Sunday gridiron chef Jeff Muecke leans over a sizzling grill in the sweltering heat of an early September morning on the University of Phoenix Stadium’s Great Lawn. Outfitted in what must be his finest Cardinals regalia, Muecke seems to be immune to the intense heat filling his tent as he and his 60 friends await the Cardinals 2011 home opener. An effervescent Muecke’s firm handshake comes complete with a handful of sticky marinade—and a towel.

One of the Cardinals' youngest fans, Emilee Benge, age 2, shows her true colors on Sept. 11.

Tailgaters go all out on Sundays on the Great Lawn at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Dozens of Arizona Cardinals lovers were passing around footballs as their friends grilled up mouth-watering food.

Jeff Muecke, (pictured in the center), fed more than 60 tailgaters at his Bird Cage on the Great Lawn with the help of some friends.

Allen Stapleton, pictured wearing the red hat, grills with a pal at their site on the Great Lawn at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Troy Escobedo, otherwise known as Capt. Cardinal, is a die-hard Cardinals fan whose Phoenix home boasts a large collection of jerseys and memorabilia.

: A fan pulls his best Kevin Kolb imitation with children on the Great Lawn.
Tailgating is no longer as simple as parking a truck, grilling some dogs and downing a few beers. These dudes mean business. The hum of generators pumping electricity to televisions, satellite dishes and portable air-conditioning units nearly drowns the music being played on the Great Lawn stage. Muecke’s so-called Bird Cage is so spacious that it includes two 6-foot grills, a smaller 2-foot “hot grill,” a prep area and a section featuring fresh fruit and other hors d’oeuvres.

“We have five trucks loaded to the top,” Muecke says when describing the ride over from Litchfield Park to Glendale. “We look like the Beverly Hillbillies.”

According to New Orleans-based’s Joe “The Commish” Cahn, tailgating has become a sport all unto its own. It’s become a contest among the men (and women) who rev up for the big game.

“Anything we can do at home, we can do out in the tailgate area,” Cahn explains. “The food is becoming more experimental. In doing that, the equipment has totally changed. You see more tailgating vehicles. I was just at the University of Wisconsin and saw one of the best tailgating vehicles I have ever seen, complete with remote-controlled automated beer dispensers and the raising of the flags. Just an amazing vehicle. People try to one up the others. It’s a man thing. With the food, it used to be burgers, brats and chicken were the only things you’d really find. Now it’s amazing, from pizza to a poached salmon with a dill sauce and everything in between.”

For Muecke, whose day job is vice president at Universal Technical Institute, it doesn’t get any better than this. His partners in crime, John Dillingham and his wife, Gerry, have their routine down pat: Arrive when the gates open at 9 a.m. Serve food at 11:30 a.m. Clean up by 12:30 p.m., just in time for the 1:15 p.m. kick off. On this particular afternoon, Muecke served up a mouth-watering array of dishes including 40 pounds of juicy tri-tip, nearly four gallons of chili, flour tortillas and flank steak.

“First of all, it’s the pre-game atmosphere,” said Muecke, who sits donning a Cardinals straw hat with a large, protruding beak. “It’s so much different than just going to a game and parking your car. In a stadium you can only sit next to one or two people. It’s very tough to get a lot of your friends together. Here, if you’re a true tailgater you get to really enjoy people that you know before the game actually starts. It’s the mood and all about the experience.”

Tailgating areas like the Great Lawn are the “last great American neighborhoods,” according to Cahn, who says he spends college and pro football season traveling to different stadiums each weekend to enjoy the varying delicacies offered up by rabid fans in different cities.

“I grew up in the ‘50s and I remember a neighborhood where you walked the streets, and people sat out on the front porches and you said ‘Hello’ to people,” said Cahn, who as the Commish for travels from city to city. During our interview, Cahn was on his way to another game, this one in Pennsylvania. “You knew everyone on the block. Now we live in a security-oriented world where we have privacy fences, and when we come home, people put up a garage door with our garage door openers and put our security code on, and should anybody knock on the door– heaven forbid– at 9 at night, we’re not going to answer that. We don’t even answer our phones without checking caller ID.”

