Tommy Suggs hands over two brown leatherette scrapbooks the way a Swiss banker might hand over his secret records - hesitantly. "Please take good care of these," he says. "They're irreplaceable."
Indeed. On the pages inside are newspaper articles from 40 years ago, lovingly clipped by his parents in Lamar and protected from the ravages of time by plastic covers. The daily stories form a history of the 1969 South Carolina football team and its quarterback - a team that accomplished something not done in the school's 75 previous years, nor approached since.
Four decades have passed since the Gamecocks rolled unbeaten through the Atlantic Coast Conference to claim their first - and only - conference title. Today, that achievement is memorialized in 3-foot-high aluminum letters on the fascia wall of Williams-Brice Stadium's south end zone.
Long before the inscription went up, though, the season was engraved in the hearts and minds of those 1969 players, many of whom will return Saturday for a ceremony during the Vanderbilt game honoring that title.
"It means more now to say we were the ones who did it," said Dick Harris, a sophomore defensive back in 1969, who over the next two seasons would become the Gamecocks' premier return specialist and later a hall of fame player in the Canadian Football League. "You don't appreciate that until you get older. We were all quite proud then to win (a title), but it means more now looking back."
Suggs knows. In the years since his USC career concluded, he has become best known to generations of Gamecocks fans as the color commentator for USC football radio broadcasts. But the passion he brings to today's games is a result of what he and his teammates - an extended family, he and others term themselves - accomplished so long ago.
The sweet memory, though, is tinged with regret. "The year after I graduated (in 1971), we got out of the ACC, so there wasn't a conference title to win," Suggs said. "Now we're in the toughest conference in America (the Southeastern), have had good years and bad years.
"It's real special, but I wish it wasn't. I wish we had 20 (conference) titles."
They don't. But forever, they have 1969.
ROOTS OF SUCCESS
To find the roots of that team's success, one has to go back to 1968, to the Gamecocks' season-ending game at rival Clemson. That day, USC drove up and down the field but could not score - until Tyler Hellams, a sophomore defensive back, returned a late punt 73 yards for the game's only touchdown in a 7-3 USC win.
"We thought after that, 1969 would be a good year for us," he said. Alas, that would not be true for Hellams; he was injured in the first half of the 1969 opener and wound up redshirting that season.
Still, that game at Clemson enabled USC to finish a 4-6 season on a winning note. More importantly, it put the notion in players' minds the next season could be special.
"We surprised everyone in the state," said Pat Watson, a defensive back and team captain in 1969. "Clemson had killed us in 1967 (23-12), so to go up there in 1968 and shut them down ... I think we grew up that day."
Watson laughed. "We were even brave enough to throw Dietzel in the shower afterward."
Fourth-year coach Paul Dietzel, who had won a national title at LSU in 1958, was hired away from Army to breathe life into USC. By 1969, despite a 10-20 record (9-8 in the ACC), the man known as "Pepsodent Paul" for his perpetual upbeat demeanor was convinced he had the weapons to make a title run.
"We should have the best defensive team we've had in my years at USC," Dietzel said before the season. "We should also have the most varied attack ... We should have the best overall squad we've had."
There was Suggs, who had thrown for 1,544 yards the previous season, and Fred Zeigler, who - despite being "one of the slowest guys I'd ever seen," Dietzel said - was a clutch receiver with an uncanny ability to read defenses and adjust on the fly.
There also were fullback Warren Muir, who "had speed, strength and a knack for avoiding people," and tailback Rudy Holloman, and a veteran group of linemen led by Dave DeCamilla and Jimmy Poston. The defense featured linebacker Al Usher and a swarm of talented defensive backs.
"And they liked each other," Dietzel, now 85, said. "There was great togetherness."
"In spring practice and the preseason, we were all geared up," said Jim Mitchell, who backed up Zeigler at split end. "Our mission was to win the ACC."
The mission began Sept. 20 against Duke, which had defeated USC the year before. This time the Blue Devils led 17-13 until, with just over 11 minutes to play, Suggs faked to Muir on an option right, cut inside and raced 48 yards for a touchdown.
"I knew I had the first down, but once we got outside, (the Duke defenders) were all on Warren," Suggs said. "No one was there. I turned upfield, got a great block and no one got within five, 10 yards of me."
Duke rallied to tie the game at 20, but Suggs led USC on a 75-yard drive capped by Muir's 2-yard touchdown with 1:25 to play. "It was a must-have drive," Suggs said, "one you've got to have if you're going to win the ACC."
"When you open the season with a win, all (the offseason and preseason work) was worth it," Dietzel said. "But when you win late in the game, the team knows we can win regardless."
The late-game heroics continued a week later vs. North Carolina. Down 6-0, Suggs connected with Zeigler, who tipped a 26-yard pass to himself in the end zone for the touchdown that clinched USC's 14-6 comeback.
A week later at Georgia, the Gamecocks trailed 14-10 through three quarters before the Bulldogs scored four late touchdowns against their outmanned foes. "That's a tough place to play, and it was hot as blazes that afternoon," Dietzel said. "But we played them well, weren't embarrassed."
Indeed, USC bounced back with another comeback win at home, topping N.C. State - its primary ACC rival - 21-16 on the strength of Mitchell's 72-yard punt return. The Gamecocks were 3-0 in the league, and "we were rolling," Suggs said.
"We thought, 'Hey, this is something special. We've got three (ACC wins) and three more to go.'"
