AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn University students Michael Nunnelly and Kevin Johnson walked away from Jordan-Hare Stadium after the Tigers’ 41-30 win over West Virginia — happy, drenched with about 3.75 inches of rain and registering a blood-alcohol level of 0.00 percent.
Their clothes were soaking wet. Their tailgate was bone dry.
Just like always.
Nunnelly and Johnson don’t drink. Neither do the approximately 15 other guys who help set up the College Kids Tailgate, a loosely, but devotedly, organized game-day gathering that is beginning to draw attention — for school spirit rather than spirits — on the Auburn campus.
But if not beer, then what?
“Have you ever had Cheerwine?” Johnson, a member of the nondenominational Auburn Church, asked of the cherry-flavored soft drink. “We drink lots of Cheerwine.”
The tailgating began in 2007 with seven friends who lived in Lupton Hall, where the group still sets up camp. The seven friends are Christians, who just, you know, don’t drink.
“We just decided to tailgate together, and it just grew into this,” said Nunnelly, a member of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn.
“The most was 320 (tailgaters) for the Mississippi State game a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “Or at least that’s how many signed the guest book. There were probably more.”
Since the 2009 football season started, more than 1,000 people have stopped by the tents full of Cheerwine, orange cotton candy and guys wearing orange jumpsuits — trademarks of College Kids Tailgate.
The group is not affiliated with a specific church, denomination or campus ministry.
Still, connections have been made. Lots of hamburgers have been grilled. Relationships have been developed.
“I just appreciate them hanging out together and providing a place where kids can come hang out and feel safe and enjoy the game,” said Johnson’s mother, Tami, as she took shelter underneath one of the tents during a game-day downpour.
Tami Johnson and her husband, Kent, members of Shades Mountain Baptist Church in the Birmingham area, drove down for the day.
“It’s a place where parents can know their kids are safe and where they would want them to be,” she said.
That’s the idea, Nunnelly said.
“We wanted to create a no-pressure environment,” he said. “Something fun for everybody where people of all kinds of backgrounds, both churched and unchurched, lost and saved, can come and build relationships and have a good time.”
“Hopefully it’s making more of an impact than just not having alcohol but by having people that are here developing relationships with Christians that are doing evangelism with their own lives,” he said.
Nunnelly’s mother, Lottie, who has tailgated with him before several of this year’s games, has seen just that firsthand.
“There’s people that just walk up that don’t know anyone there,” said Lottie Nunnelly, who serves as assistant to the pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist. “There were some kids from Mississippi State that came up. I actually got to hear someone asking another student, ‘Hey, so where are you going to church?’ It was really cool to see it working.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Henderson writes for The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.)