that follow those as closely as gumbo follows rice and you have yourself a party.
“It’s not surprising,” says David Holloway, local food guru for the Mobile Press-Register and AL.com and one of the judges each year for the Tailgate Challenge along with former University of Alabama and Miami Dolphins standout Bob Baumhower and others, when asked if he was taken aback by the seriousness of the competition.
“We live in a part of the country where we take football very, seriously, but one of the things that we take almost as seriously is food. You can take any event, anything like this, and, well, we’re good at it. These guys aren’t professional, but they take it very seriously and they do what’s necessary to get it done,” Holloway says.
The key is preparation, and determining to what level one wishes to take their tailgating experience. If someone wants to bring a small grill and cook some hot dogs and hamburgers, maybe a little chicken for family and friends before the game, that’s perfect. It is the path many who attend the game annually choose.
For the 2,000 or so lucky enough to gain a pass to the Senior Bowl’s big tent area, where food and beverages are provided, the only thing they need to bring to the stadium is their appetite and the intention to have a good time. But for those taking part in the Tailgate Challenge, this is serious fun. Every detail is planned well in advance, and the menu is only a part of that planning. For some, you have to consider which deejay to use as well.
Let Gary Coleman, a member of Boys Day Out—the team that earned the grand prize in the 2016 Senior Bowl Tailgate Challenge, along with awards for best wings, best Reese’s dessert and best party (that’s right, best party)—explain.
“We start planning around Thanksgiving,” Coleman says. “There’s about 15 of us and we sit around and talk about how things went the year before, what went well and what didn’t go well, and if we need to change some items. And as far as the party goes, we have a deejay playing music out there for us all day. A couple of times we’ve had a rapper that comes over from Georgia. We do quite a bit of things out there. We feed the Boys and Girls Club every year. We feed a lot of folks. And we have a great time.”
There is work before, during and after the “great time” to be sure. But as Coleman said, there’s never a concern that anyone is going to leave their area hungry. “It’s unreal,” he says. “We cook ribs, maybe about four or five cases, maybe 50 slabs of ribs. We cook a whole hog out there and we do fried chicken wings and leg quarters on the grill and fish and shrimp and fried oysters on the half shell. We’ll have gumbo and we’ll have crab meat and shrimp and potatoes and sausage. We do probably 100 pounds of that.” Basically, it’s a buffet restaurant for a day, in a parking lot, before and during a football game—with other one-day restaurants all around.
“What Bob (Baumhower, who owns several restaurants throughout the area and state) has told us a couple of times is that we should open up somewhere,” Coleman says. “When we started out, my son was five and he was the youngest of the kids, and now he’s 28. It started out we just wanted to have food that we could eat all day and the kids would run around and play and eat. It grew from there. We started incorporating other things each year and the first year they had the competition, we won the competition. From that point on, we’ve been either first or second.
The gates normally open at 6 a.m. on Saturday, so we get out there about 2:00 in the morning…. We have such a big tailgate that there’s only a few spots where we can set up, we need a large area. When the gates open up we’re usually up close to the front of the line. And we’ll fi x breakfast—grits, eggs, pancakes; it’s like going through IHOP with all the stuff we have out there. We just try to have a good time and feed as many people as we can that may stop by.”
Friends too. Coleman says that every year, family members and friends arrive from “North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, Texas and Washington” to take part in the tailgate. “On Sunday, we get together again at someone’s house and we do it all again before everyone heads out on Monday.”
Holloway says the Tailgate Challenge competition has grown each year, and it continues to improve with age. “The groups that we run into, it’s really good,” he says. “They raised the bar for themselves, we never really did that. They just sort of make it difficult (to win). The food runs the gamut of just about everything that you can think of. A lot of it is traditional tailgating food, a lot of grilling and things of that nature. But then you have a lot of south Alabama-type food—a lot of gumbos, some crawfish, boiled shrimp—stuff that you don’t usually see at other folks’ tailgates, and it’s stuff that is usually very, very good.
