“We’re taking off – I’ve got three classes and a paper due tomorrow.” Sean, a heavyset 18-year-old freshman told me. Eyes downcast, he hoisted himself to his feet and trudged down the steps of section 302 towards the exit. Managing to muster a bit more enthusiasm, Deonte, a fellow freshman wished me well and followed his new friend.
Below, Texas A&M was putting the finishing touches on a 52-28 beat down of ninth-ranked South Carolina. The loss snapped an 18-game home win streak for the Gamecocks and spoiled hope of an undefeated season.
Despite the departure of several key starters from last year’s team, including JaDaveon Clowney the first overall pick of the NFL Draft, Gamecock fans went into Thursday’s game convinced that 2014 was their year. Three straight 11-2 seasons had raised the bar in Columbia. “We’ll see – I mean we lost a lot of players, but Dylan [Thompson, the South Carolina quarterback] has led us to big victories before,” one student told me when I asked about his team’s chances of winning the SEC title.
Sean and Deonte believed in the hype. A few minutes before kickoff, I asked Sean why he chose South Carolina despite its relative distance from his home in Virginia. Without hesitation he replied: “For this,” gesturing to the field below. Deonte smiled and nodded his agreement.
No one could deny the energy of “this.” By 6 o’clock, the stadium had filled to a capacity crowd of 80,000 plus, and the noise was near deafening. Everyone was on their feet, white towels waving, teeth clenched. Eight months of anticipation was finally over. Football was back.
The South Carolina Athletic Department offers 11,000 tickets to students. For big games, like the one against Texas A&M Thursday, that number is not nearly enough to meet the demand of the 32,000-person student body. Rather than increasing the student allotment, the school has devised a loyalty program that rewards students for going to other, less popular athletic events. The more events you attend, the better your chances of winning the lottery for football tickets. Since upperclassmen have more opportunities to accumulate points, their odds are more favorable.
Sean and Deonte spent their first two weeks on campus going to every game they could – volleyball, soccer, etc. Despite their valiant efforts, they came up empty on the ticket draw and instead, shelled out $60 a piece (the cheapest available on stubhub) to sit next to me a few rows from the top of Williams-Brice Stadium. While they cast some longing glances to the student section below, they felt lucky to be here at all. To them, it was a privilege to be affiliated with a team like the Gamecocks.
I was excited for my seatmates – their first game, and what a way to start. A top-25 opponent, the first broadcast on the SEC network, a beautiful late-August night. They’ll remember this forever, I thought to myself. This is their initiation, the night they’ll become diehard fans.
Maybe I bought into the hype a little bit too much too. At worst, I figured South Carolina would lose a nail-biter late. Sure, they’d lost a lot of marquee players, but everyone I talked with seemed so confident. “When you think about it, we really should win the SEC East. I’m not sure we can beat Alabama or LSU, but all the teams in our division are in a rebuilding mode,” a student told me the day before over dinner.
Texas A&M received the ball to start the game and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. “No problem,” Sean told me. “Our defense is the big question mark anyway.” On their first possession, South Carolina was forced to punt. The Aggies took over and again brought the ball deep into Gamecock territory before settling for a field goal. 10-0 Texas A&M. A few groans went up from the crowd.
Sean and Deonte joined the Gamecock band in an attempt to lift up their team. “U! S! C! Go cocks!” they yelled, Sean’s voice cracking with the effort.
Late in the first quarter, South Carolina responded. Facing a third down, Thompson threw a perfect ball over the top of the defense into the arms of Nick Jones who sprinted the final twenty yards into the endzone. The crowd erupted. Sean and Deonte were high fiving everyone within reach. The look in their eyes was pure joy. Hope had returned to South Carolina.
I had no real interest in the outcome of the game. I don’t know any students at either school, have never met any alumni from either school, and couldn’t even tell you where College Station, TX is on a map. After that score, however, I began to root for South Carolina. I felt some strange parental instinct take over. I wanted to protect these two kids from the heartbreak that naturally accompanies fandom.
A lifelong sports fan myself, I’m not sure I’m capable of experiencing the type of joy that Sean and Deonte felt for that first score. I’ve suffered too many defeats to let myself get that excited. These were sports virgins. They had only thought about the highs that accompany wins. When they packed their bags for college, they didn’t think about what Saturday night after a loss feels like.
The Gamecocks scored once more on a long pass from Thompson to wide receiver Damiere Byrd, but three second quarter touchdowns from the Aggies left the Gamecocks trailing by 17 at halftime.
The pregame excitement had worn off. Illusions of a perfect season were fading fast. The blank stares around me all screamed the same question, “what just happened?”
I tried to lift up the mood. “How are you guys feeling, your first game?” I put as much pep in my voice as I could muster.
“I’m feeling like we’re down 31-14,” Sean responded without looking up.
I felt like the Mom at a little league game who wants to point out how much fun you had even after your team loses to your rival. I wanted to tell Sean and Deonte to look around and remember this night. I wanted to warn them that getting too emotionally invested in wins and losses is a dangerous game. I wanted to remind them to relish the opportunity of getting to know one another. But I couldn’t. College football is about the camaraderie, the traditions, the energy of having thousands of people care about the same thing. But only an outsider can pretend that losses don’t hurt. And losses like this one – a beat down on national television – hurt a lot.
The second half was more or less a downward spiral both in terms of the Gamecock’s play on the field and in terms of the mood of my seatmates. To their credit, Sean and Deonte kept cheering well into the fourth quarter, by which point the game was far out of reach. Sean’s voice-cracking cheers were the only ones coming out of section 302. He even attempted to trash talk the only Texas A&M fan in our section. Though his attempt was too timid to be heard by many people beyond myself and certainly went unnoticed by the Aggie fan.
A South Carolina interception near the end of the third quarter, essentially ended any hope the Gamecocks had of mounting a heroic comeback. Fans began filing to the exits. Sean and Deonte remained. The joy had left them and in its place was a new feeling, a feeling they’d never felt before at a sporting event: pain.
As I watched the game, I realized that in their four years, there’s a good chance they’ll never see one of their teams win 11 games, equaling the performance of the previous three seasons. In all likelihood, they’re in for more losses like this one. I wondered how that would affect their college experience. Would they feel cheated – let down by the promise of a contending team? Would they move away from football and protect themselves from having to experience that pain again?
I remembered the joy of that first touchdown. I cursed myself for not taking a photograph of them then. I could show it to them now and remind them that in fact they had had fun tonight. I could be that annoying, protective parent. I could try to convince them to focus on the good times because if you can’t learn to do that, you’re in for a good deal of hardship. I could point out that in fifteen years, their friendship would mean infinitely more than the 2014 South Carolina record.
Instead, I watched as they stared at the field below. And then they were gone. Trudging their way back to campus, back to the library and classes, and all those things that fans on TV never see. Across the stadium in the far corner of the field, the Texas A&M fans were celebrating with non-stop cheering. I looked around and shook off the sadness I felt for Sean and Deonte. Somewhere in the heart of Texas, a party was just getting started. Football was back.