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U. tailgating carries tradition of family and friendship

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 9:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 9:02 a.m. MDT

Tailgater Brandon Wilkenson and his son Ty dress for the game prior to the University of Utah football game in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Christiana Pignanelli just started her first semester at the University of Utah, but she's been on campus for years.

The freshman business student, who introduces herself as "a third generation Ute on both sides," has been coming to U. tailgate parties with her family since she was an infant.

Now it's her turn.

"This is my first game in the MUSS," Pignanelli said, sporting her brand new T-shirt from the student fan section before Thursday's matchup with Idaho State. "It's so exciting finally being a student and being able to fully be a part of it."

Pignanelli spent much of her afternoon in the MUSS area of the tailgate, talking to new friends and fellow students. But she made sure to take time to visit her grandfather's tailgating group, easy to spot with its iconic U-branded fire truck.

"We would stand in the back of the fire truck and ride in. I've always been coming to the games for years," she said. "It wasn't even a choice I had to make. I've pretty much been a Ute since birth."

The tailgating parties bring her family and their longtime friends together, Pignanelli says. It's a sentiment shared by many at the event, from a recently graduated son spending the day with his father to a family of Utah natives now living in Idaho who always return for home games.

"It's like the one time when we take time out of everyone's busy schedules to all get together to enjoy food and enjoy the game," Pignanelli said.

Her grandfather, Frank Pignanelli Sr., lifts his head proudly as he recalls his crimson history. The tailgating group has been around nearly 40 years, and once they get set up in their traditional spot, the area becomes her grandfather's personal kingdom, Christiana Pignanelli jokes.

"We started out with about six couples," Frank Pignanelli Sr. recalled Thursday. "People have died and come and gone. We've got 16 couples now."

The group joined in a good luck chant, a superstition of Frank Pignanelli Sr.'s, and shared a long laugh before turning to heaping plates of tailgate food.

About 25 years ago, several members of the group contributed a few hundred dollars each to buy the 1946 International fire truck at an auction. Marlene Skillings, of Holladay, said she didn't have much of a choice once she saw the bright red truck. She knew it would look fantastic with a big "U" splashed across the side.

"Over the years, we've restored it," Skillings said. "Several of the people here have had children go through the U., and several of our members have gone through the U. … It's pretty neat as our kids grow up."

As another Utes football season comes, the presiding members of the group hope to pass on their tailgating tradition.

"We have to get new members coming in," Frank Pignanelli Sr. says with a smile. "We're getting too damn old to climb into the back of the truck."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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