High School Sports

Camden's 80-year-old Zemp Stadium continues to make history

CAMDEN - Seventy-five minutes before kickoff, the classic black-and-gold Zemp Stadium slowly shows signs of life.

The concession stand, with its "No Loitering" sign out front, is humming inside with people preparing food. The Spirit Shack, which sells Camden High football gear, is open for business.

With Kershaw County rival Lugoff-Elgin in town, the requisite "Beat Lugoff" sign is taped to the front of the home bleachers, as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" pumps through the public-address system.

The first wave of students and parents strolls through the gates, with nearly all of them wearing T-shirts adorned with slogans pledging their allegiance to the hometown school:

"WE are CAMDEN!"

"100% BULLDOG."

"Once a Bulldog, Always a Bulldog."

Zemp Stadium, with its seating capacity of 8,000, remains the Friday night social center in town - 80 years after being built in 1929. That makes it the oldest active-use high school football stadium in South Carolina.

History? Lots of it.

Above the press box hangs a wooden, replica No. 10 jersey worn by quarterback Billy Ammons. Ammons led the Bulldogs to the state championship in 1964 and coached them to another title in 1990, one of 26 seasons (1972-1997) he served as coach.

The school has won seven titles in all (1931, '36, '44, '57, '64, '90 and 2001), a fact that's proudly noted on the stadium scoreboard. Two of the championships (1936 and '57) were won in Zemp Stadium. The Bulldogs were unbeaten in each of their championship seasons.

The program boasts 40 Shrine Bowl players and championship coaches such as John Villepigue, Lindsay Pierce, Red Lynch, Ammons and, currently, Jimmy Neal.

Two longtime NFL standouts, receiver Bobby Engram (1991) and defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday ('94), starred under Ammons. For the historic town of 7,000, football is a unifying force.

"That's the biggest key. One town, one team," says Ammons, now the school's assistant principal. "People and merchants aren't pulled in different directions. We get support from the entire Camden community."

A key component

As another Friday night begins to unfold, Lindsay Jennings takes it all from his domain in the press box. He calls himself "the keeper of the keys," but he's much more. Following his 85-yard-old father, Dargan Jennings, he has continued the family legacy of making sure things run smoothly on game nights.

Ammons says that whenever he needed something, the first call he made was to the Jennings family, because he knew they would help. He recalls the countless number of hours they've devoted to helping make Zemp Stadium a better place.

Dargan Jennings, who has a framed picture of a Bulldog from a 1969 Camden booster banquet dedicated to him hanging in the press box, comes to home games and sits in the top row at the 50-yard line. A 1942 Camden High graduate and former football player, he served in the Air Force for three years, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a chemistry degree and returned home to Camden to work at DuPont for 33 years.

But just as much of his life's work is wrapped up in Zemp Stadium, named for longtime supporter Blakeney Zemp.

"I just love it. I grew up in Camden. It's home, and I love football," says Dargan, who belts out the national anthem being played by the Bulldog band. He passed along that affection to Lindsay, a 1978 graduate.

"He takes after his daddy," Dargan says. "He loves it, too."

Lindsay loves it for the same reason that everybody in Camden does.

"It's still small-town football," he says. "It's what you live for on Friday nights."

Lindsay Jennings also loves that it's one of the few fields left that isn't surrounded by a track, which puts the fans closer to the action.

"It's cozy, and it's kind of intimidating," he says.

The Bulldogs have intimidated plenty of opponents over the years, a story that is told in a visit to the press box, where framed pictures of the best teams and their schedules line the walls, including one of the 1931 team.

One photo features Engram making a game-winning, one-handed touchdown catch in overtime against Hartsville in 1990, a favorite memory for many. Led by Engram, quarterback Andre Carter, receiver Kerry Hayes and defensive end Shawn Elliott, the Bulldogs went 15-0 to claim the Class 3A title, a season that included a victory against Class 4A champion Sumter.

Those memories still propel Camden fans, who cheer their kids as they take the field through the haze created by a fog machine while Tom Hedden's composition "A New Game" blares over the P.A.

Lounging in his bed in the press box is Champ, the bulldog mascot that belongs to coach Jimmy Neal and his wife, Nancy, the assistant band director.

"It's a family affair," Nancy says.

She is bringing Champ, named by the student body, up to rest after her pregame tour of the stadium, during which she receives a queen's welcome each week.

