Soon after Bluffton High School's homecoming parade wrapped up Friday, the smell of hot dogs and barbecue wafted through the evening air.
Families and friends gathered around trucks and tents to feast on spreads of chips, dip, appetizers and all things charcoal-grilled.
The grown-ups talked football, dissecting the finer details of this year's team and how best to approach the night's opponent, the Beaufort High School Eagles. Young kids sipped sodas and ran around in a sugar-induced frenzy, tossing footballs and yelling, while teens took group photos together donned in their black, silver and kelly green school colors.
The pre-game buzz was created by fans celebrating an increasingly popular tradition of tailgating at Bluffton and Beaufort high schools, one that has football fans packing coolers and school parking lots with team spirit before home games.
A long-standing ritual for many colleges, tailgating began gaining momentum among Beaufort County's only Class 4-A high schools in the last three to five years.
For each school, fans say, the trend began around the time each team got its most recent coach, each of whom has improved his school's football program.
For the Bluffton High Bobcats, it started after Coach Ken Cribb came in 2010, and for the Eagles, Coach Mark Clifford's arrival in 2004 ushered in a new spirit of team pride.
Each school's tailgating started with one or two families grilling a few burgers and bringing simple munchies to lay on a tailgate. Now, dozens of families tote giant grills, coolers of sodas, dishes to share and catered fare of pizza, burritos and barbecue from local restaurants.
"People were tailgating before, but it wasn't as big as it is now," Herbert Glaze, Beaufort High assistant principal, said Saturday. "It serves as a motivator and stimulator for kids, as well as adults."
Jessica Brown, a Beaufort High booster club member, said that about two years ago the club started getting local restaurants, such as Upper Crust pizza, to cater food, and it set up benches so families could sit for a pre-game meal.
"It keeps growing by the year," she said. "We have parents that have kids who graduated 20 years ago, and they still come to games. It's great to see the community come together like that."
Bluffton High also has vendors from Giuseppi's Pizza and Moe's Southwestern Grill, and earlier this year, it sold 10 tailgating spaces with a premium view of the field to fans who want to tailgate throughout the game.
One of the spaces was filled Friday by Richard Frazier and several family members. Frazier began tending a grill the size of a car hood 15 minutes before kickoff. By the final play, Frazier said he would have more than 60 hot dogs, 50 hamburgers and 40 chicken breasts ready to serve to hungry players and coaches.
In the next space, Matt Miller, with his wife and friends, said they began tailgating at Bobcat Stadium more than six years ago and try to fire up the fans before each game.
Miller periodically held up a white towel with a hand-drawn bobcat on it. He came up with the idea to distribute the towels and encourage fans to swing them around. He calls them "swag rags," in imitation of the Pittsburgh Steelers' "terrible towel."
"Cribb brought this town together with football," Miller said, of the Bobcats' coach.
The electricity generated by enthusiastic fans also gets youngsters excited about their future school involvement, Beaufort fan Chris Butler said Saturday.
"There's a lot of little kids out there throwing the football," Butler said. "It's a big deal -- it sets an example and builds community support."
As Beaufort and Bluffton high schools build their fan bases through tailgating and other means, they're also creating a new football rivalry. Bluffton moved to Class 4-A this year, making them Beaufort High's closest division competitor in the Lowcountry.
"Beaufort has been a powerhouse of the Lowcountry for a long time," Calvin Scott of Bluffton said before Friday's game. "And Bluffton didn't have any competition and were rolling everyone."
After Bluffton beat Beaufort 34-10 on Friday, fans on both sides were looking forward to the rematches.
"(Bluffton has) arrived, and they deserve to be considered with the top of the group," Beaufort fan Scott Dennis said Saturday.
"The beginning of a big rivalry is growing."
And with that rivalry undoubtedly will come more tailgating.
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