A billboard on Fort Jackson Boulevard highlighting the Hammond football team features these words: “Big Game. Bigger Heart.”
But the words are less about the team’s undefeated season and seventh SCISA Class 3A championship in nine seasons than about a defining moment for the program on a Friday night in late October, when the Skyhawks were celebrating Senior Night at their final regular-season home game.
The photo on the billboard shows Hammond senior Blaire Epting perched atop the shoulders of his teammates after participating in the only play of his high school football career – a 5-yard touchdown run against Augusta Christian.
A team manager for the Skyhawks through four seasons, Epting wasn’t physically able to handle the contact of the game because of his dwarfism. But he harbored a dream of wearing the uniform just one time, something he told coach Erik Kimrey over the summer.
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That conversation stayed with Kimrey, who began to devise a plan that would result in Epting being hoisted by his teammates during the celebration after his TD run.
Kimrey smiles as he looks at the photo that captures the joyousness of the event.
“It’s not the expression on Blaire’s face that makes me proud. It’s the expressions on our players’ faces,” Kimrey said. “The whole theme of this is: What has he taught us? What have we learned from him? Even though we were honoring him, I felt like it was something that touched us as much if not more.”
Kimrey appreciated Epting’s dedication to the program over the years – from lugging water bottles to handling equipment and running video – so he wanted to do something special for his manager. Kimrey was determined to surprise Epting by doing more than simply letting him suit up. He was going to let him play.
Senior Night would provide the perfect opportunity, and when that week rolled around, Kimrey told Epting that he had designed a special play. It would involve Epting lining up in the backfield before heading straight to the sideline to avoid any contact as soon as the ball was snapped. After practicing that play the day before the game, Kimrey had a little fun afterward by also running a play called “Blaire Touchdown Right,” where Epting would get the chance to score on a short run to the right side behind the blocking of his best friend Cantey Heath.
Epting, however, didn’t realize that Kimrey had already collaborated with Augusta Christian coach Keith Walton, who was more than happy to assist on the scoring play in the actual game. All of the players, coaches and officials knew what would happen on the opening kickoff, when the Lions kicked off and the Skyhawks returned it to the Augusta Christian 5-yard line before downing the ball.
As the fans wondered what was going on, Kimrey called Epting to his side.
“His family didn’t know, he didn’t know, his heart was beating out of his chest,” Kimrey said. “ I asked if he was ready.”
Epting, thinking he would dash straight to the sideline after the snap, nodded.
“Do you remember Blaire Touchdown Right?” Kimrey asked.
“I’m thinking, ‘No way,’ ” Epting said. “Then he told me, ‘Go run it.’ ’’ A surprised Epting asked, “What if they hit me?”
Kimrey answered, “Blaire, do you trust me?”
He did. And as Epting took the field to a rousing introduction on the P.A. and a huge ovation from the fans, he lined up in the backfield. Quarterback Nick Garrett took the snap and turned to hand it off to Epting, who gathered the ball into his arms and took off through the line behind Heath. A clear path quickly opened and he darted into the end zone, where he was fittingly lifted into the air by Heath, his friend who was born one day before him in December 1996.
As school comes to a close for the holiday season, Epting looks back at that time with true gratitude for the giving nature of those who played a role in his unique night.
“I loved every minute of it and how I got the chance to score a touchdown,” he said. “I’m thankful to Augusta Christian for letting me doing it. I was so happy and so excited and so thankful to all the coaches and players.”
Heath called it their way of thanking Epting for his hard work and devotion to them.
“We almost take for granted all that Blaire does for us, and to give a little back to him and help him get that touchdown was a good feeling for all of us,” Heath said. “We’ll always remember it.”
After the score, the teams gathered for a salute to Epting, which included this written message from Kimrey that was read over the P.A.:
“In the world of athletics, we are often judged by our physical aptitude or stature. Blaire Epting has taught our team that the true measure of a man resides in his heart and is displayed in his spirit. We honor Blaire tonight and thank him for his service to our football program.”
Hammond gave the touchdown back on the ensuing kickoff to the Lions to even the score before the Skyhawks later rolled to a 44-20 victory. Epting’s phone blew up with congratulatory messages as he attended the post-game party.
His parents, Randy and Lanie Epting, were thrilled by what the two schools did for their son. Although she fretted over the possibilities of injury, especially when she saw her son had been issued a helmet, Lanie quizzed him on exactly what was happening in practice.
Her worries were alleviated by the night’s events.
“We knew he was going to go in the game, and we did trust the coaches to make sure he would be safe,” she said. “But we didn’t have any idea he would score a touchdown. We were so honored and humbled and thankful and blessed. To give him an experience like that with his situation in life was just so amazing because he loves that team. He loves those guys, and he loves those coaches.”
The good feelings continued for four more games as the Skyhawks soared through the end of the regular season and the playoffs to a 13-0 record, which culminated in a state championship win against Laurence Manning.
The glory days stood in stark contrast to Epting’s trying eighth-grade year. The shunt inserted in his head when he was a three-month-old baby malfunctioned, which led to seizures and double vision. He needed multiple brain surgeries over a three-week period and missed more than 50 days of school. He also lost the ability to walk and had to relearn through physical therapy.
His mother admired the way her young son handled the traumatic situation.
“It was pretty awful,” Lanie Epting said. “But he persevered. He never complained.”
Although he still lives with a dual-shunt system in his head, his health has stabilized in recent years. Already accepted to South Carolina, Epting hopes to attend Clemson as an engineering major after he graduates next spring.
Lanie Epting calls the family a close-knit one, so much that older daughter Elaine decided to attend Furman, where she is a senior, instead of going to an out-of-state school. Blaire’s dwarfism also stands in stark contrast to the rest of the family. Randy, a mergers and acquisitions attorney, and Elaine are both 6-foot-5 while Lanie is 6-foot.
“It’s kind of a funny dynamic,” Lanie said.
Epting appreciates that he is treated no differently around school and the team. The players give him a hard time, and the coaches bark at him. He’s one of the guys and likes it that way. Kimrey said his presence has meant a lot to everyone around him.
The coach added this team wasn’t his most talented but it was the best example of a group working together as a unit. He credits some of that to their admiration for Epting, who has spent his entire academic career since pre-kindergarten at Hammond.
“He is like a brother to them. But what’s cool as a coach is to see through the years how Blaire has changed them,” Kimrey said. “There’s a maturity to this class and a level-headedness to this group of young men that I haven’t seen before. A large part of that is growing up with Blaire.”
Star linebacker D’Andre Lee-Smith cited the impact of Epting as a role model in a senior speech he gave.
Heath has grown up with Epting, and the two share a bond that’s easy to see as they discuss their life experiences together.
“I’ve always been there for him, and he’s always been there for me. I can count on him for anything,” Heath said. “I look up to Blaire, and I truly mean that. He’s such a hard worker and all the adversity he has faced while overcoming it is really special.”
When Epting leaves Hammond, he can always look back at a final state championship as a fitting end to a perfect season for all the seniors.
“It was really special to bring back the title in our senior year,” he said. “I’m just happy that we could be a part of it.”
Heath believes Epting’s moment is a large part of what made the entire season so extraordinary.
“There are three things I’ll always remember: Going undefeated on the season, winning the state championship, and having Blaire get his touchdown on Senior Night,” Heath said.