Prior to this past Saturday, the last football game I had attended was between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints in 2002, when the Bears were forced to play at the University of Illinois. Chicago had built up a 20-point lead before blowing it, and lost 23-29. As a kid, all I wanted was to see the Bears win and eat hot dogs that were more expensive than I could comprehend. This past Saturday, all I wanted was the Gamecocks to survive. I love it when my expectations are surpassed.
I’ve never been one for large crowds, unless we’re all focused on one thing, such as watching a band play in a concert or watching a sporting event of some kind. In those situations, it’s easy for me to become a part of the crowd, but I didn’t know what to expect going to my first college football game. Yes, UGA-USC was my first college football game. I never went to any at my alma mater because I didn’t see what the hell was the point in trying to be cool in the Mid-Atlantic Conference. This was before #MACtion, mind you, and I felt like I was in sports hell. I skipped trying to watch my Bowling Green State University Falcons in their pumpkin-vomit orange jerseys and became a Carolina man five years ago, courtesy of Gamecock Cereal’s own Jeff Tyner. So when the aforementioned Mr. Tyner presented the opportunity to watch USC-Georgia from inside Willie-B. itself, my fandom and my passion told me I couldn’t say no, even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to.
The culture of tailgating amongst college football fans in the South is vastly different from the tailgating I’ve seen almost anywhere else. Sure, I’ve seen a few RVs and tents at events here and there, but the sheer volume it all outside Williams-Brice is astounding. It’s unfair and disrespectful to call it partying, in my opinion as a relative newbie. Rather, it strikes me as a mix between a family reunion and a bacchanalia; people coming together to celebrate their shared passion with juicy meats, ice cold beverages and the sacred game of bags. I’m not calling it cornhole, and frankly, neither should you.
I should also say that I encountered nothing but polite Georgia fans. I admire the love they have of their team, one that’s so strong they would drive hundreds of miles just to see their team play in a hostile environment. I also admire the intricate paint jobs many of them had on their RVs. They really paid a lot of attention to the details of every wrinkle in a cartoon bulldog’s face.
None of the atmosphere outside the stadium can really be compared to how things were inside. Noise was impossible to avoid, as excitement just overtook everything and everybody. Even during the moment of silence held for those whose lives were lost on 9/11, there was a rumble. Maybe it was noise from those still tailgating, maybe it was just the rain and distant thunder, but it was there. Anticipation had boiled over. Football was imminent.
Perhaps it was all the weather delays, but the crowd was ready to chew up any football. From 2001 to every Sandstorm and even during halftime. When the rain started up again, it was like throwing cold water on a hot skillet: it only made us louder. Regarding the rain, at a certain point it ended up feeling like nothing at all. It became a part of me, mixing with the dripping sweat, deflected only by the parts of my body covered by a garnet poncho, emblazoned with a large “C”, and of course, a gamecock.
The one moment when I was concerned came briefly at the start of the game. I knew of all the chants, celebrations, and rituals performed by the Gamecock faithful in the stadium, but I had never performed them myself. Like a guiding light, though, it all came naturally. Seamlessly, I was able to shout and chant along with everybody else. Nobody stared at me, nobody got mad, nobody thought I was doing anything wrong by bellowing “First down!” after the announcer led up with “It’s another Carolina…” I was freed by my fellow Carolina fans, and I would no longer have to contain myself. This was completely primal, dating back to the days of cavemen and the first tribes, wandering this planet, sharing chants to know who was on who’s side, and who could be trusted. To show passion meant to earn trust. To deny aroused suspicion, or rather, confusion. Why are you not chanting the way we chant? Aren’t you one of us?
The way the crowd became loud by just shouting “Ohhhhh!” during every Georgia play, with the hopes of preventing the offensive line from hearing the snap, or making it hard to hear an audible, was so easy to join in on. I don’t know how often it worked, but when there was a Georgia false start, we took the credit with pleasure. Every time one of our hopes was raised, we rose with it. The level of community we had just by being in the same place, beyond wearing the same colors or loving the same team, was truly powerful.
When the clock hit zero, when the teams took the field to shake hands, it was ecstasy. Disbelief reigned, but in a good way. South Carolina had done it, and while it’s wrong to think or feel this way, it felt like we had won. We did it. It’s something I would roll my eyes at fans for in the past. We’re not on the field, getting beat up while nigh-literally fighting for every yard earned. But having been there, I understand why it’s so easy to feel that way. It feels like our words are helping, in whatever way, to pushing these players forward. To letting them know this fight wouldn’t be for naught. On Saturday night, that fight, that game, it resulted in so much more than a win. It’s a badge of pride. To say I was there cheering for the team I’ll love and defend to the end, with a community I’m proud to say I’m a part of—it’s beyond any words.
Thank you South Carolina, and thank you Gamecock fans.