The last time South Carolina beat Michigan, its opponent in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, the result created such excitement that 5,000 fans flocked to Columbia Metropolitan Airport to greet their returning heroes.
That was 1980, and the front-page photo in The State featured a cute 2-year-old girl in a Gamecock jersey. Thirty-two years later, that girl is even more of a USC fan. In fact, she’s a USC grad and works for the Gamecock Club.
“That was always my favorite photo of myself as a child,” said Toni Kirkland Day. “I have grown up a Gamecock my entire life, as has my entire family.”
A friend at the newspaper gave her family a copy of the photo back in 1980, and she later had it signed by USC coach Jim Carlen. She had it stored away until contacted this month by a newspaper reporter.
Day isn’t sure why she had a 22 jersey. A defensive back named Freddy Snow wore No. 22 for the Gamecocks that year, but he wasn’t a high-profile player. In fact, South Carolina wasn’t a high-profile program.
USC fans hoped the 17-14 victory over the 17th-ranked Wolverines in front of 104,213 fans in Ann Arbor, Mich., was the boost the program needed to rise from years of mediocrity. The win did earn some national recognition, and it played a large role in George Rogers winning the Heisman Trophy that year.
But after finishing 8-4 in 1980, the Gamecocks had only five seasons with eight or more victories in the next 25 years. The team finally has hit those national heights in the past three years, with 30 wins and a near-constant presence in the top 25.
On Sept. 27, 1980, the unranked Gamecocks needed some good fortune to beat the Wolverines. Rogers ran for 142 yards and a touchdown, but the real heroes were on the defensive side. Cornerback Chuck Finney made a heads-up tackle on a fake punt and batted down a fourth-down pass in the end zone in the closing seconds. Also, the Gamecocks recovered Michigan fumbles at the USC 6 and in the USC end zone.
That the Kirklands ended up at the airport that evening wasn’t a surprise. The extended family is filled with football players and coaches, and Gamecock fans. Her brother Kris is an assistant football coach at Airport High School.
“It was ingrained, embedded in me,” she said. “It was in my DNA.”
She enrolled at USC as a sports management major. But after a circuitous route through school, she graduated with a political science degree. When she noticed a job posting with the Gamecock Club, she applied and got it. Her major apparently meant less to her employers than her passion for the athletics program.
Day started with the Gamecock Club in 2006, as the athletics program was starting to hit its stride. Since then, the baseball team has two national championships and a runner-up finish, and the football team has been to a bowl game every year.
Day especially looks forward to bowl games. As a Gamecock Club employee, Day works at the home football games. “At bowl games, I get to be just a fan,” she said. “It’s not very often we just get to be fans.”
Not that she’s complaining. For a lifelong USC fan, a job with the Gamecock Club is a dream come true.
And she and her husband, Dustin, now have a new generation of Gamecock fans — 4-year-old twin boys, Kirkland and Trotter. They showed up at a photo shoot proudly wearing their Gamecock jerseys — Kirkland sported Jadeveon Clowney’s No. 7, and Trotter went with Marcus Lattimore’s No. 21.
As for that No. 22, their mom wore 32 years ago, Day’s mother, Merri Kirkland, knows she has it stored somewhere, but she didn’t have time before the photo shoot to dig it out. She’s been too busy chasing after a couple of 4-year-old boys.