Both my father's parents had North Carolina roots, but life had taken them far from their southern origins. My father's career in the military took him even farther. So in 1969 when he was given his choice of last duty stations as an Air Force officer, he chose to go home to a state he had not lived in since he was seven, and chose Pope Air Force Base outside Fayetteville as the last stop on his twenty year tour.
For me, it was a homecoming to a place I had never been before, and I immediately took to the southern way of life; but it wasn't until eight years later when I moved to Columbia as a freshman at the University of South Carolina that I truly found home. And the final football game of that 1977 season cemented in me the passion for the game that burns to this day.
Roots are important to a military brat. They are shipped around the country and sometimes even to other countries with their parents. I spent two years in Canada before coming south. Being uprooted to a new place every year or two makes one long for a place where roots can grow deep. Moving to a place from which we wouldn't have to move again, the state where my ancestors had lived, was an exciting proposition for me when I was ten.
I never dreamed I would ever leave the place where my father settled down and still resides today, but a fateful visit to Columbia changed all that.
I had a skip day left for the purpose of visiting colleges, and I came to Columbia. I had always thought I would go to Chapel Hill, but Henry Price, the dean of the journalism school at USC at the time, stepped in and changed my history. The folks scheduled to escort the visiting high school students were unavailable when I got there. So Dr. Price took time from his busy schedule to sell one visiting high school student on not only how great the J school here was, but also the university. He gave me a personal tour of the school and even walked with me over to the Horseshoe, sharing the whole time his passion for this great institution. He made a sale that day, and it was a sale I have never regretted.
I entered high school at a lanky 6'0" and 129 pounds, and it soon became clear that genetics had precluded me from being a football star. I quickly shifted gears and became a fan of the game, following both my high school team, the 71st Falcons, and the home state Tar Heels. Kenan stadium in the mid-seventies was nice, but it could not compare to the atmosphere at Williams-Brice stadium I found as a USC freshman. Even in those pre-SEC days, when only one of the upper decks was built, the place rocked beyond imagination.
I began to live for game days on Saturday. I made my first road trip that season as a reporter for The Gamecock student newspaper to Chapel Hill, and was disappointed when my new team lost to my old one. But I really didn't understand Carolina football until November 19, 1977, the day of my first Carolina-Clemson game.
The more senior staff member of the paper of course got the privilege of covering the biggest game of the season, but I was quite happy to be sitting in the student section and be immersed in the electric atmosphere. The visitors in orange and white went up 24-0, and hope seemed lost. Then the Gamecocks began one of the most thrilling comebacks in school history, methodically chipping away at the Clemson lead until the hearts of those wearing garnet and black almost burst with joy when they took a 27-24 lead late in the game. I had never been so into a football game as I was that day.
With 49 seconds left in the game, Clemson wide receiver Jerry Butler made a diving, backwards, 20-yard touchdown reception on a pass from quarterback Steve Fuller that gave the Tigers the 31-27 victory. I looked around at my fellow Gamecocks in the stunned student section, with whom I had shared the thrill of the comeback, and now shared the quiet gloom of victory snatched cruelly away at the last moment.
"The Catch" remains one of the most memorable plays in the storied rivalry, and though my team lost that day, I was forever hooked, bonded with my fellow Gamecocks by the joy and the sorrow all experienced in that one fateful afternoon.
Two years later, I didn't get tickets in the student lottery when the game returned to Columbia, but I managed to procure two tickets almost on the 50 from a friend. I spent that fall going to all the games with a vivacious redhead named Barbara. On the Monday before the game, I was offered $100 each for the tickets, a princely sum in those days for a poor college student. With a whole week to make it happen, I was sure I could come up with some other tickets at a better price and make a nice profit, so I agreed to sell them. To my horror, I was unable to buy tickets at any price to replace the ones I sold, and Barbara and I stood outside the stadium listening to the game on the radio and hearing the crowd roar as USC won 13-9 in another classic game. Barbara never forgave me, and that was the last game we ever went to together. In January I began dating the wonderful girl I eventually married, so it all worked out. I can assure you, however, that I never went without tickets to the Clemson game again.
Saturday will be my 31st Carolina-Clemson game, and my third back in the press box since returning to the media. I have been immersed in the thrill of many Carolina-Clemson games in the ensuing years, from Brad Edwards's game saving pick six to staying until the final whistle of 63-17. But this time of year, my heart always goes back to that thrilling afternoon in 1977 when I experienced the joy and the heartbreak of Carolina-Clemson football, all in one afternoon.
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