If three rallies at then-Carolina Stadium set a tone, South Carolina's victory in Blacksburg, Va., confirmed the Gamecocks' ability to avoid a seemingly sure defeat.
Despite its 0-4 record entering the game, Virginia Tech took a 16-10 lead with 1:13 to play. But Suggs and Zeigler connected twice, and Suggs' pass to tight end Doug Hamrick gave USC the ball at Tech's 30 with 34 seconds to play.
Three plays later, A.C. Flora High product Billy DuPre - who twice earlier had missed long attempts - lined up for a 47-yard field-goal try. Suggs, who held for DuPre, remembers the play in vivid detail.
"I got a great snap from Kenny Ross, put it down and Billy hit it good," he said. "I knew it was straight, but I wasn't sure it was long enough." It was, barely, and USC was 4-1.
A 17-0 rout of Maryland the following week made the Gamecocks 5-1, 4-0 in the ACC. The next two weeks, an early explosion of points by Florida State doomed USC to a 34-9 loss in Tallahassee, and Tennessee scored twice in the fourth quarter ton win 29-14, but "we were focused on ACC games by then," Suggs said.
"Those were big games, but not like a conference game. (Afterward) it was back to business: We want to win the conference championship, so let's go do it."
On a cold, sleeting Nov. 15 in Winston-Salem, N.C. - USC's lone conference road game - the Gamecocks did. Suggs threw three touchdown passes, and Wake Forest suffered nine turnovers as the visitors cruised to a 24-6 win that, combined with a North Carolina victory over Clemson that day, clinched the title.
Watson discovered how excited a travel party of USC fans was after the game. "I was president of the senior class, and we were selling ACC buttons," he said, laughing. "People outside the locker room wanted them, and I had some with me for $1 each.
"We had a goal of selling 4,000, and I sold a bunch that day. I could've doubled the price."
Suggs escaped the Demon Deacons unscathed, but not the postgame celebration. "The hardest lick came in the locker room afterward," he said. "Byron Sistare hugged me and hit me in the eye with his shoulder pads - it's on film somewhere, my head goes backward - and I wound up with a black-and-blue eye."
Only one game remained: Clemson. ACC title-wise it was meaningless, but no one at USC saw it that way.
"To us that was never just about the ACC and never should be," Mitchell said. "We always said that was the second half of the season; the first nine (games) was the first half. If we didn't beat them, it was not a successful season."
The Monday before the Clemson game, Dietzel announced to his players that USC had been extended a bid to the Peach Bowl, the school's second bowl and first since 1945. Suggs found little comfort in that.
"Honestly, that game scared me to death," he said. "We'd already won the ACC, now we've got the bowl, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to mess it up, Clemson's going to beat us.'
"Then just the opposite happened. We played pretty good."
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
In fact, the Gamecocks enjoyed their best offensive game of the season at home on Nov. 22, rolling up 517 yards and leading 17-0 before the Tigers cut their deficit to 17-13. In the second half, USC scored 10 points to polish off a 27-13 win and 7-3 season.
In retrospect, USC's championship season should have ended there. The Peach Bowl, played Dec. 30 on a cold, rain-soaked Grant Field in Atlanta - "a quagmire," Suggs said; "as lousy a field as I've ever seen," Dietzel said - was a disaster.
USC's balanced offense lost its aerial element in the "Mud Bowl" - Suggs, stricken by a flu bug beforehand, and Zeigler were rendered ineffective - while opponent West Virginia, coached by future Gamecocks coach Jim Carlen, rolled up 356 yards rushing (vs. USC's 190 yards of offense) in a bruising 14-3 win.
"We didn't expect them to run that much," Watson said. "It should've been a 7-3 game, but I kept calling timeouts at the end, hoping someone would fumble and we'd run it back for a touchdown."
"I don't think it was a true test of skills of the two teams," Dietzel said.
The letdown would pass, though, replaced by the feeling that, after so many years, USC was on a path to success. Not all of that would occur on the field.
"After one of our practices before Clemson, Dietzel had us take a quick shower and took us to a meeting over at the Horseshoe," Muir said. "We went into this conference room, and he pulled back a sheet over a table that had a replica of the stadium and the changes he was planning.
"He told us, 'All the progress we've made, the ticket sales going up - you guys contributed to that, so I wanted to share with you what we're planning to do, the expansion of the stadium. You guys can take credit for that.'"
"To Dietzel's credit, he saw the future," Dave DeCamilla said. "He said, 'This is what I have planned,' and sure enough, that's where he took it.
"He was the right coach at the right time. And, if for no other reason, that 1969 team put (USC) on the path to the next level."
Saturday, the players from 1969 - minus a half-dozen who have since died and some, like Harris, who won't be able to make the trip - will gather to remember that time. A time when the first conference title seemed to open doors to a future of ... well, who knew what?
Those players know what means the most now.
"The most important thing about that team was the friendships," Mitchell said. "We became a family, and a lot of us are still together.
"I see Tyler every week; I tailgate at Cocks Corner where Tommy (Suggs) and Tyler have spaces. We go to weddings, celebrate children and now grandchildren."
Their ACC championship rings are mostly stowed in drawers or lock boxes. But they carry the achievement in their minds and hearts.
"I'm able to tell people I played on the only conference championship team in USC history," Watson said. "And they usually say, 'Wooo, that's pretty good.'"
Watson, Suggs and the rest say they hope that will change one day. "It probably will," Watson said, and laughed.
"Then," he said, "we can say we won the first one."