Before the Bears and Lions' "Monday Night Football" game last week, I decided to switch up my tailgating routine, taking the party from the parking lot to the water.
It all started at Harry Caray's Tavern at Navy Pier, where the Bloody Mary bar was stocked and Bears fans were out in droves. After a couple of drinks, some good grub and the requisite pregame smack talk with outnumbered Detroit fans, everyone in the bar emptied out (road brews in hand) to a waiting boat and cruised across Lake Michigan to the game.
I've done my share of pregaming, but nothing like this. Below us, the dark, calm waters of the lake, to our right, the Chicago skyline sparkling bright against the night, and dead ahead, Soldier Field, home of the Bears.
Harry Caray's Tavern introduced the tailgate-and-cruise combo last season, and it's been a big hit, saving people from pricey parking near the stadium and giving fans a whole new way to arrive at the stadium in style. Pier-to-pier service to and from the game is key, as cab lines are long and parking lots deadlocked for an hour or more after games.
Plus you just can't beat that view.
I did a little digging and discovered the Bears' "booze and cruise" tailgate isn't the only unusual pregame party in the NFC North. In fact, every team in the division has its own unique take on the traditional game-day soiree.
Let's stay on the lake for the first one.
Sailgating in Chicago
It's clear Bears fans are determined to take advantage of Soldier Field's location on the water. In fact, Chicagoans have turned the waters just offshore into another parking lot of sorts -- a lot for "sailgaters."
Early in the season, while the Chicago weather is still cooperating, fans like Ben Rutledge and Rick Stage head out for the ultimate boat tailgate, complete with a grill rigged to the aft deck for burgers, brats and more.
Stage, an avid sailor who owns his own boat named "Alpha Puppy," joked: "I've sailed two single-handed races to Mackinac [Island], and I get ESPN's attention by sitting on the dock and drinking!"
Besides the cool factor of getting to lounge on a boat with some buds and brews, Rutledge says sailgaters get to avoid the worst part of big-lot tailgating:
"No waiting for Porta-Potties!"
Tubgating in Detroit
Ford Field in Detroit is about a mile from the Detroit River, but that doesn't keep Lions fans from getting in on the water-based tailgating trend. No boats involved in this party, though; fans get rowdy in a hot tub instead!
Denny Arney, the owner of the "Tubgate" in Detroit's Eastern Market, carries on the tailgating tradition started by his late friend Ron Leonard in the early 1990s. Arney's 110 degree hot-tub-on-wheels, filled with Honolulu blue water for the Lions, is frequented by fans of the home team and visitors and is open no matter the weather.
The tub has been there through the Lions' ups and downs, and Arney and his friends have attracted plenty of media attention. Now in his 50s, Arney describes the tubgate as "the fountain of youth for an afternoon." Regulars bring their bathing suits, while fans passing by have been known to throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind and take a dip in their underwear or in the buff!
Railgating in Minnesota
Minneapolis introduced "railgating," a party spanning a two-block stretch of Fifth Street alongside the light rail line this season. The Vikings' new stadium, set to open in 2016, will be located just a block from a light rail station in an urban area without much room for parking lots and tailgating areas, so city officials want fans to party downtown before heading to the game.
On any given Sunday, fans can be found crowding around more than a dozen food trucks, the scene combining the fun of a tailgate with the culinary delights of a state fair. Beer stands aren't allowed on the so-called "Purple Path," so fans pop into local bars and restaurants along the route for game-day refreshments.
The tradition is new, but if the satisfied faces of Vikings fans (stuffed to the brim with mac 'n' cheese, lobster rolls, brisket nachos and beignets) are any indication, railgating will only get bigger and better.
Yardgating in Green Bay
There's nothing like tailgating in Green Bay, a city that eats, sleeps and breathes Packers football. Lambeau Field is smack dab in the middle of a middle-class suburb, so it acts as a big, rowdy backyard for dozens of Green Bay residents. Because the stadium is surrounded by yards and not parking lots, the tailgating scene feels like a big block party.
Tailgate masters Chris Haworth and August Herschede have been to more than 100 sporting events together, including countless Packers games.
"What's amazing to me," said Haworth, "is the unique relationship [the southern end has] to the stadium, whereby the homes are separated not by a street but just a domestic fence line no more than 5 feet tall. Hard to imagine a shorter 'commute' to any other pro stadium in the U.S."
The two friends have set up tailgates at local residents' houses since the early 1990s, cultivating relationships with people all up and down Stadium Drive, just a stone's throw from Lambeau. They've moved the party several times over the years to accommodate their growing numbers, always finding homeowners more than willing to open up their homes for game day. Herschede talked about two homes, in particular, that went the extra mile for "yardgaters."
"The garages at both 884 and 936 Stadium Drive were converted to accommodate large parties," Herschede said. "His and hers bathrooms, a fully plumbed kitchenette, televisions and a general living area -- all heated. Though we'd all rather be outside on the back lawn with the unrivaled view of hallowed Lambeau Field."
For Herschede, the stretch of "yardgating" along the southern boundary of the stadium is "a little slice of heaven;" a tailgater's mecca so great even the biggest of Bears fans might dare make the trek up to Lambeau for a day.
(Shut it, Bears fans. I said "might!")