Happy hour comes early on Regent Street in Madison. It's 8:30 a.m. and the Leinenkugels are running as frosty cold as the November weather. The passion and brats, meanwhile, both burn red hot. Here at Lucky's Bar and Grill, scores of red-clad diehards met the morning sun while standing elbow-to-elbow, paying homage to larger than life heroes like Crazylegs Hirsch and the Bud Man.
Welcome to a typical college football Saturday at the University of Wisconsin. Here, the locals don't merely watch Badger football, they eat it and drink it, too, guzzling Wisconsin-brewed beers while chowing down on locally produced sausages. Talk about a home field advantage. Even the Bloody Marys -- garnished with an Old Wisconsin beef stick -- have a hometown feel.
It's more than two hours before an ungodly 11 a.m. kickoff, but already, there's enough beer flowing to fill Lake Mendota, which sits nearby, looking like something on a dime store postcard.
"Leinenkugel and a brat," I mouth to the bartender, who can't possibly hear me over the tavern's drunken din. No matter. Everyone here pretty much orders the same thing.
Along Regent Street, where the party starts early and ends late, you forget all about Wisconsin Heisman Trophy winners Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche, instead remembering that this is the school that gave the world Chris Farley. On this crisp, fall Saturday, much of Regent Street, including this bar, could pass for Times Square on New Year's Eve, so jam-packed is it with revelers anticipating a huge celebration.
Today's game is against Michigan, and yes, by day's end, the Badger faithful will have plenty to celebrate.
But the Wisconsin fans can't possibly know that now. For the moment, this is merely the standard-issue pre-party. Who knows, maybe this sort of bender goes on even when the Badgers aren't playing, this being Wisconsin and all.
Either way, the party is far too robust for Lucky's to contain, so it spills outside, onto an adjacent parking lot. It's a common occurrence on Regent Street, where ubiquitous Bucky Badger blowup dolls, clad in candy-striped sweaters, stand amid the gold leaves that line the streets in the early morning chill.
While the bars along this stadium-adjacent strip all play host to indoor-outdoor beer bashes, most every nearby dwelling is home to a raging pregame house party. The combined effect is to transform the boulevards surrounding Camp Randall Stadium into one, big street scene.
And bars aren't the only places that bustle in an unbridled love of Badger Football.
If you prefer your pregame taste of Wisconsin to be of the non-alcoholic variety, the university offers too-good-to-be-true homemade ice cream at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store on campus. The stuff here (Berry Alvarez, anyone?) lives up to the license plates, which tell you you've landed in "America's Dairyland."
Then there's Mickies Dairy Bar, a tiny storefront coffee shop with a worn, black-and-white checkerboard tile floor. The front window offers a killer view of Camp Randall Stadium's south end zone seating, which stands just beyond the Wisconsin Field House.
Here, inside a Norman Rockwell-meets-Mayberry cafe, waitresses sling huge platefuls of fluffy, golden-brown buttermilk pancakes, big enough to satisfy a dairy farmer or an offensive lineman. Both have been known to drop in. Sixty minutes before game time, a table here is harder to come by than a ticket to the game, and this matchup has been sold out forever.
Minutes before kickoff, Mickies empties out and the well-fed clientele makes its way across Regent Street to the stadium. There, while players warm up on the field, fans in the stands do the same thing, fortifying hot chocolate with their own warming additives.
The iPhone reads 44 degrees in Madison, but it feels colder. Regardless of what your body or the thermometer is telling you, it doesn't take long to figure out that Camp Randall Stadium is a college football hot spot.
The facility underwent a four-year, $109.5 million renovation that was completed in 2005, increasing capacity to 80,321. The Badgers played their first game at Camp Randall in 1917, and the makeover gave the stadium a much-needed facelift while maintaining a historical feel befitting what is among the elder statesmen in college football stadiums.
There are a few modern conveniences. A new team store located at field level of the south end zone provides a picture window of game action, enabling Badger fans the chance to shop while the Wolverines drop.
Perhaps the most significant upgrades came in the form of an east-side enclosed structure that features 72 suites, 337 club seats and 590 varsity indoor seats. The enclosure looks cold, even if the fans inside appear otherwise. For all the warmth the indoor seating provides, it seems the fans outside are having all the fun.
Camp Randall could not be more aptly named, for the students here carry on as if they are off at some carefree summer camp. In truth, the place got its name because it sits on the site of a former military training center. More than 70,000 troops attended training drills at the Camp Randall complex in the late 1800s.
It's hard to imagine those soldiers doing more before 9 a.m. than does the typical Badger football fan on game day. The exuberance here makes you wonder exactly what happens at Wisconsin when the Badgers aren't playing football. Four years in Madison might be nothing more than an excuse to attend 24 football games at Camp Randall.