Chris Fulmer will warn you in advance that he's going to have his Paul Harvey moments.
A story will start and details will be woven in, and no matter how much the tale bounces around there's always some connecting piece to tie it all together – the rest of the story, as Fulmer says, referring to Harvey's radio program of the same name.
It eventually makes sense that these stories would abandon a linear movement; even straight roads meander. After all, there's no straight line from the chill of a Piggly Wiggly cooler to a Super Bowl practice field.
But that's the path Fulmer has followed over the last five-plus decades, during which Saturdays in the fall have transformed from an Aiken family's day off at University of South Carolina football games to the birth of the Ultimate Tailgaters.
He's missed only one home football game since 1970 and hasn't missed any, road and bowl games included, since 1984 – his count is 425 consecutive games attended and tailgated, and it all started for him around 1968 when the games were like a reward after a week working in his father Jutson's grocery stores.
"My dad had this thing. We'd all work very hard in the stores, but that Saturday was the time for the family to spend together and just have a big day at the game," said Fulmer, who owns his own independent insurance agency. "So that's kind of how it started for me, just tailgating with the family."
Tailgating back then at Carolina Stadium – before it was Williams-Brice – was a much more simple affair than it is today, and Fulmer can remember standing beside the family vehicle and leaning his back against the wall of the stadium.
The tailgate is an art form, especially in this part of the country. Methodologies differ by region, even by city, and that art is on display for visitors to stop by and critique. Like art, tailgating can range from the rudimentary that anyone can do – grab some chicken from Bernie's or Zesto and throw it in a Styrofoam cooler – to the far more labor-intensive showcases.
Fulmer remembers his family always opting for the latter – they had access to whatever food they wanted from the grocery stores, and he said they always took some kind of cooking apparatus up to the games long before that became the standard. They'd arrive early in the morning before a night game and cook breakfast, snack during the day and then prepare a meal like steaks in the evening.
All these years later, Fulmer's Ultimate Tailgaters are like a large group of muralists, a considerable crew of collaborators all contributing to a complex tapestry of cold drinks, hot food and football.
On second thought, football doesn't even make the top three Fs when Fulmer talks tailgating.
"It all boils down to the same thing. Obviously we all want to win the game, and no doubt that coming out afterward when you've won, certainly the tailgate parties were more fun," he said. "I've also said that the biggest thing is enjoying that fellowship during the day. We always have the three Fs – faith, fellowship and just having fun. That was my thing.
"We still try to do that and just remember that it is a game. And, yeah, we've come out after some of them and, trust me, it's not been a fun tailgate. If you're a Carolina fan – you don't even have to be a fan – just follow SEC or Gamecock sports. We had a great run there, but we've had our tough ones, as well."
The Ultimate Tailgaters are a traveling act that operates with the firehouse mantra of first to enter, last to leave – and for Fulmer, who chairs the board of the Aiken County Gamecock Club, that will extend beyond the gridiron to baseball and basketball.
"Of course, I'll tell you, we're getting a little older now so we're probably not quite as good at it," he allowed. "But we still do some big-time tailgating. We've had so many great experiences, so many great road trips."
That's part of the reputation they've crafted over the years, starting with the 1994 season when the group – now expanded beyond the nuclear family – decided it needed a name. Fulmer suggested the Ultimate Tailgaters, and with good reason. It stuck, and then solidified on the "infamous" trip to the Carquest Bowl.
"We were younger, and let's just say that we lived it large. We had a big time," he said. "We got there as one of the first cars to get there, and we were literally about the last car or cars – because there was probably 25 or 30 of us there – and we were the last car to leave. We were out there cooking steaks, and we fed some of the clean-up crew. It was crazy. We just had a big time there, and the Ultimate Tailgaters started. There goes our tailgate group, and it's just on and on and on and grew and grew."
It grew as the art of tailgating grew, but Fulmer felt that they stayed at least a step ahead of everyone else as they built their brand in the fairgrounds, then eventually grew out of the mandated hours of entry and exit.
"In fact, there used to be a guy that rolled around the fairgrounds, and it got to be a joke that I had fun with," he said. "I'd see him in his golf cart that he'd ride around in, and I'd go over to one of the light posts and turn the lights off. That was our thing, we kind of shut the lights down at the fairgrounds – we literally did, sometimes."
For about the last decade they've had seven spots at the corner of Rosewood and Bluff – easy in and easy out, and on their schedule.
The crew toted bulky, 27-inch TVs and extra car batteries to the tailgate long before it was common. Now they've got a couple of 40-inch flat-screens with a 3,000-watt generator and four canopies, which has become a more frequent sight as tailgating has become its own game adjacent to the game.
