GARNER — Three hours before the kickoff, the Blue Crew began driving into the gravel parking lot near Garner High's Trojan Stadium.
These were not the professional grade tailgaters you see at college football games. For starters, they had no way to cook food.
"Anybody bringing a grill," asked Jay Booth, the unofficial spokesman for the student group that turns out for Garner football games.
There were no takers last Friday night.
"We might send out for some chicken or something," Booth said. "Last year we had a cooker, but we don't this year."
But food usually shows up. Chick-Fil-A sent sandwiches once and a local church supplied Krispy Kreme doughnuts on another night. Bojangles chicken has appeared without warning.
But none of the 75 or 80 students who come to the parking lot before each Garner football game comes for the chance to eat food off a paper plate.
They don't come for the bonfire, which is really much more like a campfire.
"This is a big part of life, something I look forward to," said junior Will Bryan. "We celebrate Garner football. You can't beat hanging out with a bunch of your friends and then going to the Garner game."
New truck, old friends
There were lots of unknowns last week. Crew members hadn't been in school on Thursday or Friday because of the holiday, so even Booth was unsure who would be at the game.
"You coming?" he asked "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery on his phone.
McCreery told him he was on the way. The singer has brought the Blue Crew, which appeared as spectators on "Idol," fame with shout-outs on national TV.
McCreery arrived in the pickup that he won on the TV show, flying a huge homemade Garner Trojan flag. This was a six-foot long flag mounted on a long pole what was attached to the truck bed. It was carried into the stadium and waved throughout the 34-27 victory over Britt.
McCreery's pickup is new, but the friendships are old and lasting.
They've been meeting like this since they were sophomores. Every year since, some have graduated and new members have been welcomed.
"Yeah, we still got some young guys that have to get rides," Booth said, pointing to this year's sophomores. Luke Thompson, a junior, promised the tradition would continue next year.
The group is not about eating, or bonfires, or even "Idol" worship. Why is it such a big deal?
"It's Garner football," Booth said. "It's tradition."
Football is king
At one time the holiday tradition in the community was hanging Christmas lights on the old water tower near the railroad tracks downtown.
The tower was taken down long ago, but these young people inherited the tradition of supporting the high school team and enhanced it in their own way.
High school football means a lot in this water tower town. In 1987, the community sent an estimated 7,000 people, about half of the population back then, to the state championship game in Charlotte. Folks around town can still recite the heroes of that championship season - Anthony Barbour, Pete Smith, John Dykes, Stacy Betts and a host more.
The tradition runs deep. The Blue Crew says the sentiments of McCreery's "Water Tower Town," which is on a CD that has sold a few hundred thousand copies, reflects the values of their group and of their community.
As the song goes, they wave to most folks. They've chased fireflies. And on Friday night, at least for them, high school football is king.
"Friday night football is king,
Sweet tea goes good with anything
Peace and quiet make such a beautiful sound
Nobody eats till you say Amen
and everybody knows your mama and them
You can see who loves who from miles around
in a water tower town."
Garner has sent teams to the state playoffs for 26 consecutive years and will play in its third state championship game in the past 24 years on Saturday at 3 p.m. at BB&T Field at Wake Forest. The Blue Crew plans to be there.
The group has added a new twist during the playoffs. The team gathers in front of the student section before the game and chants with their classmates, "I believe that we will win."
The team returns after the game and they all chant, "I believe that we just won."
Nobody knows what the Crew and company would chant if the team lost. That hasn't happened this year.