Teaching Tailgating Tradition: Penn State Communion
Tailgating is a marriage of team spirit, day drinking, and gloriously unhealthy buffet spreads.
Penn Staters are no strangers to the spectacle with thousands of people flocking to the fields surrounding Beaver Stadium for every home game in rain or shine.
Despite the undeniable pre-game buzz, the tailgating landscape is demanding. Even for seasoned tailgaters, the event can be physically taxing, with early start times, empty calories, and miles-long treks in the blazing sun or bleak snow.
However, if you’re lucky, among the sea of blue and white tents, hitch-mounted grills, and corn hole games, one may hear a low cheer in the distance. It could even be called a siren song. When followed, tailgaters will be met with a group of tents being crowded by eager Penn Staters, often 10 layers deep. The excited fans are holding plastic shot glasses as a Jägermeister pick-me-up is doled out to the crowd.
The group quiets as one man gathers everyone’s attention in the front of the tents. He leads the crowd in a passionate cheer of Penn State’s own fight song, ending with a group shot and a fierce “We Are” chant. Following the two to three-minute performance, the crowd disperses with a new pep in their step and a dose of Penn State spirit.
This fiery display of Penn State pride that occurs every hour on the hour is called “communion.”
The tradition was created by Penn State superfan Jamey Perry. The chant started during the 1987 season and Perry’s fourth year.
“We started doing a toast or cheer to the team,” Perry said. “So we didn’t really have an official name. It was never named then.”
At the time, tailgating lots were first-come first-served, with Perry and his buddies waking up early to get a coveted spot near the stadium. Perry, a Penn State cheerleader, led the fight song. The original group was pretty big, featuring about 50 friends and friends of friends joining in the cheer.
The name “communion” came about in 1990 after Perry graduated. Ed Walsh, a family friend of one of Perry’s classmates joined the tailgating scene in 1984. From there, Walsh had a tradition of coming once a year, clad in a blue bishop costume. Walsh then led the cheers whenever he could.
“When he was doing it, I said, ‘Let’s call it communion because it’s bringing people together to have a drink in honor of something,'” Perry said.
Both Walsh and Perry can be seen in this YouTube video starting the toast.
Regarding the possibly sacrilegious name, Perry said he hasn’t faced any scrutiny and most, if not all, tailgaters are fans of the tradition.
“At first, I was like, ‘Is God going to hate me for this?’ But I think he understands it’s in good jest, and it’s all positive,” Perry said.
The liquor choice came out of luck, surprisingly. The tradition started off with vodka being passed out instead of the iconic acquired taste distributed today.
“You know, believe it or not, when we started doing this, we ended up tailgating next to a woman whose brother worked for Jägermeister. So, he came and donated bottles,” Perry said. “It would’ve just been easier with Jägermeister.”
Around the early 2000s, Perry and his family started tailgating in the RV lots, slowly separating from the original communion group. Among this group was Beez Bohner, a 1974 Penn State graduate who met Perry in the 90s.
“People in our lot, they go, ‘Oh no, what about communion? Who’s going to do it?’ So I started doing it,” Beez said. “I probably did it for seven or eight years.”
Beez continued to be the main “communion guy,” honoring Perry’s cheer and good spirits until he passed the role to David Hutchinson, or Hutch, around 2009. Hutch joined the tailgating group through Beez’s son, as they worked at Bill Pickle’s Tap Room together during their time as undergraduates.
“Hutch was interested, so I said, “I’m turning this community over to you because it does get tiring after a while,'” Beez said.
“We’ve been kind of sharing duties forever. And then, you know, the last couple of years, maybe three years ago, I started doing it permanently,” Hutch added.
A mainstay of the tradition that every “communion guy” upholds is good sportsmanship and the signature “Happy Valley hospitality.” Perry incorporated this into the beginning of the cheer, where the person leading the toast asks for an opposing team’s fan to lead their alma mater’s fight song.
“When the visiting teams are with us, if anybody boos, they’re not going [to] take communion,” Perry said. “They’re not allowed to be there. I don’t need that.”
“You’ll get reprimanded for not inviting the opposing team,” Hutch said. “Now with that said, I’m very disappointed in most opposing fans’ ability to know their fight song. It’s pretty embarrassing actually.”
If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can find the original “communion guys” in two lots. Hutch and Beez are in one, hosting a shot every hour on the hour, and Perry is in another, boasting the same hours with an additional toast at 4:09 p.m. in honor of Joe Paterno.
Hutch discovered the expansion of communion through households and annual tailgates through folks inspired by the tradition. He even performed the speech during a wedding reception at the request of some die-hard Penn State fans.
“It has that kind of unique reputation that if you’re in that lot, in particular, everyone knows what lot they’re in because of it,” Hutch said. “That’s the fun thing about it. It has a little mind of its own now.”
Perry shared a similar sentiment, even bestowing his blessing to people who want to try communion themselves.
“They could do what they want with it, just, I always ask people, ‘Be respectful of the visiting team, no need to use vulgarity, and remember, we’re just pro-Penn State,'” Perry said.
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