It took a lifetime to happen. But in her first visit to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, a terminally ill fan experienced South Carolina football in a way that few people will in their lifetimes.
Tears welled in Gloria Butler’s eyes as she hugged Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp, quarterback Jake Bentley and other players before Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. The tears dried and became smiles and shouts of joy as the players thundered past Butler and onto the field to the sound of “2001” and more than 76,000 roaring fans.
“This has always been my dream, and I wouldn’t ask for nothing more than this right here,” Butler, 69, said after being pushed in a wheelchair down the Gamecock Walk before the game. “I’m just glad I got to see it before my life ended.”
The Laurens County resident and lifelong Gamecocks fan was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in August. Doctors said cancer treatments, on top of other health issues, would only shorten Butler’s life, said her daughter, Mandy Power. She was given six months to a year to live.
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So, Power and her fiancee set out to make her mother’s dream of attending a South Carolina football game come true. After posting a video on Facebook of her mother’s tearful reaction to getting tickets to the Texas A&M game as a birthday present, Power said she was inundated with messages of support and offerings for her mother’s game-day experience.
Butler and her family started the day visiting some friends in the tailgating lots and with a tour of the practice facility. After stopping at the hospitality tent, they were taken by former Gamecocks defensive lineman Ulric Jones to the Gamecock Walk.
Motivated by the death of his grandmother last summer after she fell ill and was given a short time to live, Jones heard about Butler’s story and wanted to help make her day memorable. He arranged a trip down the Gamecock Walk for Butler, a tour of the field and stadium, and a visit and photo opportunity with Gamecock legend and Heisman winner George Rogers.
Fans cheered and reached their hands out for high-fives as Butler rolled down the Gamecock Walk. She sat by the entrance to the team locker room and hugged or shook hands with many of the players as they entered.
“It’s great to have you here,” Muschamp said, bending down to hug Butler. “You better pull us through.”
On the field, Butler and her family got to walk around and take pictures with Jones, whom she called her “big guy.”
“I’m doing my best not to break down crying,” Jones said. “I’m doing everything in my power to make sure, if this is her last experience, it’s her best experience.”
In addition to greeting the players as they entered the locker room, meeting Cocky, taking pictures with Rogers and being escorted around the field by Jones, Butler also met Athletics Director Ray Tanner and her all-time favorite South Carolina football player: Marcus Lattimore.
“You know how long I’ve waited for that one there?” Butler said, wiping tears from her eyes after meeting Lattimore in a video posted to Power’s Facebook page.
They signed a football that was used by the team in practice and gave it to her, Power said.
Kim Fields, assistant director of football operations and an assistant to Muschamp, arranged a sideline pass for Butler after learning of her story.
As game time neared, Butler and her family relocated to the tunnel through which the players enter the field for each game. Butler was “inches” from the players as they ran through the smoke and onto the field, Power said.
Before the pregame fanfare, which includes fire shooting out of four units at the tunnel’s end, the tech who operates the fire display spoke with Butler, whose birthday was three days earlier.
“He told her he was fixing to light those for her birthday, that it was her birthday candles,” Power recalled.
In a video posted to Power’s Facebook page, Butler screams and grins, twirling a white towel above her head as the Gamecocks run onto the field.
At halftime, Power said, Fields came and got Butler and her family from their seats and took them to the patio by Muschamp’s office in the stadium’s north endzone. There they watched the rest of the game, and Butler was given a football jersey just like the ones worn by the players. It had Butler’s name and the number 49 — her birth year — and was signed by the coaching staff.
The game ended in a heartbreaking fashion for the Gamecocks, who fell 26-23 to the Aggies.
USC staffers apologized to Butler and Power for the outcome. But for Power — who put going to a USC game with her mother at the top of her list after learning their time together was limited — seeing her mother finally experience game day, the fireworks before the game and the white towels twirling in the air meant more than the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the night.
“She felt like royalty,” Power said. “Anything she wanted or asked for, they were willing to give it. She felt so good and had such an eventful day, she was asleep five minutes into our drive (home).”
Butler, whose bedroom is covered with Gamecock memorabilia, said she will start covering the walls of her second bedroom with garnet and black souvenirs for her grandchildren.
“All of the Gamecock people here have been great,” she said Saturday. “All of them have showed their support toward me.”
Her voice started to crack.
“I just hate that my time’s running out, because I would love to be a part of this for the rest of my life.”