COLUMBIA, SC — For some of the thousands at Saturday’s Fan Fest before USC’s spring game, it is a day of reconnecting, worshiping, working and competing just for a chance to stand on the field.
Walker Inabinet was the Gamecock’s long snapper when graduated in 2012 after five seasons in uniform.
“It was really neat to see the team do a complete turnaround, to going from winning seven games when I was a freshman to 11 when I was a senior,” the now 24-year-old financial advisor said as he sold programs outside Williams-Brice stadium.
Proceeds from the sale of programs go toward upgrading the Letterman’s lounge on the ground floor of the stadium, where Inabinet felt roars and groans as Gamecock Nation lived through the team’s ups and downs.
For fans like Mike Stallings and his teenage daughter, the spring game is the start of expectations fed by back-to-back 11-win seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of guys (we lost) we’ve got to make up for,” the 42-year-old soft drink deliveryman said after getting a photo with Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. “But we lost good ones before and we came back.”
As have many Gamecock fans during the team’s halcion days, Stallings – sporting a feather rooster headdress – dismisses the fabled “chicken curse.”
“I think (coach Steve) Spurrier killed the curse.”
State trooper Lt. Glen Levine has been professionally connected to the Gamecocks for 19 of the 22 years he’s worn a Smokey hat.
“I was assigned to the team for 13 years,” Levine said as he studied the crowd outside the stadium.
Asked if he gets caught up in the emotion of Gamecock fever, Levine said, “Business is business. We’re looking to get people in safely and out safely.”
Then a smile crept across his face. “Deep down inside, I like to see us win,” Levine confessed.
Not far away, controversial college football analyst Paul Finebaum strolled by.
Levine and another trooper joked that Finebaum might need security protection, especially if a certain former Gamecock defensive star happened by.
Last season, Finebaum wrote that Jadaveon Clowney, then being criticized for playing half-heartedly, was “the biggest joke in college football.”
Finebaum took his post under an ESPN tent in the shadow of the stadium.
“When I started (as a reporter), the writers didn’t want to go to the spring game,” he recalled. “Now, it’s a badge of honor (for colleges).”
He said last spring, six SEC teams drew more than 50,000 fans. Turnout “has become national news.”
The University of Alabama drew 82,000 last year, he said. “It was considered a disappointment.”
But the attention paid to spring games is too much, Feinbaum said. “It’s over done.”
The swirl of activity Saturday underscored his observation.
Music blared from competing sound systems. Parents lined up to take their children’s photos with an ever-patient Cocky mascot.
Rushing great Rogers, attired in Gamecock trousers and a university cap, summoned a smile on cue scores of times in front of an aerial photo of the playing field.
And Brad Dershaw, in his non-fan life a district manager for Goodwill in the Low-country, hoped his tailgate offerings will win him on-field tickets for the season opener against Texas A&M.
Dershaw was among a handful of folks who set up for Saturday’s crowd. He and his wife and friends were driving from Hilton Head, anyway when they discovered the completion online.
“Then we found out what the prize was,” the 42-year-old said with wonder in his eyes. “Oh, my God. We’ve really got to try to win this.”
The prize? The sheer joy of standing near the 2014 Gamecock football team as it rushes onto the field as “2001” blares to a packed stadium.