Talking to New Students About Their First Game at Williams-Brice

“It was magical.”

“It was so crazy!”

“Sandstorm is unreal in real life.”

“After being there for that, I’m a lifelong fan, win or lose.”

I never thought I’d see such an obvious intersection of my two biggest passions in life, education and Gamecock Football, but this past week I experienced something that brought about more joy than I can express.

As an English teacher, sometimes you get the best from students— writing that is profound, research that is impeccable, and speeches that are so well delivered I’m almost convinced that the student is a classically trained actor—other times you get far less, and are left wondering how in the world a student’s high school English teacher let them pass. It’s the ebb and flow of education; and somewhere between those two extremes, my passion to help all students find a way to improve academically ignites.

In-between presenting lectures, grading writing assignments, and assigning readings though, you can catch a glimpse of yourself being reflected back at you. Maybe it’s a story that is shared about a student’s family member that reminds you of your father; maybe they mention a book you read growing up and distant nostalgic feelings come flooding back reminding you why you fell in love with literature in the first place; or maybe, it’s as simple as a comment about the sport you enjoy most, football.

On Monday, I heard an interaction that opened a channel of connection between myself and those in my class. One student mentioned that he was still floating on a metaphorical high after the football game Saturday night. The other student said simply, “I can’t wait to be back in Willy B.”

At those words, my interest was piqued, and rather than push forward with my planned lecture about the importance of thesis statements, I posed a challenge that led to one of my favorite discussions I’ve ever had as a teacher: “Tell me about your first experience in the student section of Williams-Brice.”

The hands of those who attended the game (I’d guess over 75% of the class based on the excitement flashed across their faces as I asked them to share) shot into the air, the room erupting with spirited volunteers, all wanting to talk about their time in the Cockpit.

One thing that I noticed quickly is that unlike most of us who were born in the Palmetto state, students from other areas come into college without the same frame of reference that we have regarding our teams. Yes, they know names like Spencer Rattler, GG Jackson, Aliyah Boston, and Ethan Petry, but they are far less familiar with the history of the programs, the highs and lows, the pains, and pleasures of the fandom, and the small but important nuances of being a Gamecock.

I saw Williams-Brice for the first time as a small child and knew every player’s name on the roster. I had been wanting to visit what I called garnet heaven for years. When I finally was able to attend a game and saw the magic that a place I had only dreamed of actually offered, it was more of an awakening than anything else. Some people can recall the moment they first visited Disney World, or their first step in a foreign country, or their first day at a career that would eventually define them, but to me, being an impoverished kid who grew up bullied by Clemson fans in the upstate, this moment of walking through the fairgrounds toward the entrance of Williams-Brice and then making my way to the nose bleed seats with my dad just spoke to me and affirmed everything that I had hoped. Here, I was accepted. Here I found people who didn’t care where I lived, or the car my parents drove, they only cared about the color of my shirt, and the Gamecock on my hat.

As I listened to the students describe their first taste of the magic Williams-Brice offers, I couldn’t help but look past the present time, and see, somewhere distant, even decades in the future, these same students bringing their own children to their first game in Columbia. I see them thinking back to that first night they heard Sandstorm and raised their towel, not as an individual, but as a member of family that existed long before them and will exist long after them. I see them losing their composure the way that I do each time I stand for the national anthem there, knowing the sacrifices that gave us the freedom to enjoy a place like this. I can see them, as 2001 begins to play, holding their child up above the crowd the way my dad to me, ensuring a clear view of Cocky and the team as they ran in. I bet they feel a rush of excitement as they look over at the student section and remember every moment spent there, every play, every win, and every disgruntled loss that made up their version of Gamecock history. I bet they remember it all with pride and tell their son or daughter about the people they once knew, and the traditions that a new generation of students keep alive.

For some of them, it will happen. Some of them were forever changed by their first game, like many of you. Some of them will never miss a game again, and if they do, they’ll regret it bitterly, aware that there’s only 6 home games a year, and knowing each one of them is unique and special. Some of them will move away— we need Gamecocks in the world at large too— and they will start a successful career, and make their alma mater proud. But even they will do what they can to alter plans, move schedules, and make sacrifices every fall to be back in Columbia as much as possible. To them, those who have to come from a world away, Homecoming Weekend will mean a little bit more, and even if the team they traveled to see loses, they’ll stay until the final whistle, and proudly offer their cup in honor of the school that gave them a sense of purpose—

“Here’s a Health, Carolina—”

I left the classroom that day after they had all filed out. I knew that if history repeated itself like it tends to do, they’d learn a little bit about what it means to be a suffering Gamecock fan after the UGA game Saturday. I also knew that for some of them, a loss would not affect their new found passion. They, like many of us, would make sure they were back in the Cockpit ready for the game against Mississippi State, understanding how special every moment from now and until the day they transition from student to alumni is.

“Forever to thee.”

I’m not the only one who sees this place as garnet heaven on earth, and every year, more and more are added to our numbers. To them who were not born into our family, but still chose us, we hold a glass up to you and say, “Welcome Home.”

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