ANYONE WHO HAS fallen in love with college football remembers the moment the affair began. Mine budded as a kid when I arrived hours before kickoff for football games at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo.
Because Dad gained admission before the gates opened, I got to tag along, and the stadium was mine – to frolic, to explore, to suck in the scent of hotdogs being prepared. Mostly, though, I remember making my way through the tunnel beneath the west stands to walk on the field.
There was no greater glory for an 8-year-old than to run onto a football field in an empty stadium, before 20,000 or so fans arrived, and imagine the sounds of them cheering. Unless, of course, I could help with the game preparation. That is what I did, accompanying team managers or trainers or both who placed some 25 footballs before every game at various pre-determined spots on the field.
I have long since forgotten how many balls went where on the field, but I still recall the joy in knowing that I somehow contributed to the pregame warm-up of my beloved Wyoming Cowboys. OK, I also took credit to my friends back home when Wyoming won. (Hey, they could not have warmed up without my contribution!)
That innocent love as a youngster eventually fades. Yet, when it comes to college football in the state of South Carolina, that love for the game seems to endure, seemingly forever. The scratch never seems to satisfy the itch. Those 12 Saturdays from August to November can be the best dozen days of the year, even better than Christmas and birthdays, yours or your relatives.
The infatuation with the game has grown so epidemic in this state that fans no longer schedule weddings during football season. To those who are not fans and are determined to buck the sacredness of the game for those sacred vows, well, they just might have a wedding that few attend.
It used to be that fans marked the opening game of each football season with a date cemented in their brain, knowing at all times that kickoff was six weeks away, or five weeks away, or four weeks away. Today, the ardent fan goes to an Internet site and knows exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds until South Carolina meets Texas A&M on Thursday at Williams-Brice Stadium, or Clemson faces Georgia on Saturday at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
Fans are consumed, year-round. It is a never-ending obsession of planning and digesting, from what to eat at tailgate parties to what Brendan Nosovitch’s move from quarterback to tight end means to USC’s offense.
Frankly, trying to quantify or adequately capture the love affair South Carolinians have with college football and all of its surrounding pomp and circumstance is an impossible task. So, the following stories are a small attempt to show how much folks fancy the game.
We tried to capture that devotion to the game through five individuals who were reared on the game and have lived and breathed it throughout their entire lives. Doc Blanchard is the only native South Carolinian to win the Heisman Trophy. Danny Ford grew up on Alabama football. He helped foster the same fanaticism Alabamans have for the game among the Clemson fan base. Willie Jeffries made certain blacks loved the game as well during his two coaching stints at South Carolina State. Art Baker was weaned on football in South Carolina and later was the coach at both Furman and The Citadel. Finally, the love of the game oozes from Byron Vaigneur of the tiny Jackson community hard by the Georgia state line when he tells tales of his collection of more than 200 autographed footballs.
Blanchard died in 2009. The others keep in touch with the game, mostly as fans these days. Ford is likely to be sitting on a tractor on his farm near Clemson on football Saturdays. That is where he listens on the radio to the games he cannot attend. Jeffries goes to most S.C. State games, and you can sometimes find him in Section K at Dawson Stadium in Orangeburg. Baker can be found analyzing the game from the press box at every USC home game. Vaigneur does not miss a Clemson game on TV.
For all, like fans across the state, college football is in their blood. And if you do not believe the game has a hold on the populace in South Carolina, keep count of how many times this fall that football is mentioned from the pulpit during your Sunday church services.