Meet the men of @Elon7amTailgate. Multimedia by Sophia Asmuth, multimedia editor.

It’s 6:55 a.m. when Brian Martindale ’95 arrives in the Ingold Lot at Rhodes Stadium for the 3 p.m. Elon University football game. It’s a cold Homecoming morning, and the man known as Wink has a job to do.

“Wink, have you sent out the tweet with the flag yet?” David Oakley ’91 asks. “Can’t be later than 7 a.m. with that.”

Martindale and Oakley are two members of the most unique group of supporters in town: @Elon7amTailgate. Along with David Rich ’87 and Mike Cross, the four have formed a niche at Elon, both in person before the game and on Twitter.

The mantra for the group’s tailgates is consistent: arrive by 7 a.m., cook good food, hang out with friends and support Elon’s athletic teams. On Homecoming Saturday, the group expected a massive turnout and decided on serving a pig for all to enjoy.

Dig deeper, and the support of Elon expands beyond the group’s tailgates — all four are members of the Phoenix Club’s Athletic Advisory Board, and all are significant donors to the athletic department. Cross, who is the only member that is not an Elon graduate, is the Chair of the Advisory Board.

Oakley Family Affair

Known as “The Grill Master” in the group, Oakley has the deepest running allegiance to Elon.

His father, also David Oakley ’65, celebrated his 50th reunion this weekend, and his mother, Carol, worked in the vice president of student life for the greater part of 22 years. The parents are local celebrities at these tailgates, and many major Elon administrators stop by to say hello.

But the younger David recalls a time when his parents were not just providing sweet bread and toffee to tailgaters. As an Elon student, the Oakley family resided near Williams High School, where the Fightin’ Christians played all of their football games.

“My fraternity or my sister’s sorority would show up at my mom and dad’s house in the backyard,” Oakley said. “They would tailgate there, and we would walk to the stadium.”

To many at the Homecoming tailgate Saturday, the parties at the old Oakley house were the place to be. In fact, the party carried on even after the Oakley parents moved out.

“We didn’t tell any of our fraternity brothers that my mom and dad moved,” Oakley said. “So the guy who bought the house woke up one day, and there’s 40-50 people showing up, walking in and out of the house.”

Joining forces

Even after the tailgates at the house stopped, the Oakley family tailgate continued, moving to campus with the football team after Rhodes Stadium was built.

With kickoffs at noon or 1 p.m., Oakley found himself arriving as early as 4 a.m. to properly prepare the food. There was only one other tailgate that typically arrived before sunrise: Cross, Martindale and Rich. The three knew each other because they worked together at Willis Re, an insurance company.

They claim it was Jonathan Miller, director of Phoenix Club, who got them to move into the Ingold Lot right next to Rhodes Stadium. Miller recalls that, at the time when the student tailgating setup was revamped, Athletic Director Dave Blank asked what they could do for non-students.

“At the time, there were some spots in the Ingold lot occupied by [President Leo Lambert]’s office,” Miller said. “The President’s office said, ‘Hey, if it would help you to use that lot for people who would tailgate, we would be happy to relocate those guest parking spots.’”

With the new parking spaces available, Miller and the athletic department staff selected people who tailgated regularly at Elon games, hoping to create a friendly, communal atmosphere in the lot.

“It started as a group of guys from two tailgates that didn’t know each other that well,” Miller said. “But now it’s one big sprawling tailgate. They are some of our best supporters, no question.”

Now that the group is together, they love to see what time the next group of tailgaters will arrive, setting a time and wagering whether the group will come before or after the set time.

“It doesn’t count if you come by to drop off tents without setting up,” Oakley clarified, with Martindale nodding along. “You have to pull in and stay for the long haul.”

The essentials for the tailgate

As noon approaches and ESPN’s College Gameday TV show moves on to the predictions for the day, David Rich ‘87 sits down.

“Got to get off your feet for a little bit,” Rich says. “If you’re not careful, you’ll be standing from dawn until dusk, or later.”

The group has come to love late kickoffs, using the free time available with the late start to watch European soccer matches in the morning.

Rich and Martindale are huge soccer fans, and both are avid supporters of both the men’s and women’s soccer teams at Elon — men’s soccer head coach Chris Little even stopped by the tailgate around noon, bringing his two kids with him.

With more free time comes the favorite game cornhole, with one board sporting the Phoenix logo and the other the old Fightin’ Christians logo. The Oakley men combine to face Cross and Martindale, throwing bean bags and smack talk back and forth. On Homecoming Saturday, the Oakleys won the best-of-3 series, 2 games to 1.

As the tailgate picks up, the alcohol comes out, with specialty drinks an essential on their menu. Homecoming weekend’s specialty drinks were a cinnamon toast-flavored mixed drink and a mystery drink called “Painkillers,” which could have been put to better use during the football game itself (Elon lost to James Madison University 51-0).

The student-family connection

For the entire group, the ability to connect on a personal level with the athletic staff, students and community members is the major reason they love Elon.

“Where else can you go tailgate and know a good part of the student body?” Oakley said. “Or a majority of the student-athletes, where they know you and are appreciative of you? We’re at a softball game, and the players turn around and speak to our children by name.”

“We’ve even had a shoutout from the announcer during a game.” Martindale said.

Martindale has one daughter, and 5-year-old Nancy was at the tailgate right at 7 a.m.

“This year’s home opener, my daughter came into my room at 3 a.m.,” Martindale said. “She goes, ‘Daddy, is it time to go tailgating?’ 30 minutes later, ‘Daddy, is it time to go yet?’”

Oakley’s son, 11-year-old David McKeever Oakley Jr., joined the tailgating crew as well, though Oakley noted their wives are “the smart ones” and didn’t arrive until much closer to kickoff.

Aiming for bigger and better

How does their tailgate get any better than it already is?

“Every year, it’s a challenge for us to add something new,” Oakley said. “We have a meeting in August about tailgate planning. We look at the times and the opponents and try to set a menu for the whole year.”

The four have tailgated a good number of the sports at Elon and plan on tailgating an event for athletic teams they haven’t supported yet soon. One sport they tried to tailgate, golf, got shut down because the country club would not allow them on the grounds — and they’re still bitter about it.

With the special Homecoming schedule of a football game at 3 p.m. and a men’s soccer match at 8 p.m., the group decided to attend both sporting events, setting up an extravagant but long day. Between the two events, many alumni of the men’s soccer programs swung by the tailgate to enjoy the abundance of food.

After both events ended with a 2-1 victory for men’s soccer, Rich and Martindale still hung around, basking in the afterglow of a needed victory. The clock turned to 11 p.m., signaling the beginning of the 17th hour of the tailgate.

With the long day finally wrapping up, Rich revealed the biggest plan yet.

“We want to have a 24-hour tailgate in the future,” he said. “Come out here around 10 p.m. Friday night, do all of the cooking and food preparation out here, and just hang out until after the football game at 10 p.m. Saturday night.”

At the rate they’re going, the @Elon7amTailgate crew may end up with a tailgate that never ends.

And they would probably love it that way.