CLEMSON - The only tie that binds Clemson center Dalton Freeman to the Tigers-Gamecocks rivalry dates further back than he can remember.
In 1994, his father, longtime Pelion High coach Ben Freeman, was a member of the state's football coaches association when Brad Scott was hired as USC's coach.
The two met at a function and struck up a friendship.
Fifteen years later, USC's rival wound up with an athletic lineman with whom Clemson has gone 6-0 since plugging him into the starting lineup.
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"I'm not sure how much I have to do with that," Freeman said.
How it happened has as much to do with a back story that began behind enemy lines.
Freeman, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound redshirt freshman, felt no allegiance growing up to either Clemson or USC, despite living about 20 miles from the Columbia campus.
Ben played offensive line at Wake Forest. His wife, Gwen, went to tiny Concord College in Virginia, and most of her family attended Virginia Tech. The family moved to South Carolina from Brevard, N.C., 25 years ago when Ben became the head coach at Denmark-Olar High at the age of 26.
Scott had not been at USC long before meeting Ben while speaking at a coaches association event. Coaches in Scott's position make hundreds of acquaintances this way, but the two developed into closer friends.
And when Scott was in the midst of his tumultuous - and final - 1-10 season at USC in 1998, he received numerous supportive calls and handwritten notes from Ben.
"You could really see there was substance behind his interest in our friendship," Scott said.
For nearly 10 years, they have been golf partners at the high school coaches' annual golf outing.
In the early days, Scott recalls Ben believing Freeman likewise would grow into a football center as his career progressed. While Freeman attended a few USC games along the way, he first met Scott only after Scott had been hired as a Clemson assistant shortly after his firing.
In sixth grade, Freeman accompanied his father on a recruiting trip to Death Valley with former Pelion standouts Josh and Justin Stepp. Justin, who went on to play receiver at Furman, is now a Clemson grad assistant.
Scott was the first recruiter to begin expressing recruiting interest in Freeman in the ninth grade - Scott's first season as the Tigers' line coach. Clemson was also the first to offer a scholarship before Freeman's junior season; the family even withheld the news for several months, correctly assuming its release would spark immediate interest from other programs, such as USC.
While Freeman gave serious consideration to Penn State, Ben said he could tell by the end of Freeman's junior season that he favored Clemson.
"One of the biggest things I realized is, the facilities are nice everywhere you go, but the people (at Clemson) were different," Freeman said. "And you have to surround yourself with people who are going to make you most happy."
That explains why Freeman did not commit until late December of his senior season.
Until then, there had been no assurances Scott and Clemson's staff still would be in town.
Tommy Bowden's job security was an issue throughout the 2007 season, and the Freemans were aware Bowden had backed out at the last minute from his agreement to take Arkansas' job - and Scott likely would have went, too.
Florida State, a team Freeman liked as a kid, made a late recruiting push, but Freeman committed to Scott on Christmas Eve after Bowden's stay had been extended.
After redshirting, Freeman began this season as sophomore Mason Cloy's backup at center.
But after the Maryland debacle, Scott said he saw the need to help both the center and guard positions because his starting guards were suffering from playing too many snaps. So he shifted Cloy to backup at all three spots and plugged in the slightly undersized Freeman, whose quickness has been viewed as an asset on zone running plays.
"You just saw it coming with him," Scott said. "And what I wanted to be careful of was not too much too fast. I didn't want him to have a bad experience and lose his confidence too fast."
Freeman has handled the task to date. And while he insists Scott's connection was hardly the overriding factor in choosing Clemson, the familiarity and trust honed through the years has made this year's experience rewarding.
"There was some comfort there," Freeman said. "But ultimately it was up to me and who I fit in the best with. And that just happened to be coach Scott. Fortunately, everything has worked out well."