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Diehard devotion

Carlton Thompson jumps out of his seat and stomps his feet.

As the USC women’s basketball team fastbreaks down the Colonial Center court, he energetically flaps his tattered Gamecock flag. When Georgia Bulldogs make their way back toward his end of the floor, he loudly exhorts the USC defense.

“Let’s gooooooo, Gamecocks!”

Thompson may not be able to walk on water, turn water into wine, or feed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish, but the man best known to USC basketball fans as Baseline Jesus can whip a crowd of thousands into a screaming frenzy.

The 54-year-old man with the flowing hair and scruffy beard is most certainly a courtside messiah to the legions of Gamecock devotees who attend games from fall to winter to spring. Whether he’s at the Volleyball Competition Center, the Colonial Center, or Sarge Frye Field, the foot-stomping, flag-waving Thompson is hard to miss as he vigorously cheers on the Gamecocks in volleyball, basketball, and baseball.

“I was always into the games,” Thompson said as he waited for the tip-off of the women’s basketball team’s final home game.

Is he ever.

He got hooked 40 years ago, after attending the first-ever game in the Carolina Coliseum while a sophomore at Branchville High School.

“It smelled like a brand new car with the upholstered seats,” he said.

When star guard John Roche hit a game-winning jumper against Auburn to dedicate the building, a true diehard was born.

“I’ve been hooked ever since, and I’ve always wanted to be close to the action,” Thompson said, in a gentlemanly Southern voice that seems at odds with his maniacal persona.

MAN OF MYSTERY

His theatrical cheering — impossible to miss from any vantage point in the arena — has made him somewhat of a man of mystery for the Gamecock faithful. Everyone knows who he is, but they don’t seem to know anything about him.

The rumors have abounded: He’s a millionaire. He’s a vagrant. He’s a mystical shaman.

Judi Thompson has heard them all, and she laughs.

“He’s just a suburban Joe,” said Judi, his wife of 35 years. “He’s a regular guy. We live in a regular house. We have a mortgage, kids, pets and jobs.”

They live in Elgin, where she runs an income tax business out of the house. He’s a nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at Dorn VA Medical Center, where he has worked for 24 years after getting a nursing degree from USC in 1982. They have two sons, Greg, 32, a lawyer with a wife and two daughters in New Orleans, and Nic, 25, a guitarist on the local music scene.

To the garnet-and-black throng, though, he’s Baseline Jesus, a nickname he believes started years ago from a series of pictures that a Clemson fan posted on a Web site. It’s a nickname he has embraced — as he has with his other nickname of The Stomper.

“I’m trying to support the team and get the fans involved. I’m a big believer in the fans and how the team can feed off the crowd,” said Thompson.

His intensity burns whether the Gamecocks are way up or way down. Kim Hudson, USC’s all-time winningest volleyball coach during her 12-year run from 1993-2005, loved Thompson’s never-say-die spirit.

“He’s a big fan, it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. And he does it without getting anything back,” said Hudson, now a vice president with Coldwell Banker Real Estate. “I always appreciated what he provided for USC athletics. It’s the purest form of support.”

Her players especially appreciated the consistency of his devotion, which was rewarded one season with a plaque at the annual banquet.

“When you play on a Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock, the people who are there really care about you,” she said.

One team’s loyal fan is another team’s annoyance. A rule in the SEC is designed to limit his movements on the sidelines.

“It was clearly an advantage for us,” she said.

Thompson notes that many USC coaches and athletic officials have been kind to him over the years, specifically mentioning Hudson, Susan Walvius, Dave Odom, Nancy Wilson and Mike McGee. The pep band once gave him one of their shirts to wear and has paid more than a few musical tributes to him.

He admits that his upfront style probably isn’t admired by all USC fans. “I know there are people who think it’s ridiculous, but I’m just trying to get the fans involved. I love Gamecocks’ sports,” he said.

Teresa Galassie, a fellow staff nurse at the VA, makes out the work schedules that allow Thompson to attend so many of the games. She doesn’t ever mind switching her schedule with his because he’s so easy to support.

“He’s one of the best nurses there, one of the most caring. He’s as passionate about his nursing as he is about the Gamecocks. He makes sure whatever needs to be done is done right,” Galassie said.

Thompson’s caring nature carries over to USC games as well. He routinely makes sure a regular group of friends — anywhere from four to 10 of them and most with special needs — get to seats safely before each game. He also ensures they have what they need to be comfortable, from food and programs to posters and pompoms.

It’s a group of people that Eddie Kester, the longtime ticket broker who can be seen outside of many USC athletic events, assembled, and one that Thompson has gladly jumped in to assist. Kester makes sure the group has tickets, and they move into their prominent spots each game.

Odom acknowledges what the group does for his team.

“There’s always a leader of every team, and he’s the leader of the baseline crowd,” Odom said. “No group is more loyal. No group is more enthusiastic.”

Nell Fowler, the little old red-haired lady who has sat next to Thompson at many games for about 10 years as part of this circle, says his kindness is what makes him special.

“He’s like a family member,” she said.

A NEVER-ENDING PASSION

The two best stories about Thompson come from 30 years ago. One, he tells, about the first time he met David Williams, who would become his fellow superfan in USC sporting circles. They shared a ride in a car to Washington, D.C., with political activist Brett Bursey in 1974 to attend a protest calling for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

“He was so aggravating on that trip,” Thompson said. “But we were friends ever since.”

The other story, his wife tells, about his last haircut, which occurred at some point in the late ’70s. It seems the haircut actually led to him being named Employee of the Month at the State Hospital.

“But it wasn’t him,” she said. “This is him. I can’t imagine him doing it differently.”

Thompson’s Gamecock glory is never-ending. In one room at his house, the walls are covered with Gamecock memorabilia. He always manages to work Cocky into any holiday decorations at his work. The flags he waves — he’s on his fourth in 10 years — have been given to him by friends. One year the women’s basketball team presented him with one on Senior Day.

His passion can be a little too strong at times. Once he heckled Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt so hard that an official came over and told him he had to cool it.

He can’t go many places — even the grocery store — without being recognized by USC fans. He’s also instantly recognized by opposing fans when he travels to Clemson or Georgia. And, of course, the ESPN cameras always seem to find him during televised games.

Like many Carolina fans, he misses the boisterous, compact atmosphere of the old Coliseum, which the Colonial Center can’t duplicate.

“I’ve learned to love this place, but it doesn’t have the same feeling as the Coliseum. It’s too big, and it’s never packed,” he said. “When I used to walk into the Coliseum, I felt like it was magic. I felt such a part of the Coliseum.”

Judi last attended a basketball game — out of the blue — in the Coliseum during the 1997 season. She saw the Gamecocks defeat Auburn, which just happened to start their run to the SEC championship. Thompson still credits her for the streak. But he also knows he tests her patience at times with his dedication.

“She thinks I’m quite a bit obsessive with it. Sometimes it becomes an issue. ‘My little hobby,’ she calls it,” he said.

Judi, though, can accept his longtime affair with the Gamecocks as only an understanding spouse can.

“There are times he’s unreasonable about it,” she said. “But that’s OK. He’s unreasonable about a lot of things.”

So she loves him anyway?

“Since I’m going to be quoted, yes.”

A whole lot of Gamecocks feel the same way.

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