It’s hard to imagine now, but Joe Cahn hardly ever attended football tailgate parties until he was 48 years old.
The lack of parking around Tulane Stadium made tailgating difficult for Tulane and New Orleans Saints games when Cahn was growing up. The abundance of bars near Tiger Stadium made tailgating irrelevant when Cahn was an LSU student in the 1960s.
Since 1996, Cahn has more than made up for it.
The New Orleans native and one-time Baton Rouge resident sold his two businesses, bought a motor home and wondered if it would be possible to go to games in every National Football League city in a single season. He discovered that it was, and that being in the parking lot was at least as much fun as being in the stadium.
Now, Cahn calls himself the Commissioner of Tailgating. He considered a loftier title, but thought the better of it.
“Kings can be overthrown, but commissioners are for life,” Cahn said. “Once you get a commissioner in, you can’t get him out.”
Cahn, 65, has driven about 900,000 miles to about 900 college and professional games, an average of three per weekend. He knows many of the people he’ll see when he arrives. In Detroit, that means having his Thanksgiving meal sitting in a hot tub that Lions fans bring to the parking lot. In New England, it’s a group of lobster fishermen from Maine.
“Every place is a little bit different, but they are really all tremendous,” Cahn said. “To go up to Green Bay when it is 10 degrees or 9 degrees and see people huddling around, or Buffalo in the middle of a snowstorm … Wherever I am on that given day is the best place in the world.”
And not just the pro and major college venues. Cahn figures he has gone to about 200 colleges, joining huge crowds that flock to Southeastern Conference and Big Ten games, and the much smaller gatherings at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., whose fans are just as passionate.
Why does Cahn love tailgating? Let him count the ways.
“I refer to tailgating as the original Facebook, but the good thing about tailgating is when you ‘friend’ somebody you get some food,” he said. “When you ‘friend’ somebody online, all you get is a little click. I refer to it as the last great American neighborhood where we’re walking through thousands of backyards with no privacy fences.”
When Cahn began his odyssey, he cooked jambalaya at each stop. Then, he realized he was missing out on other parties, where convivial people and an array of regional cuisines awaited.
“It’s really the happiest place anybody could ever be,” he said. “It’s the greatest free cooking lesson in the world. You walk along at LSU and somebody is doing a jambalaya and a pot of red beans, you ask them how they’re doing that, there’s nothing somebody likes better than talking food.
“You don’t see any sad people at a tailgate. People go because they want to be there. People sometimes go to games because they are given tickets and it’s a business thing, and they have to sit in a box — they have to schmooze. It’s more than just a game. But in tailgating, it is truly the social aspect.”
In Cahn’s case, the ultimate social aspect — a honeymoon destination.
Cahn and his wife, Karen, were married from 1984-94, then remarried in 2007, choosing The Grove, the legendary tailgating area at the University of Mississippi, as their honeymoon spot when LSU played there that year.
They’ll soon be back on the road, following a 2013 schedule designed to make being at a college game on Saturday and pro games on Sunday afternoon and Monday night feasible. Cahn has no plans to stop.
“I don’t have to worry about winning the lottery, because I already have,” he said. “If there was more money coming in, I wouldn’t change my lifesyle.”