For the life of him, Albert Shealy can't recall why he skipped the Clemson-Maryland football game in 1981.
"No idea," the Chapin native said, and laughed. "I guess I wasn't thinking about going to it, so I didn't."
Twenty-eight years later, he regrets that decision. Imagine how long his streak would be if he had gone.
As it is, when his Tigers face South Carolina on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, Shealy will attend his 325th consecutive Clemson game, dating to the 1981 USC game, also in Columbia. In all, he estimates he's seen the Tigers play 500 times.
Shealy, 65, is proud of the streak even if he never set out to create it. "I wasn't going for anything. I just happened to like to go to Clemson games," he said.
Think that's impressive? Well, it is. Still, when it comes to the biggest game of the year, Shealy has to take a back seat to Ted Gardner of Manning.
Gardner, 81, attended his first USC-Clemson clash as a 17-year-old Clemson freshman - in 1945. He hasn't missed one since, a string that will hit 65 on Saturday.
"He wasn't a golfer or fisherman; his passion (is) Clemson football games," said Gardner's daughter, Meri Lyn Rogers of Florence. "All those years" - she began accompanying him to Death Valley in 1966 - "he made it sound like the most wonderful thing to get up at 5 a.m. and ride to Clemson."
She laughed. "And it is."
Each year, the Palmetto Bowl brings out the zealot in fans of both teams. Few, though, can compare with Shealy and Gardner for longevity, or dedication.
Gardner's first memory of the rivalry is 1945's 0-0 tie in Columbia during the Big Thursday era. "It was right after the end of World War II," he said. "Both teams had a lot of returning veterans, and they fought each other hard, but they didn't have much offense."
Since then, Gardner has seen his Tigers triumph 37 times vs. 24 losses and two ties. Picking his favorite game isn't difficult.
"The year (2003) when (Lou) Holtz coached and we won 63-17," he said. "We pretty much emptied the stadium of Carolina fans. I was in the upper deck on the visitors' side - my tickets (at Williams-Brice) are always up near the top of the flagpole - but we'd moved down to the 50-yard line by the end of the third quarter."
Gardner passed down his Clemson loyalty to his daughter, but as often happens in South Carolina, the bloodlines became mixed when she married the son of the late Joe Rogers, a one-time gubernatorial candidate and "a strong Carolina man," Gardner said.
Naturally, that made the rivalry more fun.
Gardner's son, Mitchell, once delivered The State in Manning, and on Sundays after a Tigers win, subscribers who were USC fans - including Rogers, who lived three blocks away - received their morning newspaper with orange Tiger paws stamped on the front.
So when Meri Lyn and her husband had a daughter, Emily, now 22, both sides fought to secure her loyalty. "She became one of the first Tiger Cub Club members; Daddy signed her up when she was 4," Rogers said. "And her USC granddaddy signed her up for the Junior Gamecock Club the same week."
Emily - who growing up wore junior cheerleader outfits for both schools - eventually chose USC, where she is a senior. But Gardner delights in the fact that "her fiance is a Clemson graduate."
Chapin's Shealy didn't have to deal with mixed family loyalties. Of 10 children, only a sister, Nancy DeMasi of Lexington, pulls for South Carolina. But the son of one brother who moved to Florida - Shealy's nephew - is Jim Shealy, who has worked since 1983 for USC's athletics department and oversees Williams-Brice Stadium.
"We don't talk about football," Albert Shealy said, laughing.
His favorite Clemson road trips were games played in Tokyo in 1982 (Wake Forest) and 1991 (Duke), which included visits to Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea. The best game, he says, was the Tigers' 10-8 win at North Carolina in - naturally - 1981, the year of Clemson's national championship.
When it comes to The Rivalry, Shealy, as does Manning, has an affinity for that 2003 blowout. Oddly, his other favorite game vs. the Gamecocks was in 1975, when his Tigers were on the losing end, 56-20.
"I've got a good friend, Randy Frick, who's a USC fan," Shealy said. "Before the ('75) game he said, 'Albert, when we beat y'all, I don't want you to leave early.' I said, 'I'll be right here when it's over.'
"So with two minutes to play, he said, 'I think I'll leave.' And I said, 'Randy, the game's not over yet.' And he sat right back down."
After 325 consecutive games - or, for Gardner, 65 USC-Clemson battles - what's the rush?
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.