The Virginia football team bus pulls up to Dunova Court off Stadium Road, and the entirety of a nearby tailgate bolts away from their food and tents to greet the bus. Like Joe Reed at the start of a kick return, these people are hustling.
As they get down to the street and near the bus, they realize it’s a false alarm. The bus is carrying the team managers, not the players.
“I haven’t missed an entrance to the stadium in 13 years, I wasn’t gonna start today,” Natalie Fitzgerald said with a laugh.
Fitzgerald, Virginia’s former director of academic affairs for football, is the ringleader of one of UVa’s most passionate football tailgate groups. She worked at Virginia from 2006 until this past February, and she’s helped scout out prime tailgate locations for families of football players since 2007. The families organize the event, and her outgoing personality makes her an easy choice as one of the first invited guests.
She helped find the Dunova Court location for the tailgate, which is the third location of the football family tailgates she’s been involved with. The families have been tailgating here for four seasons.
Students primarily own the houses in the cul de sac, and the families pay the students to use their parking areas and lawns for each week’s home tailgate. Fitzgerald called it a “win-win for everybody” as the students make enough cash over the course of a season to cover a couple months of rent.
The tailgate, which I visited during the early afternoon hours before the Duke game on Oct. 19, felt like a family reunion.
It had everything you’d want in a raucous family gathering. There was plenty of food, booze and most importantly, good people.
Laughing and hugging were the two most frequent activities of the families in attendance, and everyone involved was beaming with pride at the success of their relatives.
That pride was no more evident than when the players arrived at the stadium. The tailgate location is directly across from where the team bus enters the stadium, which allows the families to greet players as they get off the bus. That’s a tradition the families never miss, and it’s a highlight for the players before kickoff.
“It just makes you so happy,” junior safety Joey Blount said. “I love that Coach Mendenhall allows our parents to be there. Football is such a serious game, but you got to remember to try to have fun. And the people that got you there are right there, your family, mom and dad, aunts, uncles, friends, family. It’s nice to see your family there, and it gives you more perspective [for] why you play, and my why is I play for my mom and dad.”
It’s an emotional scene when the bus arrives and the parents rush down to the street to greet their sons.
The players frequently exit the bus wearing headphones and sporting a stern game face. Within seconds of seeing the crowd and their families, the mood changes and everyone is laughing and rocking ear-to-ear grins.
“It’s a sight for sore eyes, man,” Tony Blount, Joey’s dad and a former UVa football player, said. “We’re yelling and screaming and hugging. That’s why we’ve got the best location right here.”
The tailgate is composed primarily of relatives of players, but anyone is welcome. Whether it’s a random passerby or a family friend visiting the tailgate for the first time, the football families greet everyone with hugs and an offering of food and drink.
Bronco Mendenhall’s program preaches that it’s a family, and the families of the players feel the same way. The families of the 2017 recruiting class share a special bond that has grown over the past 2½ seasons.
“We love all the years, but the 2017 recruiting class, which is Bronco’s first recruiting class, the families have been so awesome,” Marie Blount, Joey’s mom, said. “We’re truly a family within a family. So the 2017 class, the parents are just like the boys in that we’re just so tight and so inclusive.”
Zane Zandier’s father, Rick, feels the same way. He enjoys sitting with parents during the games and cheering for the Cavaliers with people of different backgrounds.
“It’s absolutely awesome,” Rick Zandier said. “You’re literally like a melting pot for the nation. We have families from D.C., families from California, Hawaii, Miami, Cleveland, Michigan. It’s so much fun.”
The parent tailgates aren’t just a Charlottesville staple. Many of the families travel to road games and bring their tailgating prowess with them. The families all have a text thread, which can get intense on game days, according to Marie Blount. She joked that parents within the chat talk like they’re coaches analyzing each week’s matchup.
The 2017 recruiting class makes a big impact on the field with players like Charles Snowden, Joey Blount and Zane Zandier helping lead the team’s elite defensive unit. The relationships the families have formed help enhance the culture and support around UVa football Saturdays.
“When my son came here, I was very impressed with the staff and university, but when I got to meet all the families, it went another notch above what I thought the school could be,” Chris Glaser Sr., the father of Chris Glaser Jr., said.
With three homes game left this season and a full slate of home games next year, the tailgates at Dunova Court are more than 50% completed for families of the 2017 recruiting class. The families have no intention of letting the tradition die, however.
“We have a few other parents that come in that have never had the experience, and we try to welcome them all because at some point we’ve got to pass the torch onto somebody else so they can keep this going,” Tony Blount said.
Until the figurative passing of the torch, the families will gather each week on a side street of Stadium Road to celebrate Virginia football and their loved ones. There are endless amounts of good food and laughs, but it’s the excitement that makes this tailgate special.
“I’m in awe of my own child,” Marie Blount said. “We are just so proud of what he has accomplished to this point.”