There are some impressive barbecue rigs out there and some impressive turkey frying rigs and gumbo pots and things of that nature. We’ve had to limit (the entries) because we just can’t eat all that much. I’ll tell you, none of (the judges) go home hungry. The quality has gotten better and better. Once people realized what we were doing, when they realized what all was involved and the competition, and the prizes and the winners get to go out of the field and be recognized and there’s a huge prize package, they have stepped up their game.”
What really makes this thing special is when it coincides with Mardi Gras and it becomes this preview of what’s about to come. It’s a huge party where, the game is there, but the food is always there too and it’s such a big part of everything.”
Alec Naman of Naman’s Catering in Mobile has been involved with Senior Bowl tailgating for several years. Not all of it, of course, is a competition. For the most part, it’s just good eating and a lot of it, whether it’s provided by professional caterers such as Naman’s, or your next door neighbor.
“We start off with the NFL,” Naman says. “They come in a week ahead of time and we kind of feed the NFL film crew—breakfast, lunch, sometimes dinner, according to how late they’re going to work. That builds into the weekend and the game itself. It’s a week of football and tailgating. It’s business, but it’s fun business. We enjoy that sort of stuff. I personally love it. It’s almost like we’re out there on the field with them.”
“Whatever your favorite foods might be, there’s a good chance it will be offered on Senior Bowl Saturday,” Naman says. “They all want to show off their food,” he adds. “They want everybody to come and eat their food. They want people they don’t even know to come over and try out their food. You see a lot of Boston butts and brisket and people smoking chicken. You have different smokers going on and some grills going on. Some people are grilling some of the more tender cuts so you don’t have to cook it long and others are out there smoking brisket, which takes six or eight hours. They’ll break out the baked beans and the potato salad and the women are all bringing pot luck, showing up with cookies and brownies and banana pudding. I’ve seen whole fi lets of salmon and some folks are cooking up their venison. And there’s certainly a lot of sausage.”
The Senior Bowl tailgating experience offers a free area where fans can not only get a hot dog or sausage dog or a burger and chips, but an assortment of drinks and samples of other snacks and goodies. The pleasant aroma of smokers and grills covers the large area surrounding the stadium and carries for quite a distance beyond the heavily populated parking/ tailgating area.
It’s not just a football game, it’s food, and the two go hand in hand, especially in this Gulf Coast city. Right smack dab in the middle of all the food and fun, one can find Georgia Rousso of Georgia Rousso’s Catering of Mobile. She handles the Senior Bowl tent and its many patrons on game day and although the workload is extensive, she swears she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on Senior Bowl Saturday.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun for us,” she says. “We have 25 employees working that day. All week orders are coming in and because we have done it so many times—I don’t want to say it’s old hat, but the ordering part comes easier. Last year we had a menu change so that was different. We start prepping the food probably two days ahead of time and we go set up there the day before, taking all the equipment that we can and all our chafing dishes, and that’s probably 40 chafing dishes. We actually do four double-sided lines for this event. It’s in three tents that make up the main tent.”
The Senior Bowl tent hosts approximately 2,000 guests, but it’s an all-day visit. They arrive to eat prior to the start of the game, some venturing into the stadium and returning at halftime, others staying longer. The tent remains open until the end of the third quarter of play in the game. “Those 2,000 people come back and forth,” Rousso says. “We probably feed those 2,000 people at least twice, some of them more than twice.”
So how does one plan for such a large group? Let Rousso count the ways. She says her group will cook 2,000 hot dogs and 2,600 hamburgers. They also prepare 480 pounds of fish, 880 pounds of chicken tenders and 384 pounds of potato salad. Take a breath, because that’s not even counting the beverages—everything from beer to water to soft drinks and tea—nor the chips and desserts (usually cookies and brownies and of course Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) that are available.
And yet here is Rousso, certainly someone who after a 16-hour day of food preparation and serving, can be heard echoing the words of all the others who take part in the Senior Bowl tailgating experience.
“We love it,” she says, and you know this isn’t just something she’s saying. “We really love it. It’s a whole different kind of catering from doing wedding receptions and those kind of things and we just love doing it.”
So if you have plans to attend this year’s Reese’s Senior Bowl or one in the future, know that a program, complete with rosters of the two teams, isn’t the only thing you’ll need on Saturday. Bring your appetite too. Who knows, you may even get a chance to watch some football.