Crowds gather at Mercer for pre-game festivities

pramati@macon.comAugust 31, 2013 

Shelby Cummings not only isn’t an alumna of Mercer University -- she had never been tailgating before Saturday.

But since the Fayetteville resident’s nephew, Caleb Brown, is a tailback for the school’s first football team in 72 years, there was nowhere else she was going to be.

“They’ve absolutely outdone themselves,” said Cummings, decked out in orange outside of the University Center. “I’m so proud. This is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. It’s an amazing experience. It feels like a family, even though I don’t know most of these people.”

Hundreds also bedecked in orange wandered Mercer’s main quad in the hours preceding the 6 p.m. kickoff for the game against Rein­hardt College -- Mercer’s first since 1941. Dozens of tent pavilions were set up near the statue of the giant bear that faces Mercer’s library, while students and newly minted Bears football fans played football, tossed Frisbees and fired up barbecues to pass the time.

Those hundreds swelled to more than 1,000 to cheer as the Mercer football team, dressed in gray T-shirts and black shorts, lined up two-by-two to march from the Connell Student Center to the football field behind the percussion section of Mercer’s marching band.

“I think this is one of the greatest things for Mercer that could ever happen,” said sophomore Conner Burk, of Peachtree City, as the team marched by. “I’ve never seen this many people gathered here. It’s going to cause a lot of good things for this campus. ... I’ve never seen this much excitement. Basketball is fun, but this is something completely new. I’m so ready for the game to begin.”

More than 30 tents were set up behind the Claude Smith Baseball Field as some fans got there as early as 8:30 a.m. to ensure they got a good spot.

Amber Moore, who graduated in 2002, was enjoying her spot with 2009 graduate Ashleigh Smaha.

“This is definitely a good thing for Macon, win or lose,” said Moore, who was a season ticket holder for University of Georgia games before this year. “A lot of people are forgoing their Georgia tickets. I had season tickets for Georgia; now I have them for Mercer.”

Smaha said she wishes she could have graduated a few years later, so she could enjoy the atmosphere as a student. Even though No. 5 Georgia faced No. 8 Clemson in a nationally televised game at 8 p.m., she wasn’t worried that attention will be drawn away from Mercer’s game.

“Most people will DVR it,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Most maybe, but not all.

Jeff Moss, a Georgia graduate wearing a Bulldog golf shirt and sitting in a UGA chair, said he was there to oversee the aerial team performing before Mercer’s kickoff. And while he was going to spend the day enjoying the tailgating on campus, he wasn’t about to miss Georgia’s opener, either.

“I think this is a neat experience for Macon, and it’s going to be a nice place to come to sometimes,” he said. “But if Georgia were playing right now, I’d probably be watching them right now -- I’m not going to lie to you.”

Earlier in the day, fans began trickling in before noon, staking out spots on campus, in Mercer Village and along Tattnall Square Park. There was a steady flow of foot traffic in the Mercer Village restaurants, as well as the food trucks set up in the area. The tailgating atmosphere kicked off Friday night during a pep rally at Mercer Village. Jessica Walden, director of communications for the College Hill Alliance, said more than 1,000 people attended that event.

People were enjoying the tailgating atmosphere even if they didn’t have tickets to the game.

When Jesse McMillan and John Pat Pickles played basketball for Mercer University from 1996-2000, the only time there was any sort of buzz or celebration was during the homecoming game.

But the Atlanta residents wanted to make sure they were part of the festivities as Mercer football returned.

As his 18-month-old daughter Elyse danced to the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” blasting outside of Francar’s restaurant in Mercer Village, McMillan took a moment to take it all in. As a student, it never dawned on him that football would be revived at the university.

“The closest we ever got was Saturday morning intramurals,” he said.

Pickles said he thinks it’s a great moment in Mercer’s history.

“It’s good for the school,” he said. “It’s something to be proud of.”

Neither of the alumni have a ticket to Saturday night’s game against Reinhardt, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to drive in to celebrate with other Mercer fans.

“There’s been a lot of talk about it among the alumni in Atlanta,” McMillan said. “We wanted to be part of the pregame and check it out.”

In downtown Macon, things were steady all day officials said as the city held its own tailgate party at Cherry Street Plaza, complete with live music and vendors. Fans who tailgated downtown were able to catch a bus to the football stadium for just $2.

That was the plan of Judy Jones, a Mercer employee who decided to go downtown with her friend, Christy Freeman, before going to the game. Both women said they thought traffic around the campus area would be too busy for the game, so taking the bus was easier and less expensive.

“I did not want to pay $10 to park,” Jones said.

Mechel McKinley, Main Street Macon manager, said downtown crowds were steady all day.

“There’s lots of people eating at restaurants,” she said. “There’s a lot of people using the (Macon Transit Authority) buses.”

McKinley said she expected good crowds downtown once the game was over.

Hannah Stark, manager of the Bearfoot Tavern on Cherry Street, said she was estimating a crowd that was about 25 percent larger than for a regular Saturday.

“It’s been awesome,” she said. “It’s been really good. Everyone is really happy, upbeat, excited.”


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