Armed with a homemade staff in one hand, a twirling towel in the other and a pocketful of cough drops in his garnet pants, James Armstrong was ready to make some noise.
“Are y’all ready to get loud?” he shouted from stage in front of the USC student section just after the Gamecocks had kicked off the season-opener against Texas A&M.
Answer: They already were.
At his first USC football game since shedding his former persona of Cocky the mascot, Armstrong, now a graduate student at the university, stepped into his new role as spirit leader “Mic Man.”
“I’m excited, really pumped to be able to represent the Gamecock spirit in a new way,” he said before the game, before jogging onto the field to toss a football with the Texas A&M student yell leaders.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good representation of what it means to be a Gamecock.”
Before the game began, Aggie fans, most making their first visit to Columbia and Williams-Brice Stadium, were taking in their surroundings.
“It’s hot,” said Charlie Bransom, who made the trip with his son, Alex, a senior at Texas A&M.
They kicked off their stay in the capital city Wednesday night and early Thursday morning at the State House for the Aggies’ traditional Midnight Yell Practice, where Charlie Bransom said he was “appalled” by the raucous crowd of USC party crashers whose chants sometimes rose over the Aggie yells.
His son was more accepting of the good-natured shouting competition on the eve of the game and said he looked forward to a tight contest on the field.
“I think we’re going to surprise people,” Alex Bransom said. “I’m looking forward to the rivalry. I think it officially started last night.”
Ernie Nauful has seen a lot of Gamecock football.
He remembers the last game in the old Big Thursday series against Clemson in 1959. It was his freshman year as an undergraduate at USC, and a group of USC Sigma Nu fraternity brothers dressed up as Clemson football players on the field.
He remembers the “Black Magic” 1984 season.
He remembers a lot of losing seasons.
But those days are over, he says.
Nauful, a Gamecock Club member for nearly half a century, tailgated with neighbors and friends Thursday afternoon in Gamecock Park.
“We tailgated when we never won a game,” said Jason Hawn, Nauful’s neighbor. “It’s unique to be on the winning end.”
Carolina fans expected to win Thursday night.
USC sophomore Chris Young was predicting a 15-point Gamecock victory just minutes before kickoff. With fellow sophomore Steve Shannon, he dressed garishly in garnet and black overalls and painted skin.
“Crazy, absolutely crazy,” Shannon said, describing the atmosphere in the USC student section.
The pair dubbed their gameday personas “The Gameday Warrior” and “The Spirit of the Southeast” and took it as a personal challenge to rile the crowd around them.
“(We want) to show some support to the student athletes who work their tails off for us and to help the fans get behind them and get the fans excited for every single game,” Young said. “No matter who we’re playing, to make sure they always stay pumped up, ready to rock and roll, and keep that home atmosphere at Williams-Brice and keep the streak alive.”
With the Aggies celebrating a touchdown on their opening drive and the Gamecocks preparing to take the ball, Armstrong stood in front of the fans. In a symbolic gesture, his predecessor, Chase Mizzell, handed the mic to the new top fan, as Armstrong knelt before him.
The pair joined forces to beckon the energy of the crowd before them, jumping, twirling, stomping, screaming.
Their cries, no matter how their voices strained, would be hard-pressed to be heard beyond their corner of the stadium, drowned out by the roar of the Carolina crowd. Together, though, the two of them embodied the spirit of the crowd.
“I said, Welcome to Williams-Brice Stadium,” Mizzell cried, just before kickoff. “Let’s get loud!”