Football in the South is an anchor, and it is a compass. It both guides us and ties us to the past as our lives move forward and the world around us changes. For a region like this, a place increasingly struggling with varying demographics, shifting cultural norms and a more divided populace, Saturdays in the Fall offer both an escape from the present reality, as well as a window into traditions its people have had ingrained in them since birth.
If you were taking a visitor on a tour of South Carolina, Sheldon Girardeau is the man you’d want them to meet first. A youthful looking 82 years old, he stands tall but gentle, soft-spoken but gregarious, and polite to a fault. He attributes his real estate success in the small town of Walterboro to a maxim he learned from his father: treat everyone with the same level of respect, from the judge in the courthouse downtown to the man hired to clean your office on the weekends.
Having never met a stranger, there is no one that doesn’t immediately fall under Sheldon’s spell as he recounts stories from his past to you moments after you’re introduced, seamlessly spanning years and spinning otherwise mundane anecdotes in a fashion so riveting you can’t help but hope another story awaits the end of the one you’re hearing.
Growing up, Sheldon quickly found himself at ease on the playing fields of small town South Carolina, excelling at whatever sport each season brought. He famously won a local tennis tournament having never played a match before in his life, entering only at the behest of the tournament director to help fill out the field. The trophy can still be found in his home, surrounded by family photos and other sports memorabilia.
That love for competition would spill over into a passion for all things Gamecock. Starting as a child making the sixty mile trip to Columbia with his father to the old Carolina Stadium for ball games, through his time as an actual member of the football team while a freshman at USC in the 1950’s, all the way to today, Sheldon is Carolina’s most devoted, hopeful and optimistic fan.
My paternal grandfather passed before I was born, and my mother’s father’s health kept us from knowing each other as men before we lost him in my early teens. However, Sheldon welcomed me with open arms into his life the first day we met, long before he walked his granddaughter – my wife – down the aisle to give her away at our wedding seven years ago. Since then Sheldon and I have attended countless Carolina football, basketball, and baseball games. Several moments of triumph stick out, but what I will always remember the most, is that no matter what happened on the field or court, Sheldon’s mood afterward was a constant.
The 2013 Gamecock football team was the culmination of Coach Steve Spurrier’s grand scheme in Columbia. Following back- to-back 11 win seasons, and enjoying an SEC East mired in mediocrity, Carolina sat poised to head to Atlanta for just the second time in its program’s history. The three of us â€“ my wife, Sheldon, and I – made the road trip to Neyland Stadium that October, highly confident that a rebuilding Tennessee squad would pose little threat to our dream season. However, after the game (a 23-21 UT upset), the look of despondency on Carolina fans’ faces was surpassed only by the sheer surprise of the home team faithful, who found it as hard to believe their team had won as we did that ours had lost. We walked, slower than normal, along the river, away from the stadium and toward Calhoun’s on the River and our car just beyond. As we passed the infamous “Vol Navy,” the refrains of “Rocky Top” bellowing across the water, I started to feel ill. Sheldon, however, stopped, looked across the walkway, and chuckled to himself as he pointed out a pet dog playing on one of the boats. He then looked at my wife, smiled, and wrapped his arm around her as they gazed over the water. And like that, it was over. The pain and frustration washed out of him, we continued walking, with our eyes on the next week’s contest. “There’s always another one coming up,” â€“ I never knew if he meant that in the context of sports, of life, or both.
Time, unfortunately, is undefeated, and it comes for us all. Though his kind eyes remind you of a young boy, the evidence of Sheldon’s 82 years on this earth manifests itself on the rest of his 6′ 5″ frame. There are less road trips (and less home games attended for that matter), more watching the games on TV than there was a few years ago. But we still order the season tickets every year, knowing some of them may not get used, because to not have them would just be too much to bear. For the games we go to now, there is more preparation but less tailgating, more apprehension about the trip than the result of the game, and an underlying, unspoken understanding that there are more of these special Saturdays behind us than in front. Such is the twilight of life. It is not something that can be taught, or even understood, only recognized.
However, one contest each year has not and will not ever be skipped: Clemson v. Carolina. In a record going back to the Roosevelt administration, Sheldon Girardeau simply does not miss this game. And, as soon as the calendar flipped to 2016, he made it known that he was damn determined that this year would be no different. So, armed with some scalped tickets in the ADA accessible section of Death Valley and a parking pass under the shadow of the South stands, the three of us made our way to Clemson this Saturday for Sheldon’s 70th Palmetto Bowl.
They call it Death Valley for a reason. The Tigers sit primed for the playoffs, and would be a formidable foe in any venue. Defeating them on the road, at night, with a freshman quarterback is a Herculean task that seems to keep Sheldon’s optimism in check as we approach Clemson on Highway 123. But by the time our car passes over that first set of tiger paws painted on the freeway, the sky bursting in a deep Carolina Blue that only happens here in late November, I can see in his eyes that Sheldon is rounding into form. His energy level is noticeably higher; there is a faster rhythm in the cadence of his speech, more embellishment in the details of his stories. The prospect of the upcoming game literally breathes life into him.
And that is why, after all these years, the outcome is irrelevant â€“ not only as soon as we leave the stadium, but even before we enter it. It’s not about the score, and on nights like tonight, it can’t be. It’s about making it there, about knowing there is another one down the line â€“ next week, next season, and beyond. There’s always football. Every Fall. We use it as a road map to our memories, a marker to other events that should be more important but somehow pale in comparison to what, objectively, should be merely a lark, and yet is so, so much more. Maybe the reason it takes such a hold in life is that it is such a good metaphor for it. And that is why’s Sheldon’s forward, hopeful attitude, which spans so many decades, is so prescient, and will stick with me long after he is gone.
No one can say for sure, but I know that for he and I, there will be a next year. And a year after that. And hopefully many, many more. To think any other way is not an option. And yet, looking back on this game, and all the ones before it, I am humbled to know I had a small part in Sheldon’s journey. And I’ll always remember, whatever happens, to leave it in the stands, with a fresh eye towards the next one.
Jake Barker is an attorney practicing in Charleston, South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org