A spectral plume of smoke floated gently through the parking lot, delivering the savory smell of grilled meats to oncomers and tailgaters. The two-man band ripped through “Fire on the Mountain” an old Grateful Dead tune, adding even more energy to an already festive event. The scene was set. Football, and the game’s passionate devotees, had arrived to the Castleton campus. On this, the opening Saturday of college football throughout the nation, the SEC and Big-12 were distant, meaningless conferences to the more than 5,000 fans that flooded Spartan Stadium with raucous enthusiasm. Game day had reached the Green Mountains.

Chris Hoffman, like so many others, was in tailgating mode early in the morning. By 10 a.m. he and his friends from Rutland had sausages grilling and beverages flowing. Sitting comfortably under a portable tent, Hoffman fondly recalled his days as a Castleton student before his 2000 graduation.

“There was no scene like this when I was in college,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the almost packed parking lot of fellow fans. “This place has made such huge progress, it’s just unbelievable.”

An hour later, a steady stream of people filed into the parking lot, where dozens of grills sizzled and popped, giving off mouth-watering aromas. A group of younger children, each with hair dyed bright green, played touch football. Old classmates congregated in circles of laughter, telling tales from days gone by. The marching band belted out the school’s fight song amidst cheering fans. The atmosphere was electric, and it wasn’t even noon.

Bill Shappy wore his season pass proudly around his neck while tending to an assortment of grilled food. Marinated chicken, sirloin tips, sausages with onions and peppers, and, perhaps the winning dish of the day, pork tenderloin poppers wrapped in bacon. Although Shappy is not an alum of Castleton, he says that he will be at every home game this season.

“I don’t really have any ties to the college,” he said, “but I’m a local business owner in Rutland and it’s nice to come out and support these types of things.”

It wasn’t all locals at this game, however. Dave DiEugenio, one of head coach Rich Alercio’s long-time pals and high school teammate, made the drive from South Carolina to support his friend and the team. Jamie Ryan, another of Alercio’s friends, flew in from California.

“We went to high school in Toms River [N.J.] and played football together,” said DiEugenio. He and about a dozen friends chuckle as they recall the fact that Alercio played the center position on their high school football team. “He’s half the man he used to be, that’s for sure,” he jokes. “But in all seriousness we’re all really proud of Rich and we’re having a great time here.”

Bizit Stevens, another Castleton alum in attendance, called her son a day before the big game in a state of excitement.

“I told him that there were going to be 5,000 people here,” she said. “He lives near the University of Tennessee and he said, ‘Mom, who cares. There is going to be 100,000 people hear.’ But I care. This is really exciting.”

Kirk Faryniasz, who graduated from Castleton in 1980, echoed Stevens’ enthusiasm.

“This is amazing,” he said, scoping the crowd. “It’s really great to see small college football that so many people are showing up for.”

Castleton football might not be able to match Tennessee in attendance records, but the team is certainly creating quite a buzz around the area.

By kickoff, most of the steak grillers and beer drinkers had moved to the stadium, where the real show was set to begin. Nick Zeoli, who teaches Principles and Practices of Coaching at Castleton, paced the sidelines with a grin. He, like everyone else, is a fan at heart, and this was a big day.

“This is a wonderful day for the town of Castleton, the college, and the state of Vermont,” he said. And, almost as if on cue, the crowd erupted in cheer as if they agreed with him.

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