The stadium was full and the crowd was rocking. I don't remember who won, or even how old I was. I just remember the noise and energy of the crowd, maintained even through the interminable television timeouts, and Bobby telling me "watch the stands on the sides, you can see the stadium sway when the students get excited. If it ain't swaying, we ain't playing is what they say around here."
Sure enough, Williams Brice Stadium was designed with some flex in the upper levels, and they put the students in those sections and they took full advantage of it. There's something a little scary about watching thousands of tons of concrete flex and bounce under the weight of 15,000 students. Apparently after that season the college officials decided the same thing, because they stopped letting students jump in place in those seats to make the stadium sway, and eventually reinforced the stadium to take the sway out. But that night, the joint was jumping. Literally. When USC was cooking, I swear I could see that upper deck bounce by at least a foot.
The upper decks were pretty empty yesterday, but that doesn't mean the crowds for the state high school football championships were slack. Just the opposite, the lower levels of the stadium were pretty full, and why not? If you're a fan of one team or another you had your designated home or visitor side, or if you're just a fan of high school football, you could watch the top six teams in the state play all day for just $10.
And that's a pretty damn good deal when you consider this is one of the last levels where sports remain pure. A lot of these kids are done with football now. They got their chance to play in an 80,000-seat stadium, with their names announced over the big-time PA. They stood on the field where Chris Leak, Steve Taneyhill, Dan Reeves and Sterling Sharpe played. Those coaches walked in the footsteps of Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier. Their careers ended last night on a high note or a soul-crusher. They won't ever play college ball, unless it's intramural, and they've known all along that they'll never strap on pads for the big bucks in the NFL. But they played their ever-loving hearts out. Some have next year to look forward to, but they may never get back to this stage again.
Look at number 20. Josh Moseley. My sister and I watced this skinny redheaded white kid pace the sidelines through a chunk of the first half, and didn't really notice him getting into the game much. Then he blew up defensively in the second half, coming through with a Mike Minter-style hit on a kcik return in the second half and then it seemed like there wasn't a play that went by without his name being called over the PA for making the tackle. This kid left everything he had out on the field, just like he was taught.
Then there's number 24, Samun. He's in one of my niece's classes. This poor kid's fucked every way he turns around. Parents gone, he bounces around from aunt to aunt around Newberry. He's not the biggest kid on the field and got burned for a TD near the end of the first half when he was stuck in single-coverage on a receiver that was at least half a foot taller, but he was always going. Full out. He's trying his ever-loving balls off to find some structure and meaning in his life, and this team let him do it.
Number 68 played special teams. Tatiana Swittenberg was the chick on the team, and she wasn't some lissome, ponytailed kicker like you see in Sports Illustrated human interest stories. She's a stocky chick, built like a fullback, who plays kick coverage and special teams and knocks the hell outta anybody in her way.
These kids weren't stars, and if they were seniors, their career is done today. But last night they played in the big house, under the bright lights, and they've got an Olympic-Style medallion to take home and drag out to bore their kids with someday.
Oh, the game? It was a helluva game. After running the bal up the gut and just beating the hell out of them for the whole first half, a questionable pass interference call put Cheraw in scoring position right at the end of the half. With a tough second half, Newberry leading all the way, an absolutely terrible pass interfernce call on 3rd and long gave Cheraw the ball and a whole new set of downs on the 3 yard line. I know, it's my brother's team, so I'm biased, but it's hard for the pass to be interfered with when the intended receiver has tripped over his own feet six away from the nearest defender and is lying on his face when the pass zips by 12 feet away from him. That was the deal-breaker right there. Cheraw punched it in, Newberry couldn't score another TD to retake their game, and lost by four points. Sad that two bad calls made the difference in the game, because if either one of them had not gone in that direction, they'd be the champs today instead of the runners-up.
And I'm not taking anything away from the Cheraw kids, who have played in the state championship game for three years straight now. They've got a helluva good program that has come up short in this game twice before, so their kids deserve the moment in the winner's spotlight. Unfortunately, last night they were not the best team on the field despite their athletic superiority, and the officiating decided the outcome of the game.
But for a few hours, Sam Baird walked the same sidelines as Sam Wyche, in the bright lights after nearly thirty years at Newberry High, and took his kids to the big show. And I hope when some of the pain wears off, they can all look back at those medals with pride.