NORMAN — Kathy Cross let out a yell as the Sooner Schooner made its way down Elm Avenue Saturday afternoon.
“Boomer!” she called.
“Sooner!” a group of people running alongside the wagon replied.
Without missing a beat, other University of Oklahoma fans on both sides of the street joined in. Tens of thousands of fans were in Norman on Saturday for OU's season opener against the University of Tulsa. They lugged coolers and lawn chairs and set up tents and grills around Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
Expectations were high with Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in both major preseason polls. Many fans were hoping for the start to a national championship season.
Ticket scalpers and parking attendants were on every corner surrounding the stadium. Country music blasted through speakers at one tailgating tent and mixed with the smell of charcoal and hamburgers from another. Fans gathered around flat screen TVs and grills and tossed bean bags and footballs as they awaited the kickoff.
Can't drag her away
Cross, 47, of Tulsa, has been attending games since she was a girl. Her parents used to have to drag her to games. Now the family can't drag her away, her husband joked.
Cross couldn't wait to see the players run through the tunnel and onto the field. She also was looking forward to seeing old friends. The family has had the same seats in Section 2, Rows 25 and 26, for years.
“You take up the next year where you left off the last,” Cross said. “It's like a big family.”
Throngs of people clad in crimson and white filled the sidewalks, restaurants and storefronts on Campus Corner. A steady stream of people filtered through Cafe Plaid, a local eatery. Staff rushed to make sandwich and salad orders.
Miguel Hallman, a manager, said business usually triples on game days.
“The town comes alive with excitement and electricity,” he said.
Herb Hays, 50, and his wife, Lorie, drove up from Allen, Texas, for the game. Their daughter, Sarah, is a senior at OU. They started bringing Sarah to OU games when she was 10 years old, “to get her acclimated to the OU magic,” Hays said.
It worked. On Saturday, Sarah wore an OU sticker on her cheek and a red sequined headpiece.
Being an OU fan in Texas is easy, Herb Hays said, because OU wins so much.
“We get to rub it in,” his wife, Lorie, added.
Ethan Slavin started coming to OU games with his father when he was 5 years old. Now he brings his children, ages 9 and 13.
They were as excited as he was to drive to Norman on Saturday, Slavin said. They tossed a football near the stadium, not far from the shade of their 18-by-20 foot tent.
Slavin's friend, Micah Rogers, of Dallas, hasn't missed a home game in 15 years. Sometimes that has meant waking at 4 a.m. to drive to Norman in time for tailgating. A few years ago, Rogers couldn't sleep the night before OU's first game. He was too excited. So he drove to Norman and slept in his pickup.
He and Slavin grew up together in Anadarko. They started tailgating together in 1996. Back then, it was just a few friends with a grill and a few lawn chairs. They set up near an oak tree that was so low to the ground, they had to bring pruning shears to clip the tree branches so they wouldn't catch fire when they cooked with their grill.
Today, the tree towers over them. Their group has expanded to include about 50 to 60 people on a typical weekend, or as many as 150 during big games.
Saturday afternoon, they set out several dozen chairs and cooked pounds of chicken, brisket, hamburgers and bratwurst. They watched a 46-inch flat screen television as they waited for kickoff.
Sometimes they will fire up the grill again after the game and cook a late dinner while they wait for traffic to clear out, Rogers said.
“There's been talk that it's too much work, but every year we're glad we're still doing it,” Rogers said.