Family and history

With the stands nearly full on both sides of the stadium - many L-E fans have made the short trip - the teams hook up in a scoreless matchup for most of the first half.

When a Camden receiver drops a pass, the L-E students start a chant of "But-ter fing-ers! But-ter fing-ers!" The Demons strike first with 6:45 to play in the second quarter to take a 7-0 lead at the half.

Nobody sitting on the Camden side personifies the long, proud history of the school's football program than the tall gentleman walking up the steps at halftime to his midfield seat.

John Speaks played tackle for the 1957 championship team, which finished 10-0-2 and defeated Lancaster at Zemp in the title game.

Speaks and his wife, Nancy, put five kids through Camden High. Three of the boys played varsity football and a daughter was as a cheerleader. For nearly 15 years, they never missed a game. On this night, their oldest son, Robbie, a 1982 graduate, is on the sideline as a Camden assistant coach, and their grandson Tripp is a reserve sophomore receiver.

"Watching my grandson is the biggest thrill I've got," John says.

The attachment to the old place remains strong for everyone who walked the halls of Camden High, and not just former football greats.

"When you come back to Camden, you want to go to Zemp Stadium to see a football game," John says.

The stadium, which sits along U.S. 521 on the way into downtown from I-20, has produced more than its share of dramatic moments.

The 1936 championship win over Honea Path came on Thanksgiving Day.

The 1964 season featured a regular-season showdown against fellow unbeaten Eau Claire, a titanic struggle won by the Bulldogs 7-0 that's considered perhaps the greatest game played at Zemp.

"It was an incredible setting with the crowd," Ammons says. "People were on top of the stadium, in the trees, on top of the concession stand."

Camden surrendered one touchdown all season and stopped Eau Claire three times inside the 10-yard line.

But the 1990 Upper State championship game against Daniel filled the stadium like no other.

"They say there was over 10,000 people in here," Lindsay Jennings says.

Still, the moment every Bulldog fan remembers occurred during a 2001 playoff game against Wilson.

Staring at a loss with nine seconds remaining, Camden's Kelvin Grant returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown on the final play to lift the Bulldogs to a 19-17 win and save a season that ended with a 15-0 record and a state championship. There is a stadium plaque commemorating the "Nine Second Miracle on South Broad Street."

The Bulldog faithful have experienced thick and thin, but Zemp has stood strong, surviving the wrath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. One light pole snapped, others were twisted, and the scoreboard was damaged as the storm cut a swath through the stadium. Today, however, it's as solid as ever, thanks to a 1997 building campaign that resulted in new home-side stands, a press box and a locker room.

Yet tradition continues to loom large, even on a night when the home team is watching the game slip away by a 24-6 count to its county rivals. The Demons - who were dominated in the series, with Camden winning 24 of the first 26 games - are finishing off their fourth consecutive win against the Bulldogs.

As that is happening, John Thompson stands guard at the Old Wateree Mill Bell in the south end zone under the scoreboard. Donated in 1961 by the Kendall Co., the bell is rung by Camden cheerleaders after every home-team score. Thompson, a large man who serves as principal of the alternative academy, is going to make sure L-E students don't get any bright ideas.

"They'll have to come through me. I saw their T-shirts," says Thompson, noting the red shirts that state "Beat Camden" on the front and "Ring This Bell!" on the back.

The rivalry, friendly but hard-fought, isn't immune from pranks. Lindsay Jennings keeps a picture in the press box of the bell painted red and blue to remind him of the importance of defeating the Demons.

Even with the loss, Camden senior quarterback Josh Council, who led the Bulldogs to a state championship in basketball last season, is disappointed but keeps his head up. He understands the importance of what has come before him and tries his best to carry on the tradition.

"It feels really good to play at Camden High," Council says. "I love playing in this stadium. All our coaches played here, our principal, our assistant principal. It pumps us up to play here."

He points to a sign hanging over the locker room door. It states, "Play Like A Champion Today."

Robbie Mays, who handles the radio play-by-play for KOOL 102.7 and maintains CamdenBulldogs.com, loves taking it all in from his perch in the press box. A history major at USC, where he will graduate in December, he appreciates the uniquely sentimental surroundings.

"There are so many great things that have happened at this stadium," Mays says. "Other places have built state-of-the-art places, but we're still here with all this history."

Ammons expects it to stay that way.

"Just the fact that all of our townspeople played at that same stadium means something," he says. "We've always stayed right there, and it has a lot of meaning for a lot of folks."