When Ben Dawson was driving through Georgia with his family on a Friday night last fall, he had a revelation.
His son, Sawyer, a junior defensive standout for the Plant City High football team, noticed smoke filling the sky from a nearby parking lot as they traveled up Interstate 75, in south Georgia.
“I remember him saying, ‘Look at that, Dad,’” Ben Dawson said.
It wasn’t a fire but rather a tailgate for high school football at Lowndes High in Valdosta, Ga. The parking lot was packed with fans. Smoke was billowing from parking lot grills, and kids were running around throwing footballs. It was a scene the Dawsons usually saw on college football Saturdays.
“I thought that it must be something special going on, like a special event,” he said.
But, as the Dawson family continued their journey to property they own in the Peach State, they saw more of the same: high schools with college game day atmospheres. They saw whole towns practically shut down for business owners to go support the home team.
“We turned on the radio, and there were FM stations broadcasting high school games,” Dawson said. “All you get here is music and talk shows.”
Seeing what a Friday night under the lights could be like, Dawson started thinking of ways to bring that to Plant City.
“If they do it in Georgia, we thought, ‘Why can’t we do it in Florida or in Plant City, even?’” he said.
After meeting and planning with the PCHS Touchdown Club, Dawson decided to bring tailgating to Raider home games this fall. There will be a tailgate for every PCHS home game this season, complete with bounce houses and face painting for kids and grilling out and socializing for parents and other fans. Aside from the $5 charge for game parking, the tailgates will be free, and anyone attending is encouraged to bring their families, grills and plenty of school spirit.
“Once the word starts spreading around, it will grow,” Dawson said. “I’m not sure it will ever get to the level that you see in Georgia or Texas, where some cities just have one school, but we think it can be successful.”
The tailgates also will give fans a dining option before games.
“There are only a few restaurants in town that are open after games,” Dawson said. “This way, you can get to the stadium early, get fed and then go enjoy the game.”
The test run of the tailgate in May for the annual Orange and White Game saw a good turnout, but Dawson believes the home opener against Wharton this Friday could bring a solid group of tailgaters.
Ben’s wife, Diane, also is helping out with organizing the tailgates. Their daughters, Mackenzie and Kendall — both standout softball players at PCHS who went on to successful careers at Eckerd College and Alabama, respectively — help out with social media efforts.
“We invite anyone that has time on Friday afternoon to come out early around 5 p.m. and have a good time and associate with other town people,” Ben Dawson said. “This is all about having fun and supporting our Raiders.”
Contact Matt Mauney at email@example.com.
Plant City vs. Wharton Tailgate
WHEN: 5 p.m. Sept. 6
WHERE: PCHS parking lot; 1 Raider Place, Plant City
INFORMATION: Fans are encouraged to bring grills and cookout before the games and bring their entire family. Activities include bounce houses, face paining and games.
SOCIAL: The Plant City High football team is on social media. Follow them on Twitter (@Raider_Football) and like Plant City High School Raider Football on Facebook.