An unassuming city of some 100,000 on most days of the year, Ann Arbor is a lovely, leafy place and one of America’s great college towns, with a charming main street lined with warm little cafes and restaurants, plus excellent live productions, including those performed at the Purple Rose Theatre, a nationally renowned playhouse owned and run by actor Jeff Daniels. But on game day, when it is utterly transformed into a sea of maize and blue, this small city has just one thing on its mind: football. 

Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan Wolverines, the most successful team in the history of college football, compiling a fairly astounding win-loss record of 903-313 over the years since they played their first game way back in 1879. The city becomes a magnet every autumn, drawing fans from all over the continent to Michigan Stadium—which is invariably called by its nickname, The Big House—the largest venue to watch American football anywhere in the world, with attendance topping 110,000 for most games. 

But while I’ve come to see the game—a Saturday, noon, match-up with the Big Ten Conference rival Minnesota Golden Gophers—I am equally enthused to participate, just a little bit, in the great American tradition of tailgating. Still miles away from the Big House, cruising into town with a few friends, I can already see fans set up in parking lots and the closely-mown yards strung along the road, people in football jerseys tossing around the pigskin and cracking their first cold one at ten o’clock in the morning. Getting closer, we pay the required 15 bucks to leave our car in a church parking lot and stroll toward the stadium.

On my left, the university has allowed tailgaters to roll their cars and trucks onto the now-brown UM golf course—a clear case of UM prioritizing one school spot over another. 

Striding into a huge field adjacent to the stadium, one already entirely jammed with motorhomes emblazoned in the team colors, barbecues, UM flags and thousands of fans, I discover a sport I’ve never before encountered: the bean bag toss. With hours to pass before and, often, during the game (many here will never actually make it into the stands), tailgaters have made a habit of standing, brew in one hand and beanbag in the other, and tossing it through the hole at the opposite end, a sort of portable game of horseshoes. And I am astounded by the great variety of foods being prepared all over the field—well beyond burgers and hot dogs on a hibachi, I see (and smell) everything from Mexican to Cajun on the tables and in the crock pots all along the way. 

Smelling jambalaya, we stop in to chat with one group, who immediately sees our maize and blue clothing and embraces us as fellow fans, handing us brown bottles of American beer and striking up a conversation. Hailing from the town of St. Thomas, a couple hours over the Canadian border, these guys travel at least twice a year to Ann Arbor, setting up shop in the same spot in this field every time they do. Sometimes they make it to the actual game, sometimes they don’t. Tasting a dollop of the hot jambalaya, I’m tempted to stay with these guys all day, maybe trying my hand at the bean bag toss, but there’s a game to watch just across the road. We down the last of the brew and the food, and head off, across the road, ready for some football.