JACKSONVILLE — The “feels like” temperature outside Jacksonville State University’s football stadium three hours before the Gamecocks tangled with the Mocs of UT Chattanooga hovered in the triple digits. A constant breeze offered no relief as pigskin fans huddled under folding gazebos and canopies in the RV lot next to the stadium seeking shade and cold beer.
Allen Hastings from Newnan, Ga., sat with about a dozen other Gamecock fans in Saturday’s sweltering heat enjoying a plate of guacamole dip and chips.
“We’ve got a lot of fans right here,” Hastings quipped as he pointed to several electric fans strategically placed to offer some relief.
Hastings said that he and his group shopped locally for the cold beer and other tailgating cuisine.
“It’s what we do,” Hastings said as he touted the local economy that benefits during game weekends at the self-proclaimed “friendliest campus in the South.”
Said Hastings, “We eat at local restaurants. Struts is our favorite place.”
Struts of Jacksonville, located about the length of a hail-mary pass from the stadium on Mountain Street, was packed with fans from both schools on Saturday afternoon.
Kelsey Suco, a manager at Struts, was busy rushing out plates of steaming wings as banks of televisions gave screen time to various college football games.
“We always stay busy game days, it fills up when the doors are open ... a lot of the servers look forward to these days, we fight for those shifts,” Suco said.
“It’s going, going, going the whole day,” said Suco.
Suco said that she and the servers want as many home games as possible. This season there are seven home games, up from a more typical five, not counting a playoff game.
“The home games are really what makes it for us during football season,” said Suco.
Down the street at the Jacksonville Bookstore, store manager Clarissa Watts said the first home game was not played until late September two years ago. That makes a difference for a lot of fans, she said.
“So that really is tough because by the time they get home for the first time and it’s the end of September people are usually over football by then, it’s just not as exciting as the first of the season.”
Watts said she is hoping that the seven home games this season will boost sales better than “our normal year.”
On Saturday the bookstore was filled with fans buying apparel and other Gamecock-themed merchandise.
JSU student Ashley Chambers was with her mother going through racks of T-shirts and outfits.
Chambers, a psychology major from Cullman who had just eaten at Effina’s with her family, had only positive things to say about JSU.
“Compared to where I went to school before, a community college, it’s good to go to a university where they actually have football,” Chambers said.
The full slate of home games is also good news for Amie Hardy, director of sales at the 80-room Hampton Inn, where the lobby on Friday was decorated with the school’s mascot, colors and logos. Hardy and her staff were all wearing JSU T-shirts as they helped football fans find their rooms.
“We sell out for every home game,” Hardy said.
Hardy said that every game has a different theme, this weekend being preview weekend for prospective students.
Hardy said she loves the JSU fans who stay at the hotel, especially the ones who paint their faces.
“Win or lose, they are always happy to be here,” said Hardy.
Caryn Van Matre and her family from Pensacola were one of the lucky families to book a room at the Hampton Inn on Friday. Van Matre said they had come up to see her son, Jackson, who is a member of the Marching Southerners.
“He plays the 20J with the Marching Southerners, which is the big old-fashioned tuba. It’s the one when they turn around it makes the sound that knocks you out of your seat,” Van Matre said.
Van Matre said the family plans to shop locally to “freshen up our T-shirts” and to enjoy barbecue at Cooter Brown’s.
Justin Marbut, who runs the family business The Rocket in Jacksonville, said the extra home games this season will help his bottom line.
The sweet aroma of hickory smoked meat hung heavy in the restaurant on Friday as Marbut was preparing extra barbecue to satisfy the palate of his returning customers.
“We did notice a huge difference two years ago when we didn’t have very many home games,” Marbut said.
“We appreciate the alumni that come back and eat with us year after year, it means a lot to us being a family-owned restaurant for people to come back,” said Marbut.