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My favorite Vanderbilt tailgating tradition: the mystery cooler

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The 2017 season is upon us. How do you tailgate?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Not that kind of cooler.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I wasn’t lucky enough to go to Vanderbilt as an undergrad — I only found the school through dumb luck as a graduate student. Attending the university was the best decision I’ve ever made for several reasons, but humid Saturday afternoons on the city’s western border rank in the top five.

The main benefit to my late discovery of Commodore Football was an experienced group of students and fans who introduced me to the world of southern tailgating. The closest college football team near me growing up in Rhode Island was Brown University, and while those games were [three fire emojis, or for the adults -- very good], there wasn’t much going on before or after those Ivy League showdowns. Undergrad was in Pittsburgh, where my D-III school regularly got outdrawn at its home stadium by high school games and the Panthers served to disappoint their fans several miles from campus.

But at Vanderbilt, it was an easy walk to Dudley Field and an even easier one to Vandyville. My grad student friends knew the gauntlet after four years (and in some cases five or six) of button-down tailgates and had blazed their own trail. They showed me the best places to sit in the stadium without any usher interference. They introduced me to cornhole and ladderball. They showed me the proper way to process a heartbreaking Commodore loss was with alcohol.

Every week brought a different themed tailgate. The best one? Mystery cooler.

The mystery cooler itself is simple enough. A large Coleman cooler — big enough to be mistaken for a child’s coffin — starts off empty. One-by-one, boat-shoe wearing men and women adorned in slinky sun dresses bring a six-pack to be offered up to the Gods of chance. Natty Ice goes in the cooler. Sixpoint Resin goes in the cooler. Tiny bottles of Coke mixed with whiskey or maple syrup vodka go in the cooler.

Then it’s locked. A cut-out panel on the top allows the bold to reach in, root around, and pick a bottle, can, or knotted-off water balloon of their choice — blindly. You remove your spoils and show them to the crowd. Then you drink it.

One pull could be a can of Mountain Crest. The next could be a Sam Adams. Your third could be a wine cooler. The only certainty is that your stomach would be going on the kind of wild ride Kenneth Grahame could only dream of.

As we’ve grown older and become more successful (present company excluded), the array of choices has gotten decidedly better. The selection process has evolved from a Russian Roulette-style adventure into an opportunity to try new beers, some local, lots from out of town.

In the spirit of bringing a taste of Wisconsin down with me the last time I visited, I brought Hamm’s.

The moral of the story is that you should not invite me to anything.

So what’s your go-to Vandy tailgate tradition? Let us know in the comments as we prep for Saturday’s season opener against Middle Tennessee.