“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting it is.” –Arnold Palmer
“Nah nah nah nah. Nah nah nah nah. Hey, hey, hey. Goo-ood Bye!”
So many Friday nights of my teen years included the sounds of our high school’s marching band blasting the popular song that bands play when they’re confident that their team’s opponent has been put away. The nails were in the coffin, so we linked arms and sang at the top of our lungs to mark the occasion. There was nothing left to do but watch the clock tick away those last useless seconds and make plans to meet up for a celebratory chicken finger basket.
Football in the South is more than just a pastime, it’s a way of life. Being part of a team with a winning tradition makes life all the more rewarding. During Fall in the South, a week no longer has 7 days. It’s divided into three parts: Getting Ready for the Game, GAME DAY, and Reviewing the Game. 7 Day Weeks will resume after State Championships and Bowl Season.
Many, many years after the fact, I am still proud to say that I played a small spectator role in the long-time winning tradition of the Greer High Yellow Jackets. I enthusiastically filled a spot in the student section almost every home game during my four years there and even traveled with friends to nearby away games. While the players did warm-ups before the game, we played our pre-game warm-up songs on a portable CD player. When the cheerleaders held up their spray-painted banner for the players to run through, we lined up on either side to get high fives from those boys who were about to play their hearts out for the next three hours. When the band played, we pumped our arms in time with the drums and shout-sang snippets of brass-fueled tunes that gave our team the momentum they needed to get that next first down.
Winning isn’t everything, but it sure is a lot of fun. The four years I spent at GHS, our record was 42-10. That means that we won over 80% of the time. Losing a game was a surprise. On the rare occasion it happened, it left us with an unsettled feeling of, “what just happened here?” A feeling that didn’t last long, because a return to winning was always just around the corner. My last two years at GHS we didn’t lose a single regular season game. During our senior year, my friends and I road-tripped to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia to watch our boys easily and rightfully claim the State Championship.
All we did was win, win, win. It was exciting, it was exhilarating; and, here’s what makes it a tradition: it was expected.
I spent my college years at Wofford, attending games every now and then, and also going to Clemson and Carolina games with my friends who were students there. For those four years of my life, football was admittedly in the background of my studies and social schedule.
That is until I met a boy. At a football game.
Wofford was hosting the Citadel in Spartanburg for the first time in 50 years. It was an historic event that filled our stadium, inspired parties at every corner of campus, and brought alumni from all years and locales to the Sparkle City. I don’t remember who won the game, but I do remember letting all my girlfriends leave me at an unfamiliar fraternity house so I could have more time to talk to this really cute guy. Now, here I am, almost 18 years later, and I get to wash that cute guy’s socks every week. True story.
I’m here to tell all the young ladies of marrying age that wedding vows are really so much more than just the simple words that you mindlessly repeat in front of God and everyone while your mind is actually fixated on worrying about what exactly is an appropriate kiss when in church. For example, what you’re really signing up for, is, “To have and to hold, and to adopt his college football team as your own, from this day forward.” You’re also committed to, “For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, in winning and in losing. (Especially in losing.)”
My husband is a tried and true, die-hard, Forever to Thee, South Carolina Gamecock. He is an Unconditional Fan. From what I can deduce, he’s been this way since he was a child, and although from time to time it is a painful condition, it’s not something I would change about him. And since his passion is so strong, it only made sense that when we joined hearts and homes, that I would join him in supporting his team, as well.
In the beginning, it was easy. We were newlyweds at the start of the Lou Holtz era and Gamecocks all over the state had a sense of hope. There were more wins than losses. We were young and in love and we had no kids dictating our schedules so we could tailgate every weekend. We fattened our bellies with chicken fingers and brownies and beers, and it felt like the party would never end. Sure, there were heartbreaking losses, but there were also promising wins. And did I mention all the chicken fingers? Looking back, it was the Jazz Age of football for us. As it turns out, the party did have to come to an end, and we weathered a few losing seasons before climbing back up the roller coaster when Steve Spurrier took the reins of the team. But even that was rocky terrain, and my unfailingly loyal Gamecock husband took the losses hard. By now, we had small children, so the tailgating part (my favorite) was removed from the equation, leaving just us at home to watch the games, which became increasingly tense with each passing week. (This would be a good time for me to insert the fact that God knew what he was doing by not letting me meet my husband until after the Gamecocks’ 0-11 season in 1999. I would have never made it. But, I digress.) My husband could easily be a sideline coach. Each week, he strategizes with a good buddy, also an Unconditional Fan. After the game, they talk again, to figure out what went wrong, and where they need to improve the next week. As for me, I could not be any sort of coach whatsoever. I can’t remember the lineup and I’ve always got questions about the rules. I’m more interested in figuring out what sort of alternative methods the team needs. Should we get them a team therapist? Some essential oils? Is hard liquor allowed? Oh wait, those are all the things that I need…
I’ve determined that since I married into this Gamecock legacy, their record has been 105-84. Victorious 56% of the time is technically a winning record, but it’s a far cry from that 80% winning ratio I enjoyed with the Yellow Jackets. In this realm, very few wins are assured, and almost all come with a fair amount of anguish. It can be hard to watch. Literally. Sometimes I have to put my hands over my eyes it makes me so nervous. Sometimes I don’t watch at all and just go to another room, and decide to find out the outcome once it’s all over. As hard as it is, every experience is a chance to learn, and after so many years of watching this team through the eyes of one of its most ardent supporters, I’m able to see the benefits of being what I call an Unconditional Fan.
A true Unconditional Fan has to maintain a certain level of humility to make it through the lean seasons. It’s no secret if your team is having a down year, so you just have to own that fact and deflect the trash talk. By the same coin toss, an Unconditional Fan knows that winning seasons can’t last forever, so there’s no need to be overly boastful when your team is in the winner’s circle. An Unconditional Fan has a keen sense of gratefulness and humility when their team is the conqueror.
The Unconditional Fan always has hope. This is a must. Without hope, every team would be fan-less at the first whiff of a bad recruiting class. The Unconditional Fan is full of hope every season. A friend of ours put it best during a long ride on an at-capacity RV, westward-bound to watch the Gamecocks play at Vandy for a season-opener. He looked around appraisingly, took in a deep breath of stale RV air and said, “This is the best time of the year to be a football fan. Nobody’s messed anything up yet.” His actual words were a bit stronger than that, but you get the gist. So, what happens when the season goes off the rails? The Unconditional Fan is already looking forward to next year. Hope. It’s what brings the Unconditional Fan back, year after year. Hope is also what gets a girl like me on an RV traveling from Columbia to Nashville; because, let me tell you, that was really not one of the best ideas.
To me, the most impressive mark of an Unconditional Fan is loyalty. This brand of loyalty is a type of steadfast devotion that is hard to find in these times. The Unconditional Fan supports their team no matter what the predictions are, or how much they disagree with the coaching staff. They wear their colors with pride, even in a sea of opponents. The Unconditional Fan rejoices in the team’s triumphs, but they also agonize in the defeats, with a resolve to come back stronger. The Unconditional Fan is a lifelong member of the team. They might throw their hat, shout choice words, and sulk for days on end, but they would never fully walk away from their team. The Unconditional Fan knows that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you come back for the next year.
I haven’t earned my wings to be Unconditional Fan yet, but I do love one. And I appreciate all the others I’ve encountered over the years. I think I might even be raising a couple more gals to join the League of Unconditional Fans. I hope so. What better way to teach life lessons of humility, hope, and loyalty? All that, AND a tray of chicken fingers? Sign us up!