They have annual preseason and Christmas parties, and last August they celebrated their 25th anniversary with an all-day party rather than the usual golf outing – Fulmer, who earned a golf scholarship to USC Aiken and was a team captain and MVP, doesn't tee it up as much anymore after his father passed away.
Golf may not quite be the same anymore, but father and son are still together at every tailgate – Jut's Ribs are the specialty, and that's what Fulmer has become known for both in tailgating and on the competitive barbecue circuit.
Ultimate Tailgaters BBQ has grown from the tailgate, and it's produced countless trophies and even more stories for he and wife, Kathy. It's also caused Fulmer to restructure some weekends to make time for both – sometimes they'll even leave the competition before finding out if they've won – but nothing's going to make him miss a game.
It's happened once before, and he doesn't sound like he plans on letting it happen again anytime soon. It was Sept. 12, 1981, the day Fulmer's brother Chip got married – and also the day the Gamecocks were hosting future NFL quarterback John Fourcade and Ole Miss. Of course, there were no cellphone updates or national TV coverage of the game, so Fulmer had to listen to Bob Fulton's radio call of the Rebels' win during the drive back to his parents' house in Houndslake for the reception.
"That was the only home game I missed since 1970, and I remember a lot of details about that one," he said with a laugh. "It was a loss, so I kept on saying because I wasn't there we lost."
Matrimony forced Fulmer to miss a game, but he wouldn't allow malady – pancreatitis, specifically – to do the same just a few years later. He had to be checked into the hospital late in the week and was told by the doctor that he'd need to stay there for at least a couple of days.
Not during a game week. He refused, and eventually worked out a deal that he could be released if his condition improved the next day. He got out of the hospital that Saturday morning, but with a catch – he was only allowed a strict diet of water and chicken broth.
That meant no wings and no beer, elements equally important to football in the South as pigskin and laces. Still, the streak – long before it became "the streak" – continued.
Understandably, the Ultimate Tailgaters have made themselves a memorable bunch at the games, and not just for Fulmer's sleek, massive trailer that he and Kathy call the "redneck RV". He's found that they have a following, and even when they hit the road they're recognized by the home fans who haven't seen them in years – same goes for restaurants they visit.
The Ultimate Tailgaters have attracted plenty of attention on their travels, and even more so at USC – so much so that former Gamecock great and current NFL All-Pro Stephon Gilmore stopped by in 2018 to shoot a video with The Players' Tribune.
Fulmer said he feeds the football team throughout the season and has over the last three or four years provided the Thursday night meal during most game weeks. That started with post-practice meals for the baseball team years before, and it didn't take long for word to spread of Fulmer's barbecue spread. Soon he was feeding the football team, then basketball, even track and field.
He fed the Gamecocks after practice at the 2016 Birmingham Bowl, timing the trip from Aiken down to the very last stressful second, and did the same at the 2018 Outback Bowl, which was his 400th consecutive game attended.
Fulmer said he's enjoyed these opportunities to see the side of players and coaches that fans don't get to see on the field or TV, and he's built relationships and grown his own version of a coaching tree.
There's the obvious ones: Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Sean Elliott, Will Muschamp. Then there's the other assistants like strength coaches – so many strength coaches – and other staffers.
Those connections have led to him feeding visiting teams – UMass football and Houston basketball – and trading barbecue sauce for Wawa coffee.
It's also how he ended up feeding an NFL team.
Fulmer met Joey Blake when Blake was the Gamecocks' director of football nutrition. He initially thought there's no way Blake would want anything to do with his style of cooking, but Blake told him that's exactly what he wanted for his calorie-burning athletes.
Blake, like so many others who work on college staffs, had his eyes on the pro game. He eventually took a job with the Los Angeles Rams, and Fulmer kept in touch and maintained that friendship.
He was especially excited for Blake when the Rams punched their ticket to Super Bowl LIII in 2019, texting him just to chat during the build-up to the big game. That excitement turned into bewilderment when he saw he missed a phone call from Blake.
Fulmer hadn't even thought about that Super Bowl being played in Atlanta.
Kathy knew exactly what the call was about, though – Blake wanted Fulmer's barbecue crew to feed the NFC champions. All that was left to ask were two questions – when and where?
That was just another bucket list item Fulmer's experienced during this decades-long exchange of generosity within the Gamecock community and beyond, a circuitous route that started inside a cooler at a Piggly Wiggly.
Fulmer said all of this conversation should spur him to write a book about the travels of the Ultimate Tailgaters. The groundwork was laid some 50 years ago, and he's lived out chapter after chapter ever since.
All that's left to add is the rest of the story.