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Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Tailgate Tradition: Gameday under Century Tower

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Richard Schultz, 59, spent $19,000 perfecting a 1973 UF-themed Volkswagen VW Westfalia bus.

Rowdy Bateman, 69, started hosting tailgates at UF in 1975.

Brian Orta, 25, began bringing his own trailer last year, complete with a “tailgating Bible.”

On football gamedays, they all park next to Century Tower, setting up beneath the shade. Together, the three groups of Gator enthusiasts represent the traditions of tailgating.

For Schultz, it’s the time spent with his family, friends, football and food that brings him back week after week.

“We’re now known for being here,” Schultz said. “It’s kind of a rule.”

• • •

For the past eight years, Schultz has parked his beige Volkswagen directly in front of Century Tower.

Schultz’s group of tailgaters is often visited by strangers who walk through the heart of campus. They’re attracted to the renovated bus with an alligator head placed in front of it, biting a stuffed animal of the mascot of whichever team UF is playing that week.

Schultz, who lives in Melrose, Florida, and graduated from UF in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in advertising, began tailgating with his son-in-law, Blaine Hess, about 15 years ago with just a truck. When he inherited the Volkswagen from his wife’s family, he spent a year and a half renovating it.

After spending $1,100 to ship the bus from California, he stripped it down to nothing. It cost about $19,000 for renovations, including new orange and blue cushions and paint.

The original wood paneling remains, as well as an ice box instead of a fridge and space for two cots inside. A sign sitting over the bus’s window reads “Gator Room.”

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It was when he finished the bus that his family and friends began to flock to tailgates.

“They were all over it,” he said. “They absolutely were thrilled by it.”

Almost without fail, Schultz, who is called Papa by the tailgaters, arrives at his spot as early as 6 a.m. He drives to campus and meets with up to 40 friends and family from across North Florida to set up camp — a process that sometimes takes up to an hour and a half.

Schultz unpacks meticulously. First, it’s the tent behind the bus with chairs on the steps of the tower. Then the TV, connected to a satellite dish and generator, is set in the back of the bus in time for “SEC Nation” at 10 a.m. The food is placed under another tent on the right side of the tower, and then all the decorations are laid out.

“Once we got the bus, it became more of a family tradition,” Schultz said. “It evolved from just two of us.”

Schultz’s group is careful to leave the front of Century Tower how they found it, he said. They don’t use open flames, and he double- and triple-checks for leftover trash.

The bus sometimes even goes to the University of Georgia game in Jacksonville. In the future, they might start traveling more, he said.

Although Schultz didn’t tailgate when he was at UF — he preferred to prepare for games in the residence halls — he’s now an avid fan of the tradition. He’ll entertain whomever stops by to grab a seat and enjoy some home-cooked food. But the groups of other tailgaters he sees every week surrounding the tower really make Saturdays special.

“I enjoy tailgating, personally, as much or even more than I do going into the game,” Schultz said.

• • •

On the tower’s left on an open lawn, loud music blares from speakers beside a tricked-out trailer.

Bateman, of Arcadia, Florida, brings anywhere from 50 to 180 people with his trailer, an enclosed room decked out with Gator paraphernalia, which transports his TV and speakers to the tower.

He and his wife, Dottie, have hosted tailgates since 1975.

Over the years, crowds have changed as people come and go. They once hosted 180 people, but the main tailgaters remain the Batemans, who have grown up, season after season, celebrating next to the tower.

Bateman said he graduated from UF in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Tailgating has always been part of Gainesville’s culture, he said.

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From left: Travis Mercer and Brad Turner sit in the bed of a truck, tailgating with Rowdy Bateman near Century Tower. The Arcadia, Florida, residents are regulars at the party and come to most home games for food, drinking and football.

 

“After a tour in the Army, and babies, we started coming back up,” Bateman said. “This is kind of our home.”

The Batemans and their guests claim their spot beside Century Tower for every home game. Bateman said beyond tradition, tailgating has become a way for family and friends to spend quality time together.

“As you get older, you appreciate different things for different reasons,” Bateman said. “It’s a trip down Memory Lane, and it goes from gameday to a time when you can be with old friends.”

Bateman and his family drive four hours before every game to stake out their spot at about 6 a.m.

“It’s just kind of what you do,” he said. “You have to have been here to know that.”

He said watching gamedays evolve over the years makes him feel nostalgic, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve kind of given in to the generational changes and changed as the university has changed, but all in a positive way,” he said. “I know we probably play our music too loud sometimes, but we just want it to be welcoming to everyone, whether you’re a Gator or not. That’s what the Gator Nation is about. Heck, I guess I want to do it till I can’t anymore.”

• • •

The most recent additions to the tower are Brian Orta and Rob Fusco, friends from their time in Gainesville six years ago. Their parties began at Parkside Apartments, where the two met in 2009, with just a grill and a TV.

“We definitely had humble beginnings,” Orta said. “Eventually we thought, ‘Maybe we should move to campus.’”

In 2012, they gathered their “Motley Crew” and woke up before sunrise to claim the perfect on-campus space. They decided on the spot next to Steinbrenner Hall, across from Turlington Plaza, where they could hear the drum line.

Orta said he remembers meeting Richard Schultz, his new neighbor, that morning.

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Orta said. “It was early, it was cold, and we were setting up on our own for the first time. Rich came over and introduced himself. We got to talking, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Orta graduated from UF with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2013 and received his master’s in health administration afterward.

As he aged, so did his tailgate.

“The first year of my master’s, I decided it was time to really step it up,” Orta said.

Despite being at every home game, he said he and Fusco haven’t had tickets or attended a game in the stadium in three years.

“There’s just no need to, not when you’ve got it all set up right outside,” Orta said.

After graduation, Orta moved to Miami, and Fusco to Oviedo, Florida. But the tailgates couldn’t stop.

For every home game, Orta drives up from South Florida and stops to pick up Fusco on the way.

“It’s been us since the beginning,” Orta said. “I met 90 percent of my friends at that apartment complex, and now I can’t do this without (Fusco).”

For the 2015 season, they moved from Steinbrenner to join the group of Gator alumni who occupy the base of Century Tower.

As the youngest tailgate hosts of the trio by a decade they said they fit right in with their neighbors, Schultz and Bateman, and even adopt some of their traditions.

In 2015, Orta bought a trailer of his own from a Gator alumnus on Craigslist.

“He had already tricked it out, and he even offered to come set it up,” Orta said.

Inside, they found the “tailgate Bible.”

A binder with more than 100 laminated pages, the “Bible” contains step-by-step instructions for setting up the trailer, recipes for food and drinks, games and directions for a functioning bar and TV.

Orta and Fusco set up through rain or shine, assembling an orange tent covering about 10 folding chairs that face two big-screen TVs.

Their spot takes a few hours to set up, and like their neighbors, they try to roll in while the sun is coming up.

“The whole thing is like changing clothes now,” Fusco said.

If one group of the trio is running late, another will save their spot, Orta said.

They take in stragglers who wander up to watch the game, and the two say hospitality between fellow tailgates is a must.

“It helps to have good neighbors,” Fusco said. “It’s the football family.”

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