Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, October 22, 2017, 11:20 a.m.
I never took a note. I never snapped a photo. I didn’t bring any business cards. I went to a football game.
None of the above is unusual for most people. Oh, wait. Maybe it is. Sportswriters, or writers of any kind, for that matter, are not alone in writing, or taking pictures, or spreading the words and the images as far and wide as possible, anymore. Everyone knows the art of 140 characters. I just know the art beyond a little better.
It was Furman University homecoming. It was the first time in a while I’ve been back to clap to the fight song and sing the words I remember to the alma mater. A mountain city is her home / A mountain river laves her feet! Campus, beautiful though it be, is nestled in the foothills, and the mountain river, the Reedy, winds its way through downtown Greenville, where the campus was well over half a century ago. A manmade laaaaake laves her feet!
Most people maintain rich, loving memories of their school, and rally, sons and daughters dear / ’Round our dear alma maaahhhhter! Coincidentally, they are also prone to eating, drinking, and being merry.
One of my more impressive decisions was the realization that, though I loved it, I was really over my head playing football in high school. I was at Furman, first as a student and then working in the sports information office, for most of a decade that was well over three of them ago. It was the golden age of Paladin football, and I was fortunate to be friends with many of the giants who come back to walk the campus now. Mostly, they treat me as if I was somebody, too.
It’s been my impression that, at large schools, homecoming is, yes, a grand event, but still just another home game, the stadium no more packed than usual, though the big schools typically tilt the odds by playing a school they anticipate defeating, and homecoming may pack a house that otherwise might be fringed with empty seats.
The schools that I frequent – Furman, my dear alma maahhhter, and Presbyterian, the hometown college – are populated on homecomings with throngs of people who don’t get back every week but do so diligently for homecoming.
The Paladins, coached now by Clay Hendrix, played the Mercer Bears, coached by Bobby Lamb. Clay and Bobby once played guard and quarterback, respectively, for a Furman team that advanced to the Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship game in 1985. They also played guard and quarterback, respectively, in high school down in Commerce, Georgia. Bobby is a former Furman head coach. Clay is in his first year, having been lured back to dear alma maahhhter this year from the Air Force Academy, where he coached the offensive line for 10 years and was associate head coach for seven.
It was a marvelous game. Furman won, 28-21, and it was in doubt until the final desperation Mercer aerial was intercepted in the end zone. Clay lost in the final seconds of each of his first two games as Furman head coach. Then North Carolina State throttled the Paladins, as expected. Now the team has won five straight games and is 4-1 in the Southern Conference.
Many drinks were hoisted. Many tales were told. The day was long and rewarding. Fifty-somethings became twenty-somethings. This the grueling nature of the weekend required.
I hesitate to mention names because I would leave some out, and I’m sure I’d have to mention a hundred to do it justice, plus, there’s the matter of my not taking any photos. I was weary when I got there because I had tramped around covering a fruitless high school game on the road the night before and didn’t get much sleep ruminating about it. My right knee and leg were acting up, so it probably helped, if not medically then subconsciously, to lubricate them. Perception may not be reality, but it helps.
Many tales, some with a considerable degree of truth, were told. I, in fact, told many of them. I renewed acquaintances with people I saw last month and people I saw last century. I drank beer from Costco and beer from Germany. Though the exemplary young men of today gave a concerted effort on offense and defense, Mercer’s fate was superstitiously sealed in a ritual imbibing of purple shots before the kickoff about two hundred yards from the sacred grounds of Paladin Stadium.
Clemson, South Carolina, and, yes, Presbyterian, were all off renewing their vigor for the succeeding weeks. Robbie Caldwell, now Clemson offensive line coach of growing legend, and I became friends when he was a Furman graduate assistant coach and I was an equipment manager. We hardly talked at all about the Tigers. We talked about the time we had to hot-wire the van to get back from Appalachian State.
The first time I met Sam Wyche, I was picking up a box of chinstraps from his (and Billy Turner’s) sporting-goods store on Poinsett Highway. He went on to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl. Jimmy Satterfield, the coach who led the Paladins to the national championship in 1988, was there, and it was the first time this century I talked to him.
Good friends. Great oldies. I could have walked up the hill and partied all night long, but I opted for the security and predictability of home. I wouldn’t trade the day for a literary agent and a publishing deal, but it’s the day after now, and they sure would be nice.
Most of my books — non-fiction on NASCAR and music, collections that include my contributions, seven novels, and one short-story collection — are available here.