By 10:30 PM, a small crowd had begun to form on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse. Groups of older Texas A&M alums milled about, smoking cigars, laughing, swapping stories of their 1000+ mile journey from East Texas. By 11, this group was joined by others – A&M students who had made the trip, a few South Carolina fans prepared to defend their state’s honor, a handful of curious observers, iPhones in hand. By 11:15, the television cameras had arrived and a squadron of state troopers took their positions around the Statehouse courtyard.
The Midnight Yell Practice was fast approaching, and with it, the start of the 2014 College Football season.
For more than eighty years, the midnight before every football game, Texas A&M has hosted a “Yell Practice” for its fans. The event is basically a pep rally where fans practice a few yells – not cheers, as more than one A&M fan reminded me – and sing their fight song. In Texas, the event regularly attracts crowds of more than 20,000. On the road, the event is held at a predetermined site, offering a gathering point for the Aggie faithful.
Having never played at South Carolina before, the Statehouse steps were chosen as the meeting ground. Located just a few blocks from the University campus in downtown Columbia, the site offered more than just a convenient location. “It’s a bit disrespectful if you ask me,” one South Carolinian told me. Driving through South Carolina Wednesday, talk radio was filled with callers weighing in about whether Texans should be allowed to hold their traditional rally on such hallowed ground. Most callers were civil and open to the idea of embracing their guests, though several promised not to take kindly to any disparaging talk about South Carolina.
Ask any college football fan why they love the game, and one of the first responses you’ll hear is “the rivalries.” Auburn vs. Alabama, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Army vs. Navy. These are age-old rivalries, passed down from generation to the next. They are synonymous with the game itself.
With conference realignment in full effect, Athletic Departments and PR staff are attempting to engineer rivalries to pacify fans who are upset about no longer facing old foes. South Carolina is trying to create a rivalry with Missouri, a recent addition to the SEC, due to the fact that both hail from cities named Columbia. For the most part these attempts have been mediocre at best. You don’t cook up a rivalry in a boardroom and providing a trophy for teams to compete over has little meaning if that trophy has no story behind it. Wednesday night, however, on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse, fans were offered a rare experience: the birth of a rivalry.
Fifteen minutes before midnight, the crowd in front of the Statehouse had swelled to more than 15,000. From the left of the steps, swarms of South Carolina students were visible, making their way across campus in groups of five or six. “We showed up. We showed up,” one of the students kept repeating in reference to the questions about how the South Carolinians would respond. Every few minutes a student would yell “Game!” to which several thousand people responded “Cocks!”
While the mood was intense, it was far from antagonistic. More than hatred, there was an overwhelming sense of curiosity. A&M fans were excited about their first trip to South Carolina – many were planning to spend Labor Day weekend in the state. Having joined the SEC two years ago, they were excited about exploring new territory and were proud to show their traditions to the hosts. South Carolinians were unsure what to make of the Texans. Some deep-rooted sense of state pride told them that they shouldn’t take kindly to outsiders celebrating on their land, but more than anything, they were intrigued by this mysterious rally. The few “Get the hell out of South Carolina!” chants that I heard felt more welcoming than their words might suggest. These were two fan bases feeling each other out. The jabs were part of building the respect necessary for a real rivalry.
A&M supporters formed a tight-knit group of a few thousand at the base of the steps, while South Carolina fans filled in the rest of the courtyard. As midnight approached, South Carolina students began climbing the statehouse steps in an effort to stake claim to their territory only to be cleared out by the State troopers on hand. They filed down the steps with no resistance and settled in on the side of the courtyard to watch the scene.
The most prestigious position within the Texas A&M student body is not the head of a fraternity or the President of the student government. The big men on campus, the “Beyonces” as one student described them, are the Yell Leaders. These five men – three seniors and two juniors – are elected by their classmates to organize the cheering for the entire football stadium. They also lead the yells for most other sports and are in charge of running Midnight Yell Practice. I asked the few students I met whether they had considered running for Yell Leader. “Oh no. That’s a huge job – you have to be one of the most popular guys in the school.” Texas Governor Rick Perry was a Yell Leader, a fact that may bring him more pride than any of his accomplishments since.
On game days, these men wear all-white jumpsuits with a small maroon A&M logo on the right chest, but at Yell Practice they wear jean overhauls.
At midnight, the five men took their positions on a landing halfway up the Statehouse steps, which served as a makeshift stage. The country music, which had been blasting for the past hour, was replaced with marching band hymns. For the first few minutes, two of the leaders did a series of small push-ups, hardly extending their arms at all as they bounced up and down as fast as they could. The South Carolina fans watched with bemusement. “What are they doing?” “You need to straighten your arms for the pushup to count!” students shouted.
When the pushups ceased, the Yell Leaders began to take the crowd through the 13 yells that are used throughout the games. The Yell Leaders communicate the yells to the crowd using hand signals that are then passed back so that the entire crowd – 80,000 plus at home games – is on the same page. The leaders with their crew cut hairstyles and the dancing they do to fire up the crowd, appeared more like members of a 90s boy band than serious football men. At one point, confused South Carolina students began chanting, “We want N’Sync!”
In between yells, each leader climbed to the top of the Statehouse steps and delivered a short speech, poking fun at the opponent and in some way referencing his class year. While South Carolina students were willing to watch the yells, they had no interest in hearing these speeches. When one began: “What’s the difference between a student from Clemson an a student from Texas?” the crowd drowned him out in cheers of “Gamecocks!”
It was, by all accounts, a magical moment – the mixing of two worlds. There was hardly any mention of actual football. The only football chants referenced players no longer at either school, former Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel and former Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw. This was the cultural side of college football. The gathering of fans who without the game might have little in common.
The pump-up music, hype videos, and other PR efforts to create rivalry are not in the same league as what happened Wednesday night in Columbia. A few miles from the site of their kickoff, fans from Texas A&M and South Carolina planted the seeds for a true, new rivalry.