"Touchdowns, Tailgates, Turkey Legs"

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Virginia Tech Tailgate
Credit: Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

There's a long Southern tailgating tradition of serving the rival team's mascot as part of the game-day spread. When the Florida Gators arrive in Tallahassee to play archrival Florida State, fans can expect to see trays of fried gator bites passed around. Barbecued chicken is a no-brainer for any team playing the South Carolina Gamecocks, and a matchup with the Arkansas Razorbacks is bound to inspire opposing fans to throw a few pork shoulders or even a whole hog on the pit.

Virginia Tech fans do things a little differently, the standard practice in Blacksburg is to smoke and eat their own mascot—or, at least, parts of it. For more than two decades, the go-to concession items at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg have been hefty smoked turkey legs, which are cooked on big barrel smokers right there in the stadium and served wrapped in aluminum foil.

Fans wax nostalgic over the scent of turkey smoke that wafts from the southeast corner of the stadium, and they adorn themselves in maroon T-shirts emblazoned with "Touchdowns, Tailgates, Turkey Legs" in orange and white block letters. Of course, the vendors inside the stadium aren't the only ones with barbecue grills, and what started out as a concession item has now filtered out into the parking lots as essential tailgating fare.

But here's the real question: are Hokie fans really eating their own mascot when they gnaw on a massive turkey leg? And exactly what is a hokie, anyway?

The official definition of "hokie", per Virginia Tech Athletics, is "a loyal Virginia Tech Fan." The school's official mascot is the HokieBird, which certainly looks a lot like a turkey, complete with a snood down its nose and a broad fanned tail. The party line, though, is that the Hokie Bird is not actually a turkey but rather a bird that evolved out of a turkey. Stick with me on this.

Early in the 20th century, the athletic teams at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute picked up the nickname "the gobblers," and starting in 1913 a large and very real turkey was trotted out as the mascot at football games. In the 1960s, the mascot shifted to a student dressed in a giant turkey costume, complete with real turkey feathers in the tail.

Football coach Bill Dooley, who was hired in 1978, was not thrilled by the image a turkey projected, and he steered the school toward an even older nickname, "the Hokies." (That term originated in an 1896 school cheer: "Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy; Techs! Techs! V.P.I.") Two subsequent costume redesigns downplayed the mascot's turkey features—shortening the neck, elongating the head—and resulted in the unique creature known as the HokieBird.

So maybe those rabid Hokies aren't actually eating their mascot each gameday in the fall. They might just be gobbling up the imposters.