Thanksgiving dinners used to be pretty vocal at the Lanning household in Rock Hill. Talk was always about Clemson football and what their beloved Tigers would do to hated rival South Carolina.
No more. These days, “no one talks about football,” said Spencer Lanning, son of Tad (Clemson Class of 1980) and Lisa (Class of ’81) — and, this week, the starting punter for ... the Gamecocks.
Talk about a conversation-killer.
“Walking on eggshells,” said Mickey McDowell of Bishopville, Lisa Lanning’s father.
Divided families are nothing new to the USC-Clemson rivalry. In each case, the dynamic is different: Some wives and husbands embrace their conflicting loyalties; others downplay them. From friendly wagers to 12 months of sulking, Tigers and Gamecocks related by blood or marriage do just about everything when it comes to the rivalry — except ignore it.
But the Lannings and especially the McDowells — who “bleed orange all the time,” according to Spencer Lanning — are still coming to grips with their son/grandson playing for Steve Spurrier.
No one has threatened to write Spencer out of a will ... yet.
In fact, at Death Valley on Saturday, Lisa and Tad Lanning will wear — gasp! — garnet.
“Becoming a Carolina fan was difficult,” she said, “but it made no sense to be that big a Clemson fan now. Once your son attends USC, it’s different.”
It is that, all right. Understand that for this family, Clemson is part of its heritage going back to when Mickey McDowell was a pre-veterinarian student and ran track before the Korean War.
During her matriculation from 1978-81, Lisa Lanning was a “Bengal Babe,” a group of female students who escorted prospective recruits on visits.
“My mom said she took Homer Jordan” — quarterback of Clemson’s national championship team in 1981 — “on his recruiting visit,” Spencer said.
Then there is Cindy McDowell Bolt — Aunt Cindy to Spencer — who was a Clemson cheerleader from 1976-80. Her son, Matt, also signed to play football for a rival (North Carolina) but later transferred to Clemson.
So what happened to Spencer, who grew up a “diehard” Clemson fan, wore orange shirts nearly every day to school and says he “hated Carolina growing up”? The reality of recruiting, that’s what.
An all-state selection from York High — he kicked the winning field goal in the 2005 North-South All-Star game — Lanning dreamed of playing for the Tigers. But Clemson already had recruited a punter. When USC coach Ron Cooper gave him a walk-on opportunity, Spencer grabbed it.
“They said they’d give me a shot. Clemson didn’t,” he said.
This year, Lanning replaced Ryan Succop as USC’s punter and averages 42.2 yards per kick, fifth in the SEC and 27th nationally.
Soon after Spencer announced his intent, family negotiations began. Mickey McDowell said he would see his grandson play “every two years (when the Gamecocks visit Clemson)” but relented, attending one game in 2007 and this year’s USC-Tennessee game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions,” McDowell, 77, said. “I kidded Spencer, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ But we accept it. That’s the way it is.”
Cindy Bolt also has come around, sort of. “I had to learn to be very nice about Carolina,” she said. Still, she and her father are in agreement on their wishes for Spencer.
“Dad and I said we hope he punts well — and a bunch of times” Saturday, she said, laughing.
Before the game, the Bolts and the McDowells will wear orange while tailgating with the garnet-clad Lannings.
Of course, parental loyalty only goes so far.
“Mom and Dad still wear their Clemson stuff around the house,” Spencer said.
Meanwhile, the Lannings have an ace in the hole: daughter Alison, who plans to attend Clemson.
“I think Mom and Dad got excited when she said she’s going there,” Spencer said. “She’ll continue the legacy, I guess.”
But that’s the future. On Saturday, Spencer will play his first game as a Gamecock in the familiar surroundings of Memorial Stadium. His grandfather finds comfort in knowing his grandson only will be on the field when USC’s offense stalls.
“If he was a quarterback or fullback, I’d be disturbed,” McDowell said, laughing. “But I tell him, ‘Punt, boy, punt!’”
That’s three more words on the subject than Lanning figured to hear over Thanksgiving dinner.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.