The people of Shepherdstown know when the Rams of Shepherd University are hosting a rival football team. Parking is at a premium, the shops on German Street are busier and the soundscape changes for a few hours from the hum of a historic town to the chaotic chorus of fans on campus.
But even before the teams take the field, the town’s population swells a bit from a group of people that have arrived early on game day for years, for a type of family reunion, a family not of blood, but of pride and camaraderie—the tailgaters.
Chris Walter’s roots run deep in the town along the Potomac River. His parents, Joe and Elizabeth are both Shepherd alumni as is he. Walter has seen the changes on campus, the construction of the stadium, the razing of the old gymnasium for a new parking lot and the loss of what once was a unique place to watch the games.
Standing in the parking lot at half-time at a home game on Saturday, Walter poits toward an older house on a rise above the stadium. “That’s the Waldeck house,” he said. “They built bleachers up there and you could see pretty much the whole field.”
But, the pre-game activities have been the thread that connects his time as a youngster in Shepherdstown, his time as a Ram and now as he continues in education as a high school tennis coach and the principal of the Wright Denny Intermediate School in Charles Town.
“It’s the comradery, actually the culture of Shepherdstown,” he said. “Every game I see all these guys I grew up with. And everyone works as one to make it happen, the university and the town.”
There are rules to follow for the weekend visitors, and if everyone sees the visit as a time simply to enjoy the game and enjoy the tailgating, there are no problems, Walter said.
Barry Holmes, a Shepherdstown native, said the pre-game activities have also been a part of his life in town, even though he did not attend Shepherd.
Tailgating for Holmes and his friends started in a backyard near the field in the 1990s, then moved to a lot behind the library.
“I was going to make a donation to the school, but then they were letting people purchase a lot here in the parking area, so we did that,” he said, as his friends gathered in camp chairs and began digging into the variety of food on a nearby table. “Now, more than 17 years later, here we are.”
Those friends expect a good crowd to arrive for their family tradition of meeting in the parking lot. “We just make sure we have a ton of food,” Holmes said, as a friend came by to wish him a happy birthday.
“We’re always here, rain or snow,” he said. “We definitely won’t miss a Shepherd game. It would have to be something big for us not to be here.”
A few parking spaces away, Bart Zopp, and his wife, Alex, of Elkins, West Virginia, were setting up their tailgating site across several parking spaces that included multiple canopies and a large TV hooked up to a satellite feed—and a lot of food.
Their son, Jarrette, is a senior member of the Rams football team. But he’s injured and now contributes his efforts on the sidelines cheering on his teammates.
Zopp’s love of football was nurtured by his father, who was a football coach who named him after pro players Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. He said his family is planning to return to their four parking places next year as well.
“This is our fun,” Zopp said, as friends gathered to check out another game on the TV and to fill their plates with food. He said he plans to keep tailgating even after Jarrette graduates.
“We’ve made a lot of friends and we’re not stopping now,” he said. “It’s like a family get-together, a Shepherd family.”
One of those friends is Tracy Robinson of Mathias, West Virginia, who stood nearby wearing a “Bride to Be” banner.
“They surprised me with a bachelorette party,” she said, smiling at her tailgate friends. “Oh, and tomorrow, I’ll be a Snyder.”
Her son, Ricky, is the roommate with Jarrette Zopp, and is also a Ram football player, which has drawn the two families even closer together.
“It’s been a huge blessing to me,” said Robinson. “We travel together to get here. This is a great atmosphere. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
Family is a word that the tailgaters use frequently and without hesitation. The common bond that brought the community together initially was obviously the football connection, but many of the people gathered spoke of their time together in the parking lot as much, or more, than what was happening on the nearby field.
Clarke Newton of Mount Airy, Maryland, the father of another Ram player, Mason Newton, was joined at a tailgate pre-game fete by Aaron Fabry, who coached Mason as a young player in the Pony League in their hometown.
“He was on two Super Bowl teams with the Bulldogs,” Fabry said proudly. His pride to still be a part of the Newton’s continued bond with the sport and each other was obvious. “This, the tailgating, is all about family, supporting the kids and good times.”