A Day In The Life Of The Families ... At The Games

The day was hot; the excitement in the air was electric. It was the first game of the 2003 Gamecock football season. For a dyed-in-the wool Yankee (who was used to sweater weather football before moving to the South), I never thought that the warmth of the August sun would hold as fond a place in my football heart as the crisp air and falling leaves of autumn games in the colder climate ...

As I drove from Chucktown into Columbia for the ULL game, I decided to drive past Williams-Brice in the early morning instead of taking the highway straight through to my daughter's house. Along my sojourn on Bluff Road I could smell the wonderful aroma of Bojangles chicken frying, see the banners and flags all in place at the stadium, greet early die-hard tailgaters spiking their juice with their hooch of choice and raising toasts to our team, the Fighting Gamecocks of South Carolina. I waved to my fellow fans along the way.

Ah, yes. What better a place to be than Columbia during football season! But this particular day was not to be all play for me. I was given a really tough writing assignment from the Big Kahuna of Gamecock Insiders, Russ Perry. He asked that I join Trish Thompson, mother of defensive end, Moe, and see firsthand how the families of our team players view Gamecock football by sitting among them in the stands.

As many of you have already read here on Gamecock Insiders, I met Trish and Linda Levey (mother of offensive lineman Jabari) at Coach Holtz's Ladies Clinic in July. Trish claims I "jumped into her lap" for her interview that I needed to write for my story. Hey! I was just doing my job, right? Ha! We have since become friends and football buddies.

Trish agreed to meet me at the fairgrounds where my family tailgates, so that I could follow her before, during and after this, the first game of the season against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns.

Things to know about Trish before I continue:

1. She is the mother of four wonderful young men; Moe is the youngest.
2. She is the consummate Gamecock den mother and fan.
3. She is an entrepreneur, who is launching her very own brand "Mama Dukes Specialty Sauce" for ribs, chicken and anything else you care to smother with its unique, delicious flavor!

At our tailgate spot, while drinking garnet blush champagne out of fluted crystal glasses and gleefully watching Clemson get humiliated by the Georgia Bulldogs on national television, we all heard strains of "GAME!" in the near distance, coming ever closer to our party. A faint cry of "COCKS" resounded back. "Not loud enough!" cried the leader of the cheer, moving ever closer to our spot. Sure enough, it was Trish Thompson bringing us all to our feet and cheering in unison. Linda Levey followed with her family in tow.

After pleasantries and introductions were exchanged, my work began. Of course we all had to visit the Gamecock Insiders tailgate spot across the street at the sheriff's lot and put faces with names, and see old friends, as well. I presented Bethelcock, our resident caterer with a Gamecock apron and hat, which he wore with pride. We could not stay for too long, however. Trish is on a mission before all home games, and she had to be on time to take her spot at the gate when the team entered the stadium.

While hiking up towards the stadium, one of Linda Levey's cousins broke her shoe. Without even giving it a second thought, Trish offered her both of her shoes and walked barefoot on the hot asphalt to the team gate. Double ouch! Trish was a real trooper, never complaining. Once there, she managed to get a pair of sandals from one of the coaches for Linda's cousin to wear. And then she went to work as the team greeter.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure, a few hours before game time, the team enters the stadium at the designated gate. The boys are all dressed up in suits and ties looking like they are ready for prom, not football. With all the scrubbed faces, combed hair and twinkling eyes, it is hard to believe that a few hours later these same young men would take the field in pads, jerseys and helmets with a much different look on their faces.

Trish took her post at the entrance gate, and as the team members processed in, she was there to kiss and hug them for good luck. Many players' family members were there as well, cheering their boys to victory with high fives, kisses and crossed fingers. Some family members wore pins with the picture of their player and team number prominently displayed.

Trish needed to see someone in the coaching office and asked me to join her. While in the facilities area of Williams-Brice, I got a first hand look at the workout room (huge!) and the Heisman Room, which houses both Outback Bowls as well as a huge picture of George Rogers, former Gamecock and Heisman recipient. What an impressive sight!

