It’s always been about that stadium.
Williams-Brice Stadium was where highway patrolman Charles Elliott, 71, directed traffic every home Saturday. His son, Shawn, would climb to the top deck and wave, jumping up and down with 8-year-old energy that hasn’t left more than 30 years later.
It’s where Shawn played his last high school game, a state championship triumph. It’s where Charles has faithfully stood in the Southwest corner during every home Saturday for a postgame high-five.
It’s where the two again high-fived and embraced Saturday, as Shawn’s dream came true.
“Oh my God, I’m probably going to break down and cry,” said Charles, 71, speaking before his son had his first game as South Carolina’s interim head coach. “Growing up, he’d holler, ‘Daddy, hey Daddy!’ until I would see him from the street and wave. Then when I’d pick him up, he told me, ‘I’m going to play or coach here one day.’ ”
Shawn did both. Charles, mom Barbara and brother Mitch were there each time and an entire town expressed its delight in seeing a local boy done good. Charles manned his sentry-like post so he could slap his son’s hand on Shawn’s way out of the stadium, and beforehand, he broke tradition.
“I went over there when the team came through,” Charles said of the Gamecock Walk before South Carolina played Vanderbilt Saturday. “Never done that. I wanted to see him walk and lead his team.
“And it is his team.”
Mitch Elliott was five years older, so they never played together. Mitch was gifted, a four-year varsity Camden Bulldog, but never had Shawn’s passion.
“Shawn did that because he loved it,” said Mitch, 47, and working for Neptune Technology Group. “I chose not to do it. It was fun, I was good at it, but he just had that drive and always wanted to be in it.”
It was at Camden where Shawn’s legendary intensity was first noticed. Undersized and surrounded by talent, he knew early that he’d have to out-work everybody.
“He was never the biggest, never the fastest, never the strongest,” Mitch said. “He just wanted to win and always played hard.”
Coach Billy Ammons loved Mitch’s talent and thought the family tree had to have sprouted another branch.
“He was just wide-open all the time, it seemed like he had energy bursting forth,” Ammons said of Shawn. “He seemed to never get tired, even on the practice field.”
Mitch enrolled at USC and invited his middle-school brother and his friends to join him one weekend. A group of adolescents tearing around a college dorm, fueled by a Ratt/Cinderella concert, added a chapter to the crazy-man story (“We stayed in those old honeycombs,” Shawn said. “We had a blast!”). One assumes “Hot and Bothered” and “I’m Insane” were played at the show and were on repeat for Shawn’s prep career.
Shawn certainly played crazy at Camden. Like Mitch said, his brother was never that fast or strong; he just wanted it worse than anybody. He was a standout on a 15-0 team that included future NFL stars Bobby Engram and Vonnie Holliday.
“He kind of set the example for the rest of the players,” Ammons said. “That meant a lot to that team. He was not quite the size the Division I schools are looking for, but the coaches told the recruiters, ‘You can’t miss on this guy.’”
A star career at Appalachian State ended and Shawn was ready to move on. He found a good-paying job selling saw blades and bought his own house in Camden. That lasted three months.
“Coach (Jerry) Moore called and asked if he’d be interested in coming back as a graduate assistant coach,” Mitch said. “So he quit and lived in a closet up there, made no money, but was back on the field.”
A defensive player, Shawn settled into coaching offensive line. He developed his pregame tactics – charging into his often quite larger players, unconcerned if he would get a forearm in the teeth.
“I stopped by to watch a practice, and Shawn was in his three-point stance going against his players,” Mitch said. “Not even a helmet on. I wasn’t that worried – not because I didn’t love him – but I figured he was a grown man and knew what he was doing.”
Championships followed, as well as a family. USC was a long way from Shawn’s mind, until he saw the Gamecocks plodding through a listless bowl loss.
Shawn turned to his wife and said, “I can help that team.” A couple of days later, he called Steve Spurrier and told him the same.
Elliott, in his new USC shirt, posed that first day at the same corner where his father, beginning that season, would stand for his high-five. The Gamecocks won a lot and lost a few from 2010-13 and 2014 was a struggle that still ended in a bowl win.
Six games through 2015, USC was going nowhere. Spurrier, tired of the losing, said it was time for a new voice.
Shawn received the call he’d been waiting his life for shortly after. Would he be interested in taking over?
“I talked to him just before he went into his interview,” Mitch said. “The first thing that popped in my head was he always said he’d have an opportunity there.”
“When Spurrier gave him a chance, that was just a miracle,” Charles said. “He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
Shawn knows the odds aren’t great – of turning the season around or of keeping his new job. But he’s already said that while he’d love to be USC’s head coach forever, he’ll certainly take one game, six games, however long they’ll have him.
Saturday was one. There will be another.
Mitch will send the postgame text. Charles and Barbara will be there for the high-five. Camden will be proudly watching.
Shawn’s team – not one he plays for or one helps out with, his team – is playing. He’s back at that stadium.
“It’s not beyond my belief, because I thought he had the guts and spirit and the ambition and the drive to be a head coach. I thought he’d do it anywhere he got a chance,” Charles said. “But he wanted so bad to be at South Carolina.”
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