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Parents and football players tailgate after home games at Hillsdale College. Jo Kroeker | Collegian

When the RVs filled with families roll in Friday night and Saturday morning for a home game, the football players know it means one thing: Mom’s food. Well, and family, too.

The post-game comfort-food buffet last Saturday punctuated the final tailgate of the season. Like every other home-game tailgate this season, slow cookers and Tupperware crowded the tables spread across the parking lot, and family members were excited to support their sons and brothers, feed them, and catch up.

While tailgating is as common a national pastime as football, the home-game tailgating at Hillsdale is special because it’s hosted and coordinated by parents looking to make every player feel at home.

“Good or bad, they can decompress and spend time with family, celebrating their wins or licking their wounds, so to speak,” said Lisa Spampinato, junior H-Back Joe Spampinato’s mother, who helps organize the multi-family effort of feeding the team. “The boys are grateful, especially on days they didn’t win. It’s good for them.”

The over-abundance of food (everyone always brings too much) includes mac and cheese, chili, pulled pork, snack food, buckeyes, cupcakes, cookies, and cinnamon rolls fresh out of an RV oven.

But the food is not just for the players. Fellow mom and alumna Theresa Jones bolted for the chicken parm made by Spampinato, a personal chef.

Jones, a former football athletic trainer for Hillsdale, chirps, “Did you want more food, dear?” and “Please, help yourself to anything.” She’s tailgated on and off since 2009, when her son came to play football at Hillsdale. Her daughter swam from 2012 to 2016, and now her youngest son Nate, a sophomore, is a linebacker.

“I never expected all of my kids would end up here,” she said.

The food and family draws other athletes, too: Jones said the swim team got used to the families being around and would come to tailgate after Saturday morning practice.

“This is so much fun. This is way better than any other place we’ve seen, this family-tailgating thing,” Jones said. “People get here at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game. We have breakfast here, lunch, and dinner at the end of the game.”  

She said she was sad thinking about how boys from far away would eat in the dining hall while their teammates ate with their families.

“That’s when we said, ‘We need to feed them all,’” Jones said.  

Texas native Ty Cox, a redshirt freshman quarterback, was eating with the Joneses. His family can only come up for one game a year, and this year, it was homecoming.

“It’s definitely nice,” he said, balancing his plate in his lap. “You’re a college kid who needs to eat after a football game. Nate’s family is my surrogate family. Every weekend, it’s ‘come to the tent and hang out with the Joneses.’”

The number of RVs, families, and boys who come waxes and wanes, but the tailgate tradition goes far back. At its usual spot, The Gridiron Club, a group of football alumni who graduated in ’79, has tailgated every home game for the last 15 years. Members come from Hillsdale, Litchfield, and Toledo.

“This is one way to keep up contact,” alumnus Tom Lorkowski said.

The club supports the team financially too, Lorkowski said. Members run fundraisers and sell football squares, jerseys, and helmets.

“What we’re looking for is for people to come and have a good time,” founding club member Rick Barker said. “Everyone is invited.”

Spampinato has noticed five new RVs replace two that left; and while tailgating showings felt smaller last year, this year she’s noticed more football players coming out after the game. By her count, the core group includes six to seven RVs, plus a few base camps — all of which fills the parking lot.

One camper that’s new to the asphalt belongs to Tommy and Chris Mills, older brothers to wide receiver senior Timmy Mills.

“We’ve developed a culture,” Tommy Mills said of the tailgate going on around him.

The Mills bought a camper on Facebook Marketplace, and between December and April, they gutted, burned, and rebuilt it, transforming it into a tailgate camper that they debuted at the Indy 500 and claim is for sale.

The Mills brothers agreed on two essential features of a tailgating camper: A TV and a sound system. For a tailgate, just add people and good food.

“If you don’t have a grill, you’re worthless,” Chris Mills said.

Timmy Mills said the tailgate — and a home-cooked meal — is something to look forward to.

“There are a lot more families this year than my freshman year,” Mills said.

A Facebook page called Hillsdale Charger Family Tailgate Group connects all the families and organizes the family effort. For away games, families make cookies. One mom writes a newsletter. Another is in charge of making lanyards that identify the players and their numbers, their parents’ names, and parents’ phone numbers — which is particularly helpful for the new parents. Another mom is in charge of creating buttons.

Having the page helps a lot, Spampinato said, especially during the spring scramble to get new parents involved.

“We’re happy to take up the parking lot; it’s amazing to be a part of something bigger,” Spampinato said. “If you can’t be there, you know there are other families who will…families that will welcome you.”