There are a bevy of awards throughout sports history that are named after influential figures a casual fan may not recognize. Yet one, in particular, is buried deep within the culture of the Chapman football team. It is the Bob Downs Chapman football mile, aptly honoring the member of the team that is able to record the fastest time across the mile.
The majority of students may not recognize the smile creases on the sides of Downs’ mouth, or his easygoing, buttery tone of conversation. He himself likely wouldn’t tell you what’s significant about the decade-plus-long connection he’s had to the university. But to head coach of the football team Bob Owens, to players, cheerleaders and trainers, he’s the ringleader of a meaningful postgame gesture; a tailgate, providing heaping platters of chicken and steak, even fruit and salad. Scratch that – especially fruit and salad. Downs has learned the players gobble those down in droves.
“When you’re after a game, when you’re tired and you want to get to the frat party or want to do whatever with your girlfriend – it’s a hassle to go park somewhere to get food. You’re sore,” Downs said. “This way, you wander out and get a plate when it’s time.”
He would know. Downs played football at Redlands University, but it was his experience as a parent of his son Steven – a member of the Panthers until he graduated in 2009 – that convinced him to start the tailgate. During Steven’s sophomore year, Downs and fellow parent Glenn Martinez, the primary organizer of the tailgate with Downs characterizing himself as the sidekick, realized the team needed better access to food after home games.
“We hated the fact that the kids were on their own to eat after the game because of NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) rules, so we thought, ‘OK, let’s get a big tailgate,’” Downs said. “Then we can feed the players real food after the game.”
Prior to a Nov. 9, Saturday night game against the Claremont Mudd-Scripps, a tapestry of white tables and umbrellas assembled in a ring around the lit-up pillars in Attallah Piazza. The smell of slowly-burning chicken wafted from group to group of Panther friends and family, enjoying the meat cooked from a massive grill and overall event Martinez, Downs and other parents had worked with the university to provide.
Yet the important aspect of the event, as Downs explained with a twinkle in his eye, was feeding the team after they’d ripped up the turf of Wilson Field. After a 41-17 win, members of the Panthers ambled over to pile their plates high and gorge their appetites.
“When you come off the field, you’re wired and you’re emotionally up,” Owens said. “And so, to be able to take 30 minutes to 45 minutes and relax – you’re just much more comfortable.”
Not only does the tailgate simply give players “sustenance,” as Downs pointed out, it also creates an atmosphere of community, a chance for proud parents to reconnect with their children. Downs remembered when he could pick up Steven from a game, or talk with him before he hopped on the bus in high school. Now, he’s helped to carve out a meal time for families to check in with one another.
“It’s sit down, relax, talk to your kid, ‘How’s school? How’s your girl? How’s your car? Football’s great; you had a nice game tonight, nice tackle,’” Downs said. “Now, you get this really wonderful time to sit and relax, where they’re captured by great food, they’re getting hydrated and you’re making sure they’re healthy.”
There were around 150 attendees of the tailgate on Saturday night. That’s more participation, more exposure, than Downs ever expected. It’s now a staple of Chapman home games – and he’s become entrenched within the football team’s culture.
“Really, when it evolved, there was a lot of jaw-dropping amongst us who were doing the work, like, ‘Wow, this is way better than we ever envisioned,’” Downs said. “We’ve really enjoyed being able to put this time and effort in and make sure the kids get fed.”