Just outside a packed Lewis Field Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Fort Hays State University flags could be seen everywhere, waving in the breeze. The smell of barbecue filled the air, and thunderous applause could be heard from inside the stadium’s limestone walls.
Dedicated Tiger fans turned out in droves to cheer their team in the first NCAA Division II playoff game ever hosted at FHSU. For fans like Jace Stewart, it was a day long in the making.
Stewart is an FHSU alumnus who also played on the football team from 2002 to 2005. He could be found just outside the stadium tailgating with family members, who represent several generations of Tiger fans.
“Chris Brown has been doing a great job. We’ve been improving the team every year since he’s been here,” Stewart said. “You can see it coming, but it’s still a surprise. All the guys on the team have just been playing great this year. I’ve watched almost every game. It’s just been great.”
He said he would be willing to “put money” on the fact Saturday’s turnout was the biggest tailgating crowd in FHSU history.
Stewart and his family now live in Texas, but drove the nearly 500 miles to be with family for Thanksgiving and watch the playoffs. After all, Tiger football is a family affair — his father, Kim Stewart, is chair of the college’s Center for Applied Technology.
And Jace’s two children seem to also bleed black and gold. His 3-year-old daughter, Devan, was thrilled at the chance to cheer alongside the Tiger Debs dance team Saturday morning, as the team and cheerleaders made a round through the tailgating lot.
“They were so cool. They just invited her right in,” Jace Stewart said. “That’s the best thing about Fort Hays is everybody’s family.”
The family had been on campus since 9:30 a.m. Saturday setting up an elaborate site complete with two canopies, rugs on the ground and a 54-inch television turned to — of course — the FHSU playoffs. The set-up allowed the family to watch together, as some older relatives preferred to avoid the crowd inside the stadium, he said.
A few lots down, Ryan Sultzer’s tailgating site had been drawing a large crowd of football fans. The Hays man owns Smokin Co. BBQ and had his food truck on site. He and his family fed an estimated 200 hungry Tiger fans at no cost in collaboration with Crawford Outdoor.
The intent was to celebrate the football team’s success and express customer appreciation, Sultzer said. He served up a variety of ribs, wings and pork loin with a wide selection of sides to “whoever showed up.”
“We went through a lot of food,” he said.
The food truck was the first tailgater on site at the football stadium at 7:45 a.m. Saturday.
Both Sultzer and his wife graduated from FHSU, and their two children love tailgating, he said.
“They’ve done very good,” he said of the football team.