Alcohol-free tailgate at UT unites Austin’s sober community

Maria Mendez

Saturday was not Miriam Rivero’s first UT tailgate, but it was the first where she felt comfortable as a student in recovery from addiction.

Rivero attended an alcohol-free tailgate, hosted by sober fraternity Alpha 180 and the Recovery First Tailgaters, to celebrate the UT-Oklahoma State football game with Austin’s sober community.

Last year, Rivero, an Austin Community College student, attended a UT football game with her family, but a panic attack caused her to leave during the middle of the game. Rivero had been in recovery for only seven months at the time and felt disconnected.

During the sober tailgate, Rivero said she felt calm and supported.

“I feel safe,” Rivero said. “I feel like if I want to talk to somebody about something that’s going on internally, I can.”

Parties like tailgates can make recovery hard for college students, said Bob Ferguson, executive director of Alpha 180. Through sober-specific events and West Campus housing, the fraternity, which was established in September 2016, hopes to help make college accessible for Austin area college students, Ferguson said.

“For sober students, what it’s really about is enjoying the company of other people, but not feeling like an outcast or stigmatized by being sober,” Ferguson said.

Sober tailgates are just like normal tailgates, but they help students learn to socialize without alcohol or drugs, said Sierra Castedo-Rodgers, assistant director of UT’s Center for Students in Recovery. The Center also hosts a separate, annual sober tailgate with University High School, a recovery school under UT.

“The only difference is there is no booze,” Castedo-Rodgers said. “People still have lots of fun, talk to one another and head out to the game together.”

While eating breakfast, playing games of giant Jenga or watching the football game on TV, tailgaters from across Austin shared their recovery stories in the parking lot of the University Catholic Center.

Castedo-Rodgers, who is in recovery herself, said Austin is home to a large, young sober community.

“For whatever reason … Austin is just this big Mecca for young people in recovery,” Castedo-Rodgers said.

Sober tailgates, however, are not unique to Austin. The number of college recovery programs has grown from just a few to 170 within the last six years, creating more sober events for students in recovery, Castedo-Rodgers said.

Recovery First Tailgaters also drive a recreational vehicle to help set up sober tailgates at sports and music events across the country. Christopher O’Shea, a Recovery First Tailgater, said at University of Southern California events, as many as 500 people show up to the sober tailgates.

“Once we help start it off, the locals seem to carry the tradition in some of those places,” O’Shea said.

Grace Palmer, University High School junior, said she enjoys exploring UT and conversing with people at sober tailgates more than tailgates with alcohol she previously attended.

“It’s really easy to get caught up … and be like, ‘I’m sober, I can’t go to events because people will be drinking,’” Palmer said. “So it’s really cool to still be able to go out and socialize and be a part of the UT community.”