Redhawks' wins lead to tailgating frenzy at Houck Stadium

Sunday, October 24, 2010
From left, Callie Wilhite, Pat O'Loughlin, Shawn Nesler, and Mick Engelhardt tailgate along Broadway in Cape Girardeau Saturday, October 23, 2010 before the start of Southeast's game against Eastern Kentucky. (Laura Simon)

Shawn Nesler and Rob Askew are not fair-weather Redhawks fans. They're not fair-weather tailgaters, either.

The friends from Cape Girardeau haven't missed a home game since 2001, mostly suffering through long losing seasons. They managed to keep the faith in the home team despite many Saturday mornings of barbecuing alone in an empty parking lot before heading into the thin crowds at Houck Stadium.

"One Saturday it was just us," Nesler recalled. "Just me and Rob. Last year, it was just us and the SIU fans. They took over our parking lot. As a fan, it was pretty rough."

Saturdays are looking quite a bit different these days. With the resurgent Southeast Missouri State University football team at 7-1 and ranked 13th, the parking lots before the games have been transformed into a place brimming with tailgaters.

Fathers toss the pigskin with their sons. A mother and daughter flip washers. The smell of barbecue and beer wafts across Broadway, while red-shirted students, alumni and superserious and casual fans chat about the team's newfound winning ways.

"The big W, that's the name of the game," said Mike McKinnis, president of Southeast's Booster Club. "This year has made all the difference in the world. It's amazing."

Fans are getting to the stadium early to get good spots that used to stay empty, he said. In years past, he said, he had trouble giving tickets away and now people are calling him constantly trying to get suddenly hard-to-get tickets.

"You couldn't give them away," he said. "If I put them on people's windshields, nobody would have wanted them. Now people are calling me day and night."

McKinnis estimated that the number of fans has tripled. Hotel rooms are already booked up for next weekend's Homecoming.

"These are all good problems to have," he said. "There has been support from all across the community. I've heard from the players, too, about how much it means to them to have all these people. I know it means a lot to them."

Fans said Saturday that the winning record attracted their interest but that tailgating is basically a fun combination of things most Americans love -- sports, food, family and fun.

A group of area football coaches and former coaches and players set up a tent to barbecue chicken wings and brats and enjoy the occasional adult beverage.

"There's just so much excitement that this team has created in Cape," said Cory Crosnoe, former coach at Central High School. "You can tell that the folks here are trying to generate some SEMO excitement. It seems like winning makes everything work out."

Some athletes from other sports wanted to show their support, too. Josh Uchtman is on Southeast's track team. He and others on the team showed up for their first tailgate party Saturday.

"We wanted to support the team," he said between flipping burgers on a small grill. "It's also a good way to come out and have a good time with friends."

Southeast alumnus Robert Meyer has been loading up his 34-foot recreational vehicle and driving his family down from St. Louis all season to tailgate and catch the games. Meyer graduated more than three decades ago and started tailgating for the first time this season.

"We just got excited about this year," Meyer said. "It's so much fun to see the excitement and the stadium filled. Winning really just changes everybody's outlook."

His daughter, Katie, graduated in 2006. She went to Redhawks games, but she doesn't remember seeing them win.

"It makes me proud to be a Southeast graduate," she said.

Meanwhile, Nesler and Askew said they don't begrudge anyone for hopping on board the Redhawks bandwagon.

"We're glad they're here," Askew said. "It makes for a lot better atmosphere. You have to be inspired. It would have been nice if they had been here even when they weren't doing so well, but they're here now. We're all fans now."


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