For the love of the game — and the tailgate party

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With the Michigan State vs. California game on a television close at hand, Eric Gallegos tends to some hot dogs on the grill while tailgating outside Sam Boyd Stadium.

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For the past 40 years, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas football team has suited up to take the field. And for 37 years, Al and Edith Levitt and friend Cyn Winzer have donned their red Rebels garb and celebrated in the dirt parking lot outside Sam Boyd Stadium.

When the trio, along with Winzer's late husband, Ted, first tailgated before a Rebels game, it was 1971 and the new stadium was known as Las Vegas Stadium.

Bill Ireland was head coach, Richard Nixon was president and Clark County was home to about 275,000 people — the population of just Henderson today.

Tailgate parties drew large crowds and fans showed their school spirit and passion for the young program as if every home game was a holiday parade.

"Every game we had contests who had the best tailgate decorations," said Al Levitt, 79, of Henderson. "It was new to Las Vegas then — big time football."

The Levitts and Winzers won the contest one year and received a free trip to Reno for the in-state rivalry game against the University of Nevada, Reno. Among their decorations was a sign that read, "Saturday Night Football is better than Mundane Night Football."

Football fans, it seems, can't resist a chance to celebrate before and after a game. Outside football stadiums all across America, sports fans don their team's colors, fire up the portable grill and down a few sudsy beverages before filing in to watch the game.

Bragging rights

  •      In college football, merely winning bragging rights in a long-running rivalry isn't enough. Schools created trophies or cups so they had something tangible to fight for.
  •      In 1969, Nevada's two public universities started their tradition of playing for the Fremont Cannon. Through 2007, the UNR Wolf Pack led the Battle for Nevada series, 18-15.
  •      Bill Ireland, the first football coach at UNLV, forged the idea of a symbolic trophy to generate interest in the fledgling rivalry between the schools.
  •      The traveling trophy is modeled after a howitzer used by John C. Fremont as he explored Nevada in 1843.
  •      According to legend, Freemont did so without permission from the U.S. War Department and then abandoned the weapon in a Sierra-Nevada snowdrift.
  •      The Nevada Mines Division of the Kennecott Copper Corp. built the cannon, which was refurbished in 2000 when UNLV fans damaged it during a post-game celebration.
  •      The cannon is valued at more than $10,000 and weighs 545 pounds.
  •      It has not been in a condition to fire since 1999.

And the same goes for UNLV fans. For many, it's tradition to arrive several hours before game time, hang out with friends, grill and trash talk the opposing team.

Or as UNLV fan Tony Marvez put it, "It's Saturday. It's football."

Marvez is retired from the Air Force and has been tailgating at UNLV games for nine years with fellow veterans and friends who work for the U.S. Postal Service.

The Summerlin football fan elevated tailgating to a new level this year, pulling his all-inclusive party trailer to Sam Boyd for the Utah State game.

The flatbed trailer has an eight-burner grill powered by two propane tanks, two 150-quart coolers in the middle, fold down 18-inch tables on both sides, an umbrella, and a flag pole hoisting the Stars and Stripes and a black POW-MIA flag. It will soon have working lights and a generator to run a television or a blender or whatever.

Marvez and his friends have turned tailgating into a lifestyle. The group will tow the trailer with them on the road to Phoenix, Denver and San Diego for NFL games.

"If it's within 1,000 miles out west and it's somebody's favorite team, that's good enough reason to pack it up and we'll go there," he said.

Regional rivalries add as much to the tailgating experience as the gear and beer. Utah State didn't draw a sellout crowd. But when Brigham Young University, the University of Hawaii and the University of Nevada, Reno come to town, the parking lots fill up, the visitors get rowdy and the locals show their true colors.

Home games

  • Sept. 27 7 p.m. vs. UNR
  • Oct. 18 7 p.m. vs. Air Force
  • Nov. 1 5 p.m. vs. TCU
  • Nov. 08 7 p.m. vs. New Mexico
  • Nov. 13 6 p.m. vs. Wyoming

Henderson resident Phil Anderson, 58, is a UNLV season ticket holder and brought his son and two grandsons to the Utah State game.

"It's the local team and we support the local team until my favorite team comes to town. Then I drop it like a hot potato," Phil Anderson said. "Colorado is not in the same conference, but Colorado State is. I went to Wyoming and I root for Air Force so that tells you how many times I drop UNLV."

It's not surprising to find fair-weather UNLV fans, said Jerry Ybarra, 31, of Henderson. In a city of transplants, most people grew up with loyalties to other teams and schools. Ybarra roots for his alma mater, the University of Arizona, over the Rebels, too.

"It's always the other team that has the bigger cheering section than UNLV," he said.

But that doesn't discourage Winzer, 67, of Las Vegas. In nearly four decades, she's missed just one Rebels home game. Even her husband, Ted, still makes it to at least one game a season, and he died 12 years ago.

Winzer brings her late husband's ashes to the tailgate party in a box adorned with red pompoms. "Well, yes, I bring him out to the tailgate parties. He loved tailgate parties," she said.

Jeff Pope can be reached at 990-2688 or [email protected].

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