By Brian M. Howle
And so, yet another college football season draws to a frenetic close. The upcoming weekend features a handful of the big, end-of-season rivalries, such as Army vs Navy. For many – including those of us in the Palmetto state – the big game was last weekend.
Anyone who has read my column on a regular basis knows that I am a faithful, lifetime fan of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. And I know that for most, reason should dictate that this would be a perfect time for someone like me to crow about that great, come-from-14 points-behind victory over in-state rival Clemson last weekend, as the Cocks notched a 31-28 win in Death Valley, where they had not beaten the Tigers since 1996.
But anyone who truly knows me, knows that is not the way I am.
Well, it’s definitely not because I’ve become accustomed to regular Carolina victories over Clemson, since the Tigers have taken the measure of that honor lately with greater frequency than I would prefer.
And it’s not because I’m too modest to expose the achievements of my long-suffering alma mater, since they proved themselves over the course of the season with a 7-5 record (look at the four SEC losses of a touchdown or less, each against nationally ranked teams) and an upcoming holiday bowl game bid.
No, it’s because of something far greater, and much more important to me.
It’s because of the way I was raised.
Allow me to give you the backstory, and maybe you will come to understand what I mean.
My team-affiliation lineage is rather straightforward: My mother attended USC in Columbia, as did my sister and I; my father and brother attended Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
But you would have thought that my dad was the Carolina graduate when it came to Gamecock sports, and football in particular.
Mama was just too rattled and skitish to deal with listening to games on the radio, or watching them on television. And games like this last one eventually took her away from attending the games altogether.
But not daddy. He and I listened to and watched football, basketball and baseball games with clock-setting regularity. And yes, we suffered through a lot of losses – but we also shared the joy of victory, enough to keep us hungry for the next season.
They had season tickets to Carolina’s home games for most of my young life. And they traveled to quite a few away games over the years – most notably one in North Carolina where USC was losing badly and they decided to leave early and drive back home to Andrews, only to be stunned to find me zooming out of the house in hyper-party mode, ready to celebrate the greatest come-from-behind victory in school history, which I had followed on the radio in true Gamecock rollercoaster-blood-pressure faithfulness.
When they decided to take me along to attend my first USC home football game, I was just a pup. The Carolina stadium was not the colossus that stands there now. It was the 1.0 version – just a big, low bowl made of tin siding that held around 35,000 people. Maybe.
But in my young eyes, it was the Roman Coliseum. Due mainly to the fact that, well, it was the biggest stadium I had ever seen. And that was due – in no small part – to the fact that it was the only stadium I had ever seen.
All that notwithstanding, it was also the greatest stadium I had ever seen, because it was the home of my beloved Gamecocks. And amid all the clamor and jocularity of the thousands of folks who amassed at the entry gates, I was in absolute awe of all that was around me. A sea of garnet and black flowed by us, with the school’s marching band playing the fight song as they filed through the surrounding parking lots and into the stadium.
But then I heard – horror of horrors – the Clemson fight song. What the hell was going on here?
Oh, gee, what do ya know … my first game was the Carolina-Clemson game.
I was truly in my own leetle version of heaven on earth, and had just about reached the happiest point of my young life, when …
An unfamiliar (to me) voice boomed over and above the din of the crowd:
“Jewel! Delbert! Don’t tell me that little scoundrel, Brian, is with you today!” The voice was kinda close, but not real close to us.
Mama smiled and waved to the voice, as did my dad, but I couldn’t locate the person, primarily because of my being about three-something-feet tall at the time.
They hollered at each other for a minute or so, as we shuffled slowly towards the clinking, metal turnstile that clicked in official approval as each person handed the attendant their ticket to be punched as they passed through the spinning arms into the stadium.
Just as I was about to hand my ticket to the smiling man in the official USC ticket-taking uniform, a long, boney arm in a pin-stripe suit reached down from some unseen point and literally snatched me up and over the turnstile and into the massive crowd.
“Don’t worry, I know where y’all sit … I’m going to give young Brian the Grand Tour of the stadium to mark his first Gamecock game!” the voice boomed, as I struggled to look back at my disappearing parents while also trying to get a look at the crazy man who had just abducted me in broad daylight, right out of my parents’ protective hands.
The voice kept rambling on about Carolina this and Carolina that, but I was too terrified to make much sense of anything he said. I think it’s fair to say this was the first time in my young life that I was completely and totally freaking out.
