COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s Thursday afternoon in Columbia, S.C., and Missouri is the last thing on anybody’s mind.
For now, there aren’t groups of garnet and black clad students tossing around a football outside Williams-Brice Stadium. You can’t yet smell the aroma of burgers and ribs emanating from grills, as alumni sip on beers and reminisce about the long, winding, mostly forgettable history of South Carolina football.
“2001,” the theme song from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, isn’t blasting out of stadium speakers as the Gamecocks storm their home field, with 80,000 strong standing and applauding the resurrection of their program.
For now, all is quiet.
“The Horseshoe,” South Carolina’s quadrangle in the heart of campus, stretches on into eternity, it seems. The green lawn is cut repeatedly by stretches of red brick paths, which zig and zag diagonally, slicing each bit of lawn into geometric shapes.
Students scatter across the lawn, sitting on blankets or against trees, talking to each other or scribbling away on homework that’s nearly due. Above them, the trees, old as the school, stretch across the sky, with branches reaching out and draping over the quad. The sound of fluttering wings can be heard overhead, as packs of birds play tag and zip from tree to tree.
More students walk slowly, methodically across the quad, strolling carelessly as the 80-degree South Carolina sun beats down on them. Gnats hover constantly in front of your face, never actually making contact but close enough to provoke an occasional annoyed swat. On a happy, sleepy little Thursday afternoon, it’s almost impossible to fathom the game day fervor Saturday will bring.
Three men throw a Frisbee around on the lawn, laughing and joking as the disc whizzes from person to person. They all wear backward hats, and the tallest man’s peach polo matches the color of the buildings that surround the quad. Shoes, clearly an afterthought, are nowhere to be found.
They discuss bacon, arguing loudly whether it was always as popular as it is now. The likelihood that Missouri quarterback James Franklin will play is not a topic of discussion.
A café and its patron
In South Carolina’s “College Grounds Café,” football is neither seen nor heard. There are no posters displaying the team’s schedule, and no one wears a “'Cocks” t-shirt or jersey.
The café is tiny, adorably so. The floors are brown hardwood, creaky when walked upon by someone with the right amount of girth. Bright green tables are scattered throughout the café, with wooden chairs and stools set up to face them. The menu is written on a chalkboard next to the front counter, scribbled in every color of chalk imaginable.
A man sits by himself in a brown armchair in the corner, diligently poring over a stack of notes. His head moves steadily closer to his textbook, as though his physical proximity to the book will affect his ability to grasp the material.
He wears a white polo shirt with black and red stripes moving horizontally across it. His head stays down, his hand, grasping a blue pen, continuing to move frantically across the page. Hard rock blasts out of his ear buds, loud enough to be heard several tables away.
In his own world in the corner of the café, this man sees and hears nothing around him. His concentration centers around “Life Sciences,” the title of the textbook printed in blue on the spine.
Surely, football isn’t anywhere on his radar, either. At least, not yet.
It’s Friday morning now, and football is beginning to make its presence known in Columbia.
A black SUV drives slowly down Gervais Street, which juts through the area called “The Vista” – known for its warehouses, which have been revamped, restored and transformed into colorful restaurants and clubs in west Columbia.
As Don McLean’s “American Pie” serenades its way out of the car’s windows and onto the surrounding sidewalks, people turn and look. There are flags attached to both sides of the front of the car, waving proudly in garnet and black.
A fighting gamecock adorns one flag. The interlocking letters “SC” are printed on the other.
Outside the car, students and residents cross the street and meander in and out of the Starbucks on the corner. One young boy in particular, wearing a gray shirt that covers his extended belly, smiles as the car zips by.
On his shirt, printed in maroon type on the front, are two words:
A sign on the edge of town
The fans of the school’s football team are desperate for a winner. The Gamecocks have never won a national championship in football or basketball, but with Steve Spurrier at the helm since 2005, things are looking up.
The town embraces the few athletic successes it has experienced. The South Carolina baseball team won back-to-back College World Series titles in 2010 and 2011, a fact any visitor is sure to learn immediately when entering town.
In white type against a green backdrop, a sign on the border of west Columbia reads clearly and emphatically.
“Welcome to Columbia, Home of the 2010 and 2011 NCAA College Baseball National Champions – University of South Carolina Gamecocks.”
The football team, the diehard fan and taxi driver that escorted me into town insists, will earn its way onto those same signs in the near future.
“My mama used to tell me that the ‘Cock has tiny legs, but man, can he kick!” he yells, taking a second to glance back and laugh heartily while driving.
For now, though, Spurrier’s team settles for billboards, like the one hanging over Knox-Abbott Drive, which moves east over the Congaree River and into campus. It reads “Carolina vs. Missouri, this Saturday, 3:30 p.m.”
Beside the thick black text, a South Carolina player stands defiantly, his back facing the screen. Over the bold maroon number 21 is the name “Lattimore.” As in, “Marcus Lattimore, 2010 freshman All-American.”
Williams-Brice Stadium, on this sunny, humid Friday, stands all but deserted on the south end of campus. Tomorrow, the area will be filled with football fans, eager to rudely welcome Missouri to the SEC.
Eager, also, to move to 4-0, one step closer to success this program has never experienced. One step closer to getting their name on that sign on the far end of town. One step closer to proving, once and for all, that they belong.
But for now, it’s only Friday. All anybody can do right now is wait.