PISCATAWAY — Lacey Township High School students Pete Hadley and Harry Wolansky have tailgated before every Rutgers University football game for about five years.
They had never seen anything like Thursday night.
“This is the best (tailgate) we’ve had,” Wolansky, a junior at Lacey, said before the game against Louisville to decide the Big East Conference championship.
Their family and friends brought an RV with two banners on the side: One for Rutgers and one for the Big Ten Conference, which Rutgers agreed to join last week. They tossed a football around, watched a DirecTV feed in the RV and had “way too much food,” Wolansky said.
Between the Big Ten announcement and the fact that the winner of this game will earn a Bowl Championship Series berth, this was Rutgers’ biggest game since 2006, when the Scarlet Knights beat Louisville in a matchup of unbeatens.
“The atmosphere is amazing,” said Hadley, a senior at Lacey. “I’m probably going to end up going here next year, so it’s really exciting.”
Temperatures were in the 30s shortly before kickoff, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from tailgating in the various lots around Rutgers Stadium several hours before the game. There was a band playing just outside the stadium. “R-U” chants were everywhere.
“I’ve had season tickets for 11 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Ocean City resident Bob Lawless. “Even five years ago, right after the Louisville game, they didn’t have excitement like this. Now you can get the kids’ faces painted and people are here at 3 o’clock like it’s a pro game. I think this is fantastic for the state.”
Upper Township resident Frank Conrad grew up in Toms River, and his wife, Elizabeth, went to Rutgers. Conrad, 42, played football for Glassboro State (now Rowan) but is a longtime Rutgers fan.
Conrad, 42, tailgated with dozens of friends. They had a table full of food and plenty of beer.
“New Jersey people should support local teams, and that’s why I’m here,” Conrad said.
Conrad said the Scarlet Knights’ football success combined with the move to the Big Ten has elevated Rutgers’ profile in general.
“People really look at the school differently than they did back in the day 20 years ago when I thought about coming here,” Conrad said. “It’s huge now. This is a big, pivotal moment for the school.”
Margate resident Leo Schoffer said it wasn’t just people at the stadium. Schoffer said he heard from people all day in South Jersey who said they planned on watching the game on TV. Even people with no connections to the school were excited, he said.
“What I think this is doing is it’s bringing the state of New Jersey together,” said Schoffer, who insisted that a reporter touch his family’s brick on the Scarlet Walk outside the stadium for good luck. “New Jersey has a history of being separated — North Jersey, South Jersey, Central Jersey, Western Jersey. Rutgers is something the entire state can get behind.”
Schoffer, 60, came to the game with his friends David Schultz of Galloway Township, Joe Sayegh of Margate and Glenn Zuck of Linwood. They got there shortly before game time, but they still planned on tailgating — after the game.
Schoffer said the best time to be in the parking lot often is after the game. And Zuck’s son, Jordan, is a student at Rutgers.
“I hope to be tailgating with his fraternity later tonight, if he allows me,” Zuck said with a laugh.
With a Thursday night, nationally televised game, the night was positive for Rutgers regardless of who won, several fans said.
“Everybody will know who Rutgers is after tonight,” Conrad said.
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