We stopped for some reason, and the boney, gray-haired man who had kidnapped me finally came into focus and looked down at me. Then he smiled when he realized that I was crying.
“Now, now, son, no need to cry. Don’t you know me? I’m your cousin R.C., on your mama’s side, remember?”
Well, no, I didn’t remember him because I don’t think I had ever been around him before. I had heard his name mentioned when my parents, aunts, uncles were gathered at my grandmother’s house, usually accompanied with a sudden adult cough and the children being excused from the room. And at this point, I was beginning to understand why I had never been around him before.
Adding to the confusion in my leetle mind was his claim of being my “cousin.” See, up till then, my definition of cousin was pretty cut & dried: they were all kids, like me, within a window of 3 to 11 years of my age. And I had actually met all of them.
This guy was, in my definition, about 100 years old. So “cousin” was not fitting into the gameplan that I knew.
And on top of all that, he reeked of bourbon. And he was loud. And he wore a bow tie. A patterned bow tie with a pin-striped suit.
Fortunately, before I could have a massive breakdown, my father suddenly appeared and pulled me from R.C.’s grip. I quickly scooted behind daddy and peered around his leg as he quietly – but firmly – explained to R.C. that I needed to stay with them for my first Carolina game, but thanks for offering to take me “off their hands” for awhile.
We made our way to our seats (and mama), and daddy explained that R.C. was one of mama’s cousins, and how that whole second, third, fourth cousin, etc. thing worked. I didn’t care, I was just relieved to be with my parents.
Wide-eyed and wired for sound, I soaked in every large and small event of the day. The marching bands, the scantily-clad baton twirlers and cheerleaders, the emotionally-charged teams running out onto a sun-drenched field in colorful abandon. The palpable sense and smell of electricity that raced throughout the capacity crowd. And the frequent insults that were hurled back and forth between rival supporters.
I’ve never been very good at understanding why God chooses to bless us when he does, or when he chooses to crush us when he does. But on this day, he smiled on my Gamecocks, and they came away with a slim victory.
Although every stadium has designated “home” and “visitor” seating areas, when it comes to the “Big Game”, you get a ticket where you can find one. That’s just the way it is, and anyone wanting to attend doesn’t really mind.
But in our overwhelmingly pro-Carolina section, there were several Clemson fans. One group in front of us consisted of a family of five, with a little boy and girl just about my age and size.
The boy had stuck his tongue out at me early in the game, when Clemson took the initial lead. A Gamecock of class, I ignored him for the duration of the game, even when Carolina took the lead and eventually won.
As my parents turned to offer and accept congratulations from their fellow Gamecocks, I was still drinking in all the sights and sounds around us.
But when the family in front of us turned to leave, the father was quietly comforting the little boy, and the mother was doing the same for his little sister. They were both crying deeply, and for a second there, I almost laughed.
But, because of some unruly, uncouth Gamecock fans, two little kids were just beyond being crushed. Those people had said just terrible, insulting things to them as they left the stands.
But then I heard the mother say, “Now, sweetie, don’t cry like that. Those people didn’t mean what they said about us.”
My dad tuned in to their conversation about that time, and he reached over and wiped away tears from the little girl’s face.
“Sugar, your mama is right, you know,” he said in his wonderfully consoling voice. “Not everyone is as ugly as those folks you heard. Our team just had a little bit better luck out there today. You’ll get us next year, little one, don’t you worry about that.”
And before they were swallowed up by the departing throng of people, I saw her manage a weak, small smile at my father. And then they were gone.
Yeah, I understand rivalries. I even understand friends having good-hearted fun with each other and all the picking that goes with it. But it’s just a game. And when one team wins because the other team’s kicker misses a field goal – when one player is subjected to glory or goat status – you don’t rub it in.
Because that’s the way I was raised.
After leaving home and started my adult life, I called my dad – without fail – during every Carolina game. He got to the point where, when the phone rang during a game, he would just answer “How ‘bout those ‘Cocks?” instead of “Hello,” because he knew it was me.
He passed away two years ago, and that first year was the toughest. But this year, when that last second had expired and the Gamecocks prevailed, I picked up my phone and asked him about the all the great plays of the game, as I had done for all those years before. Why?
See, now, his long-distance carrier is forever free. And he’s got the best seat. Ever.
Because that’s the way I was raised.
The previous article was originally published in the December 1, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.