Utah football fans return to Rice-Eccles stadium after nearly two years away, celebrating more than a win over Weber State

The Ute faithful honored the life of late running back Ty Jordan throughout the season-opener Thursday night

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diane Templin in the tailgate parking lot as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Diane Templin’s life in the fall revolves around football games at the University of Utah.

She’s been tailgating for more than 30 years, attending every home game and choosing some road games at which to show support. It’s understood in her family that during the season, no other plans are made. Her daughter once rescheduled a surgery because the original date was too close to a Utes game, she said.

“It would be a family violation if she was not at a Utah football game,” Templin said.

But 2020 was a completely different game-day experience for Templin. The COVID-19 pandemic shortened Utah’s season to just five games and meant fans could not attend games at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It was really hard sitting at home,” Templin said.

So in the days leading up to Utah’s home-opener Thursday against Weber State — the first game with fans since Nov. 30, 2019 — Templin and her tailgating compatriots couldn’t wait to see each other again. Laugh and eat together again. Cheer together again.

The Guardsman Way lot adjacent to Rice-Eccles Stadium on game days is usually abuzz with hundreds of Utes fans cooking various meats on grills, drinking cans beer and shots of liquor, commiserating about what’s new in life and, of course, their favorite football team.

And after 642 days since the last Utah football game with fans, they had plenty to catch up on.

The energy around Rice-Eccles Stadium was palpable before the Utes beat the Wildcats 40-17. The gates opened at 12:30 p.m., and by 4:30 p.m., virtually every parking space housed a car, truck, bus or trailer with fans enjoying each other’s company for the first time in nearly two years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates a touchdown in PAC-12 football action between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

“It’s been a triumphant return,” said 35-year-old Daniel Feldman, who hadn’t missed a home game since 1992 before last year. “It’s been fun to kind of see the regular faces.”

Missing games has also been difficult for the university’s student section, The MUSS. Avery Abelhouzen, president of The MUSS, said athletics are a way for students to make friends and find community at football games, men’s and women’s basketball games, and gymnastic meets.

“Not being able to do any of that, it’s felt like there hasn’t been really a community or a central culture on campus,” Abelhouzen said. “Everyone’s felt really disconnected because those athletic events are a huge way that students get unity.”

Shortly after the game began, though, fans had another pause to their good time. The proceedings were delayed 90 minutes due to lightning in the area. Some fans let off steam by running onto the field and testing the sprinting and tacking abilities of security guards.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family members of Ty Jordan react at the unveiling of a memorial in Rice-Eccles Stadium as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

At several points during the game, the university honored the memory of Ty Jordan, the late Utes running back. Between the first and second quarter, a tunnel on the north side of the stadium was dedicated to Jordan. Between the third and fourth quarter, a tribute video culminated in a “moment of loudness.”

The team also has a locker for Jordan that will be in its new locker room for the remainder of the season.

“For them to have ways to remember him and keep his memory alive, I’m sure, is so important for them,” Sadie Pyne said. “As a fan, I’m really glad that they’re keeping him a big part of this season.”

Pyne, an avid runner, co-founded a running challenge dedicated to Jordan’s memory. The feat consisted of a group of people running a mile for every yard Jordan tallied in his time with Utah before this year’s opening game. That number was 597.

While the game-day experience has returned in 2021 for Utes fans, it comes amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in Utah due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The university chose not to require proof of vaccination or a negative test for fans to visit the stadium, and also did not implement a mask mandate. Students, meanwhile, must be vaccinated.

Several fans expressed some disappointment over the university’s decision. Many also volunteered that they were vaccinated, and would still wear a mask while inside the stadium.

Ryan Lufkin, one of the creators of the Utes Pig Bus, a tailgate staple at Utah games, said he is vaccinated and that at this point, with FDA approval and the current surge, there’s no valid reason not to get the vaccine.

“I do wish that they’d make it a mandate,” Lufkin said of the university’s decision. “Personally, I think that makes sense.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans in the MUSS as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Nikki Hammond, who is in her 60s, said that although she is vaccinated, that Delta variant is a concern for her. She also expressed frustration at the university not requiring fans to be vaccinated.

“We’re in a medical university,” Hammond said. “They should be requiring masks and/or [vaccination]. Period, flat out.”

Chambrae Hale has deep ties at the University of Utah. Her father played sports there, and she studied business there while also competing on the dance team. She has missed the camaraderie that comes with games at Rice-Eccles.

“Now that we’re back,” Hale said, “it just feels so good.”