By: Lee Pace

When Alge Crumpler retired from the NFL after the 2010 season, a quarter of a century of donning his shoulder pads and cleats on game day and playing the game he loved from the pee-wee fields of Greenville, N.C., to a colossus like Gillette Stadium outside Boston came to an end.

It was time to embark on a new chapter in his football life: Tailgating.

“Since the first day I put on pads, I was always part of the show,” says the Tar Heel tight end from 1996-99. “I never got a chance to partake and enjoy tailgating. It was something I always wanted to do. There’s nothing like going into a stadium and smelling chicken, bratwurst and burgers on the grill and seeing dads playing with their kids in the parking lot. It looked like a lot of fun.”

So by the 2012 football season, Crumpler had acquired a Fleetwood motor home and purchased his Tar Heel football season tickets in the Blue Zone. He even made the drive from his home in Atlanta to Louisville for the second game of the year.

“I bought a bunch of wings and got some drinks and set up shop outside Papa John’s Stadium,” he says. “One of my first guests was none other than Bubba Cunningham with a bunch of his guests. We sat around and had a great time.”

Since then Crumpler has been an avid connoisseur of the Carolina football experience, and his RV and tailgate parties and top-floor suite in the Blue Zone have been magnets for ex-Tar Heel football players and even the occasional basketball player like Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough.

Crumpler hasn’t missed a home game since the 2013 season. His routine is to drive to Chapel Hill on Friday and set up camp near the Dean Smith Center. Then his wife and three daughters fly in Saturday morning. If the Atlanta Falcons, the team Crumpler played for from 2001-07, have a home game, he tries to get back in time for that kickoff.

“For a couple of years when I was doing pre-game radio for the Falcons, it was pretty challenging,” he says. “I’d have to leave Saturday after the game or get up at 4 a.m. for the drive home.”

Crumpler’s core group of tailgaters are guys from his late-1990s era of Tar Heel football—among them Danny Davis, Octavus Barnes, Dre Bly, David Bomar, Jason Peace, Kory Bailey, Anthony Anderson, and Billy Dee Greenwood. Since Willie Parker retired from the NFL and moved back to the Triangle area, he’s made several appearances. Marcus Wall from the early 1990s has stopped by; guys like Cam Sexton and Matt Merletti from the late 2000s have attended.

a group of tar heel football letterman use tailgating to foster the carolina family

“Anybody and everybody I knew was welcome,” Crumpler says. “We’ve never had a huge plan but always made it work out.”

“We usually just shoot out some texts the week of the game and see who shows up,” says Davis, who lives in Raleigh. “You never know who might come. We’ve had guys from the mid- 80s to guys who were playing just a year or two ago. Everyone’s welcome.”

Crumpler’s motor home has traveled to Clemson during the 2014 season and to Charlotte for the 2015 ACC Championship game. One of his biggest parties was outside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the 2016 season opener against Georgia.

“Oh, man, we must have had 200 people for that one,” Crumpler says. “We started early, and people just kept coming.”

“Homecoming’s a big deal, too,” says Davis. “Doug Brown was a tight end in our era and he and his dad do a lot of cooking. They bring deep fryers and cook pigs and turkeys, and it’s like Thanksgiving Day. We’ve had a couple hundred people at homecoming.”

Crumpler’s streak of not missing a home game in five years will come to an end in 2018 as his oldest daughter enters high school (his girls are 14, 11 and 9).

“I’ll have to cut back on my Chapel Hill trips,” he says. “With a girl in high school and Friday night games and late nights, I don’t want to ask her to get up every Saturday morning and get on a plane. I’ll still come—just not as often.”

That leaves another player like Garrett Reynolds to help take up the slack.

Reynolds, an offensive tackle at Carolina from 2005-08, played eight years in the NFL, five of them with the Falcons. He lives permanently in Atlanta and now is an entrepreneur, joining friend Stephen Ochs in 2018 to open a dog park and full-service bar and restaurant on three-quarters of an acre in Atlanta’s Fourth Ward.

He still has a strong pull to Chapel Hill and Tar Heel football, and for the California home opener in 2017 organized a party in the west end amphitheater outside Kenan Stadium that was attended by more than a hundred lettermen—plus wives, dates and children. Tailgate Guys set up the infrastructure and they catered the early part of the gathering for the noon start with Bojangles’ followed by pizza from IP3.

“Being my first year out of the game, I wanted to come back to Chapel Hill and see some of my old friends,” he says. “I sent out a couple of texts and guys said, ‘Great idea, can I bring so-and-so?’ It spread like crazy and we had about 120 guys RSVP. It was an awesome spot to tailgate and we had a blast.”

Reynolds is planning a similar event around the Central Florida game on Sept. 15 and has bigger ideas to combine the camaraderie generated by tailgate party with a broader networking function for ex-Tar Heels.

“When a guy finishes his football career, whether he makes it in the league or not, he should have a network of fellow Tar Heels— guys he can call for a job, for a contact, for a place to stay in a certain city,” Reynolds says. “They need to know it’s not just about four years—it’s about a lifetime.”

What better way to sustain that bond than a cold beer, a chicken leg and a football game in Kenan Stadium?