ST. PETERSBURG — Along the sidewalks and past the clamor of the crowds donning mostly black and gold that spilled out of Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, across the asphalt plane and in the shadow of the illuminated white dome of Tropicana Field, the most dedicated of fans braved the evening chill.
Some huddled under tents. Some gathered near flaming barbecue grills. Others stood with arms exposed in their college T-shirts sipping beers and embracing the cold breeze that greeted attendees Friday night at the Beef O'Brady's Bowl.
It might have been the cold — it was a seasonable 56 degrees early in the evening, with temperatures expected to drop into the 40s — that tamed the tailgaters as they prepared for the face-off between the University of Central Florida Knights and the Ball State Cardinals. Or maybe these were teams with too much pride to arouse the ruckus seen at some other bowl games.
Still, the revelers rejoiced.
Under a high-flying flag bearing the Ball State logo, Tom Schuman joined his fellow alumni for a pre-game reunion in Lot 6 outside the Trop. For Schuman, 50, the Bowl coincided almost perfectly with a family vacation he already had planned, starting with a cruise leaving Sunday out of Tampa.
"We came down early because of the bowl game," said Schuman, who lives in Indianapolis, and who met his wife at his alma mater. "It's been a really good year for Ball State and I think it's going to be a good bowl. I'm hoping this is the first bowl game that they win."
Though they were one of the few splashes of Cardinal red in a lot dominated by UCF Knights fans, the Ball Staters mirrored their fellow alums at watch parties across the country, said Matt Smith, president of the Ball State alumni chapter for Washington, D.C.
"I was drawn here because I couldn't miss it," Smith said. "Everybody's excited. They'll see the Ball State flag and come by and say 'hi.'"
Across the lot, standing alongside a tent tagged with a Knights logo, Andy Graber, 29, hurled beanbags in a solo game of corn toss while donning a UCF skull cap and long-sleeved shirt.
"I inherited my fandom," Graber said, referring to his girlfriend, Lisa Zittel, a 2007 UCF alum. "She gets me to watch all the games."
Zittel, 28, and a group of her fellow alums, including UCF nursing professor Christopher Blackwell, hold season tickets to Knights games. A lot of the time, that means driving across the state, and trekking across the college campus, to watch the game. But the Bowl game was close enough that Zittel walked from her nursing job in St. Petersburg.
"I've been to three bowl games and haven't seen a win yet," Zittel said. "Hopefully this will be it."
Not far away, at another Ball State encampment, the pre-game celebration was a family affair for the Ginn's of West Harrison, Ind. Dan and Debbie Ginn made the 16-hour trip south, with daughters Amber and Becca, to support their eldest daughter, Leah, a Ball State student and athletic trainer for the team.
In St. Petersburg, they met up with Dan's cousins, both local.
"We're here because of Leah," Debbie said. "But we're proud of the team."