By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (CBS 2) –Tailgating is an art form. And as is the custom in this country your particular type of party is ultimately judged in the press by the celebrities that show up.
What goes on prior to Jets games in Lot 7 at the new Meadowlands Stadium, or “L7″ as it is affectionately known on Twitter, has really taken on a life of its own. In a lot of ways it’s no different than the countless other soirees that take place throughout the thousands of yards of pavement off the Turnpike’s Exit 16 W. There’s plenty of jovial faces having a ball, stuffing those same faces with God only knows what. Beverages of choice are in abundance. Chants tend to break out without warning and it goes without saying that someone will dress up like it’s Halloween in January.
But what sets L7 apart from many of the other lot tailgates is the star power, all created by word of mouth. And I’m not just talking about how it’s THE gathering of the social networking site elite.
What took place prior to the Jets beating up the Bills 38-7 on Sunday in what was a meaningless game in the standings, but by no means unimportant to the thousands that made the trek, was special for a couple of reasons.
First off, Jets fans partied without pressure, which, if you ask any fan of this helter-skelter franchise, is a rarity. Often, the final week of the regular season is either filled with angst following another season gone awry or is all about fear of a potential playoff appearance going up in smoke.
But in this case, if ever there was a house money game preceded by a mulligan tailgate, the cocktail hours prior to Sunday’s 1 p.m. start were it.
Second, the several-dozen L7 revelers were treated to two special guests. It was an unannounced visit for the ages, one that showed that although many professional athletes and public figures often give off this air of elitism, some actually understand and appreciate the little people more than you’d expect.
So when Jets owner Woody Johnson and Executive VP Matt Higgins decided to make their way to L7 a day of what was to be madness inside the stadium started a bit earlier on the outskirts of the massive Meadowlands complex.
To his credit, Johnson has always been fan friendly. I don’t know the man personally, but the many that I’ve spoken to that do say he’s very much in tune with the thoughts and aspirations of the paying public. So, in a sense, Johnson’s appearance wasn’t totally shocking. Still, the man appeared out of nowhere and the day took a turn for the surreal. The familiar black glasses showed up and the people reacted like George Clooney was in the house.
Say this about the Jets: they are unique in many aspects. From their front office on down to their maligned strength and conditioning coach they know how to gain and, in many cases, entertain an audience. Granted, many would like to see some of the shenanigans dialed down a bit and some of the swagger stay on the field instead of showing up on the evening news or reported within seconds on the Internet. But make no mistake, by and large the Jets are a people’s team.
It’s a franchise with faults, but also one that seems to understand the right way to treat its fans. From players being largely approachable and receptive to interacting with the common folk online to team executives showing up out of the blue in the parking lot to hang with the loyalists, the Jets are largely well aware of just how important they are to their public, especially during these trying times. Sure, the Jets charge an arm and a leg for everything, but name for me a team that doesn’t and you’ll have made history.
I don’t know this for certain, but my guess is Higgins played a rather large role in getting Johnson to come out to L7. You don’t find many sports executives who get involved with the fans as much as Higgins does. You can tell he’s good at his job for a reason. I’ve heard stories of things he’s provided for children in need and beyond being a voice box for the franchise online he’s genuine. No question thrown his way is not worth answering. The person new to Twitter is just as likely to catch his ear as the beat writer or other more well known or established figure.
So with Higgins advising Johnson I’m not the least bit surprised the Jets owner showed up. There’s a way to do things and a way not to do things.
These guys are pretty good at the former, which countless will attest to this Monday before their beloved team starts its run toward the Super Bowl.
There’s a rumor going around that Joe Carlson, one of the guys responsible for the L7 tailgate, won’t be able to attend every game next season, thus putting more of the onus on his buddy, Joe Grinwis, to run the show. Well, there’s really no need to worry because it’s a total team effort. By and large the set-up, cooking and clean-up responsibilities are shared by everyone.
The crowd seems to grow every week. It’s likely just a matter of time before L7 becomes as attractive outside the complex as the Jets have become inside it.
You just never know what or who you will see there. Johnson was the first of what could end up being a procession of Jets luminaries to make an unscheduled visit to the lot on the other side of the tracks. I for one hope Joe Klecko shows up there one day and bench presses a few fans. Maybe Curtis Martin could come by and have a “Rex Dog.” I’m sure Wayne Chrebet could devour some of my boy Dom’s sausage and peppers with ease. And my friends Lauren and Ali make a brownies surprise and caramel apple dip, respectively, that will blow your mind. If they don’t attract Joe Namath to L7, no one will.
Anyway, kudos to the L7 crew originals for inviting me along. It’s the ultimate tailgating lot.
And now it’s a proven fact — if you fill it, they will come.