Clemson University

Spotlight forever on rivalry's QBs

Clemson's William "Refrigerator" Perry barrels down on USC quarterback Mike Hold during the 1984 game, a 22-21 Gamecocks victory.
Clemson's William "Refrigerator" Perry barrels down on USC quarterback Mike Hold during the 1984 game, a 22-21 Gamecocks victory.

Players covered the emerald field at Death Valley during pregame warm-ups on that November Saturday in 1986, and fans with a sharp eye might have noticed a brief meeting between two of the featured performers in the USC-Clemson game.

An accident of timing brought the quarterbacks together, and the Gamecocks' Todd Ellis and the Tigers' Rodney Williams exchanged greetings.

"We made some small talk, but then one of us said, 'Do you realize that we're the most powerful people in the state of South Carolina right now?' " Ellis says. "That's a true story, and that's a true statement.

"The quarterbacks in that game hold the emotions of so many people in their hands. They literally do. No statesman or politician could have the same impact. Those who play quarterback realize that."

Carolina's Stephen Garcia and Clemson's Kyle Parker assume those roles for the first time Saturday, and they discover what all who have played the position learned : The game means so much to so many, and the spotlight forever shines on the quarterback.

"We probably all say at the time that it's just another game, but we know that some games are more important than others," says Charlie Bussey, Clemson's quarterback from 1954-56.

"Everybody tries to make it more than 'just another game,' and it is," echoes Garry Harper, the Gamecocks' quarterback in 1979 and 1980. "Maybe a loss is not the end of the world, but it feels like it at the time."

Preparation is pretty much the same, but outside influences create added pressure, says Ellis, a four-year starter (1986-89) who missed the Carolina-Clemson game his senior year with a knee injury.

"That late in the season, you're used to the routine of game-week preparation, so that's no different," he says. "More pressure comes from external aspects. The week of the Clemson game, you meet people and they will ask, 'Are you ready?' "

Harvey White, Clemson quarterback from 1957-59, concurs.

"Of course, both teams have a lot riding on the game," he says. "For the fans, it's bragging rights for another year, and believe me, that (feeling) comes back to the players. Players know what's at stake, and there has always been a lot of emotion."

The Big Thursday tradition - playing in Columbia on Thursday of state fair week - ended with the 1959 game, but the change to a home-and-home series did nothing to cool the emotions.

"You obviously want to win every game, but this one is even more so," says Steve Fuller, Clemson quarterback from 1975-78. "The game was and is special to the players and the fans."

The Tigers have dominated the series in recent years, rolling up a 24-8-1 advantage in the 33 games since Carolina humiliated Clemson 56-20 in 1975. Theories abound to explain the difference.

Some contend the game means more to Clemson, that the Tigers emphasize winning the game and play with more emotion. Others say the Gamecocks have been beaten up by their SEC schedule.

"I can't imagine one school making the game bigger than the other school," Bussey says. "I can't believe one team wants to win it more. I know some people say it's not as important as a conference game, but I can't imagine anything more important that your state rival game."

Fuller, whose teams started Clemson's streak of domination in 1976, says the Tigers' motivation came from their 2-9 record in 1975 and not the drubbing administered by the Gamecocks.

"That season was all the motivation we needed to work hard in the offseason," he says. "We had some really good football players who could make plays."

Mike Hold, Carolina quarterback from 1984-85, grew up on the West Coast and initially did not understand the emotions involved throughout the state, but he grew to appreciate the importance. He calls the schedule a factor.

"For whatever reason, Clemson seems to struggle early then gets the kinks ironed out and gets stronger," he says. "Carolina has been the opposite, and mentally (a losing streak) plays on a player. Losing three or four in a row, and you're not on top of the world emotionally, and emotion and psyche play such a big role."

Harper looks at the big picture and says, "It's an incredible, extraordinary opportunity to play at that level, but what is lost (among frustrated fans) is that these are 20-, 21-year-old kids. Everybody wants to win; nobody wants to win more than the players."

Still, USC's struggles in the series leave him searching for an explanation.

"I have wondered for 30 years," he says. "For one thing, to my knowledge, no Carolina coach has called in a former player to talk about the game and what it means. I have been a motivational speaker for 30 years, and no one has called me. I think Clemson goes to greater lengths to emphasize the importance of the game.

"There's no question that Carolina is beat up physically and perhaps mentally after 11 weeks against SEC competition, but I can't put my finger of why Carolina is not pumped up more mentally. Attitude and emotion do matter, and if there has been an emotional edge in this game, Clemson has it."

Ellis has a more concrete reason for Clemson's 10-2 streak since 1997. "For the most part, Clemson has had better teams and better players," he says. "The better team usually wins."

But he also sees a change in talent level, noting, "Carolina matches up pretty well this year."

The Tigers will have an edge on the defensive front, USC in its receiving corps. The Gamecocks cannot match Clemson's C.J. Spiller, but the USC defense has strength and speed.

The spotlight, then, will be shining brightly where it always does - on the quarterbacks. Welcome to the rivalry, Stephen Garcia and Kyle Parker. You hold the emotions of so many in your hands.

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