Ever since I was a little boy the University of South Carolina football teams have periodically broken my heart, and then turned around next season, or the next week, to astonish me with feats of gamecock-like endurance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. My father would take me to Carolina games when I was too young to remember anything but the heartbreak of leaving the stadium early, to avoid the traffic and thus avoiding eye contact with the scoreboard when time ran out. Walking to the car, I always had hope that in the final moments, the Cocks would turn it around, because every now and then they would, and the feeling, the vicarious thrill when victory happened - even my father was moved to damp eyes and the renewed trust that next year, we would even crush Clemson.
Time and heartbreak made me skeptical of hope. The heartbreaks outnumbered the victories for decades. Near-misses invigorated next year's hopes and expectations. The heartbreakers were all the games we should have won, were favored to win and blew it.
My father and his friends blamed the coaches. How to get rid of a current loser and find one that could win was the offseason coffee talk of armchair-quarterbacks.
Losing evolved as a tradition. I gave up. I found other gods to worship than decals of mighty gamecocks stuck on the rear window of daddy's automobile. But I never forgot the thrill when the Cocks would win, like they did against Alabama. I was not alone. In a barroom full of rabid Carolina fans, we didn't believe until the clock ran out that the lead would hold, that the victory would happen. And then it was real, all the grown men screaming, damp eyes all over the place.
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Against Kentucky the following week, Carolina was favored to win. How unfortunate. Being favored to win brings out a subtle, low-grade, underlying fear in Gamecock football fans. The team getting off to a good start in any particular game, taking the lead early, has the same general effect: the team's playing well produces the expectation that the Cocks will lose. Victories will not change anything, unless the victories keep coming, finally defeating the crowd's dark expectation. Is that rehab experience necessary to building a winning tradition? I contend, it is the key factor.
The current coach has proven something this year. The team is potentially great. Carolina fans as they are represent the greatest obstacle to championship seasons: The expectations of the crowd are as integral to victory as the good health of a freshman running back who could win the Heisman Trophy. I don't mean how loud we yell, how we cheer and outwardly exhort the Gamecocks with superficial positive intent. Something deeper than that is at work, for good or ill, when many human beings spectate while a few perform. Those playing the game are either burdened by expectations, or they are freed to believe in themselves when the crowd maintains the faith that they are winners, regardless of the score.
I cannot explain it, no one can, why the spirit of a crowd can turn the tide of a football game, a business deal, an all-out war, or a single human life. Good faith becomes winning, and bad faith generates losses. Why bad faith in general seems always more ready to hand, easier to hold on to than good, is a mystery. Perhaps it comes from the oldest part of the brain, developed when cave bears and saber-toothed tigers really were subject to appear from behind any rock; fear was the main ingredient for human survival.
Football games are a motive for glory, not a reason to fear, nor a justification for heartbreak. If the expectations of Carolina football fans remain as they are, fear-dominated, hope for next year will only generate the same invisible tigers waiting behind the rocks. The boys on the field might overcome that bad faith as they did against Alabama, generating a glorious moment in spite of the crowd's underlying expectation. But if all the victories could be forgotten, along with all the losses, and the boys left to play the game without our dark expectations to bear, it wouldn't matter very much about the end result. That could be a championship season.
To see it, you can't just believe it could happen. You gotta know it.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.