Ralph Carter was a man on a mission.
With a bullhorn in one hand and a constantly-ringing phone in the other, Carter encouraged every person who passed him as they entered Linden-McKinley’s football stadium to stop and see what he was doing.
Carter, the 36-year-old founder of We Are Linden, recently added tailgates at Linden football games to his ever-growing list of community events, which also includes an annual block party.
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Before Linden beat Centennial 40-8 on Sept. 23, dozens of community members stopped at Carter’s tailgate for a free We are Linden T-shirt, a hot dog or to share a moment of engagement with Carter.
“We’re trying to build more safe havens and safe spaces for the community, for the young people to come,” Carter said. “We want it to be, when there’s a Linden home game, you’re gonna come out and bring the family out to it. … The kids enjoy it, too. They enjoy knowing that somebody cares about them or is gonna go the extra mile to try to do stuff for them.”
The tailgate occupied half of the parking lot next to Linden’s stadium, with music blaring from a speaker, volunteers handing out T-shirts and members of the Linden Eagles Alumni Group grilling hot dogs to feed everyone in attendance. If anyone tried to walk past without stopping, Carter and his bullhorn leapt into action.
Whether Carter called them out by name or simply exuded enough energy to make saying no an impossibility, many who attempted to ignore the tailgate were drawn in. Carter’s goal is that eventually, the tailgate will draw in the entire community, packing the parking lot like the tailgates at Ohio State University football games.
“The pandemic did a number on all of us, especially not wanting to come around each other, let alone sit out at a game,” Carter said. “Now, you start seeing people want to support and be a part of it. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re doing the tailgates is to build things like this. You’re not seeing anything like this (in Linden with) people coming out. It’s a slow starter. This is only our second time doing it, but it’ll eventually get there to where people expect it and look for it.”
While many of the tailgate attendees were Linden alumni or had family members currently attending the school, Joey Green’s attendance proved Carter’s point about the tailgates serving as a community gathering. Green, who was born in South Linden and now lives in North Linden, attended the tailgate for the same reason he goes to football games: the kids.
“I just come to support these kids,” Green said. “One of the things that I do is, when the kids see me go to the concession stand, I buy as much stuff as I can for everybody. Just to make a positive connection with some of these kids. … All I ever ask is if you see me in public, you speak to me. It’s all I ever ask from them.”
Increasing community support for the team has been a goal for Linden football coach Eric Valentine since he was hired in 2018. Last year, as the team won eight games and made the playoffs on merit for the first time after every team qualified in 2020, Valentine saw the engagement grow exponentially.
And if Carter has his way, his tailgates will accelerate that growth to the point where the entire Linden community is engaged. Linden only has one more home game this season, Oct. 20 against East, and Carter will be there for the final tailgate of the year.
“To me, the football team, they are like the Mecca of the community,” Carter said. “That’s your babies. You want to get behind them. It’s the morale-builder.”
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