The Great Lawn of University of Phoenix Stadium and other well-known tailgating areas are renowned for their cozy atmospheres, Cahn said. So much so, that he knows fans in each city on a first-name basis. However, there have been exceptions to the friendliness. The San Francisco 49ers banned tailgating after kickoff when violence erupted at a preseason game in August against the Oakland Raiders.

“I think it’s very sad and I think there are idiots out there who are idiots,” Cahn says with a sigh. “I think there are people who think that football games–  not tailgating–  football games in general are an excuse to see how much beer you can drink or how much alcohol you can consume.”

Pat Palas of Wittmann and his upbeat friend, Phoenix resident Joe Ortiz, have been tailgating for more than 10 years, kicking off the tradition when the Cardinals still played at Sun Devil Stadium and continuing when the team moved to University of Phoenix Stadium. Despite their many years prepping for games at the tailgate party, they say they’ve never encountered any serious violence.

“I have seen yelling back and forth between individuals from another team and a Cardinal fan but never anything like fights or violence,” Palas said.

A former U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, Palas is probably one of the most noticeable of tailgaters. In the center of his tailgating area, in the Red West Lot, sits his red (naturally) 1990 Geo Prism, with a paint job that includes several glued-on small Cardinals helmets all over the car. Palas serves as the chef of this outfit, while Ortiz plays a sort of friendly commissioner.

“I knew he was a true Cardinals fan when they lost the Super Bowl and he was depressed,” Ortiz said about Palas, a Pittsburgh native.

Their menu requires very careful planning. Ortiz, Palas and their fellow tailgating friends, whom Palas said the Cardinals have dubbed the largest group off the Great Lawn, meet before each season begins to pick the dishes they are going to serve at each game. Every Cardinals match-up has a theme specific to the team.

“It actually started in 1998 when I realized that football was not just a sport, but it was an event to be enjoyed by the entire family, and tailgating is a major part of the event,” Palas said. “The best thing about tailgating is the food. We have a theme for each game, and everyone brings something they are famous for making or at least they like to brag about their best recipes. It is always good.”

On the Great Lawn is the well-known AZ House of Cards, who actually won the Arizona Cardinals tailgaters championship in 2010, sponsored by Bing. As the Cardinals winners, the AZ House of Cards–  which also won the Jack Daniels Tailgate Champions for Phoenix in 2002–  traveled to the Super Bowl in Dallas to compete against five other cities. While they didn’t take home the prize in Dallas (the Houston Texans contingent was crowned the victors) they were still honored to go. Ellen Hennessy of Gilbert is the resident “intoxicologist,” providing shots to visitors.

“My job is to make everyone else drink,” she says with a giddy laugh. “Our food and drinks are available to anyone who wants some. Everybody out here knows who we are.”

Cahn seconds that. The AZ House of Cards is a renowned bunch, he says. They ooze the spirit of tailgating, which he compares to a banquet and its reception.

Back at the “Bird Cage,” Muecke is happily serving each visitor a piece of his tender, well-marinated tri-tip. It’s clear why they won the Arizona Cardinals Tailgaters of the Year for 2009, which the group proudly announces via its tent. For the honor, Muecke was given the opportunity to travel to different NFL venues. For the Green Bay Packers-New Orleans Saints game on Thursday, Sept. 8, he fed up to 90 people at Lambeau Field. It won’t be any different when the Cardinals take on the New York Giants on Sunday, Oct. 2, at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“On the average, I have not cooked for less than 60 people,” he says. “The Giants game, I’ll be cooking for over 90 people. I’ve already had people calling and saying, ‘Will you make a spot for us?’ There’s a lot of people that will be coming from all over the country that are coming to the Giants game. It makes for quite a morning.”