Players were in the halls chatting with one another before going into the locker rooms and preparing to play. Positive energy and good vibes were felt all around.

There are many Walls of Fame inside the stadium's interior. Pictures of former and present Gamecocks adorn the many walls and tunnels throughout. A blank slate of 2003 highlights and individual achievements board hangs waiting to be appropriately filled in. I visualized all of the great moments to come in the season ahead.

After Trish finished talking with Coach Roberts, we made our way to our seats on the 50-yard line. Carolina Classics were seen everywhere, escorting team families and potential recruits to their seats. People were scurrying about, hugging other team member parents, exchanging news, playing "catch up" with one another.

Trish acted as an ambassador of sorts. She knew everyone there in our section, and she saw to it that everyone had places to sit, were properly hydrated and ready to cheer our Gamecocks on to victory.

And then the team warm-ups began. As soon as the first sight of a garnet clad Gamecock ran through the tunnel, all families were on their feet, screaming their boy's name, waving, cheering and crying. I joined them on my feet yelling and clapping in anticipation of the great season ahead.

I sat behind Travelle Wharton's family members, who all held pictures of him while waving them in the air as he took his spot leading in the team exercises. He waved back and threw a kiss. It was so much fun to watch the support for these kids from the families.

Of course our whole group stood and cheered loudly when Moe took the field. Sitting with mother Trish and his brothers, we were sure to make a whole lot of noise ourselves!

Seated next to me was the family of a new offensive lineman, number 71, William Brown. It was the family's first game ever at the Cockpit. I told his mother Connie that the 2001 entrance was something to behold in person. William's little sister was all decked out as a Gamecock cheerleader, and Connie was poised with the camcorder to catch all of the excitement of a first game.

As the band took its place near the tunnel and cries of "GAME!" "COCKS!" led by our cheerleaders filled the air, I looked from my seat (closer to the field than I've ever sat at a game), up to the above sections and was in awe as I watched the sold-out crowd jump to it's feet and scream our signature cheer.

I observed those around me instead of the pageantry on the field for the first time ever. It was well worth it. It is a different feeling when sitting among the Gamecock families. I sensed a camaraderie and kinship that goes way beyond that of a regular fan. I watched the potential recruits looking all around and anticipating what was to happen next, pointing to the tunnel and clapping their hands. I watched William Brown's little sister ask what was going on in and around Cocky's covered perch (although she had no idea what it was) I told her not to take her eyes off of it.

Then it started. The strains of 2001. Our finest moment at any Gamecock event. I watched the Louisiana Lafayette Ragin' Cajun mascot look all around, shaking his head in disbelief at what he was witnessing. Some opposing team members came out on the sidelines to watch, obviously not satisfied with being left out of this. When the opening was underway, I could not hear another single thing as our boys ran through the smoke filled tunnel. I thought I was rendered momentarily deaf!

Once the kickoff got underway and the game began, we all settled into our seats to watch the game. For the most part, the families seated around me were like most any other fans. That is, until they had an extra special reason to cheer!

As the game progressed and we watched our Gamecocks become victorious, it was clear to me that the families of our team are the thread that holds our USC football quilt together. These are loving, yet very focused people who support their children and brothers by attending the games and showing their unwavering support.

The coaches and university are fortunate indeed to have the positive influences of such families as part of the USC community. I feel privileged to have been part of their world, even if for only one game.

After it was over, Trish needed to find Moe and give him a big congratulatory and supportive hug. Many other family members followed suit, chatting about carpooling to the Georgia game and planning all the others ahead.

As I left the protected area and observed all that was around me, I felt very blessed indeed. Blessed to be a part of a fan base that turns out for every game and sells them out at home every year; win or lose. Blessed that our coaches really care about our team members and families. Blessed to know that as long as I live, I will be a part of this special community and never give up my season tickets for any reason!

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