Marcus Lattimore is perfect. He is a high school running back whose highlight tapes pop with a stupidly obvious talent. There is no special knowledge required, no code to read. Lattimore moves with an ease no one else on the field has, a fluency through crowded spaces as others stutter through body-blocked air. His speed is a passport to places defenders cannot get to in time, his power a license to disregard them if they somehow meet him there. He runs for over 7,000 yards in high school, a lot of it through the grasping hands of lesser players too weak to entertain pulling him down. Lattimore doesn’t even stiffarm them. His body vetoes them.
Marcus Lattimore is a rarity: an obviously perfect football prospect.
This is 2010, and obviously perfect Lattimore is announcing his commitment to the University of South Carolina. Lattimore would be a big deal at any school. He is a five-star recruit according to every service and courted by big teams with big stages and histories: Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, lumbering machines with records of success and getting players into the NFL. He has no guarantees, but has all the good choices.
At Silver Hill Memorial United Methodist Church, Lattimore — with his mother and pastor looking on proudly — opts for the University of South Carolina. On paper, this is a surprise. USC has no special record of success or developing talent. If anything, the Gamecocks are known for being in the place talent leaves, a perennially doomed team stuck somewhere between occasional booms and desolate stretches of bust.
The decade prior was most known for a legit, non-NCAA sanctioned 0-11 team that really did lose every game the hard way, sometimes in embarrassing fashion. The only other real highlight in the previous 10 years might have come in 2004, when they won six games, then ended the season with a brawl against Clemson so ugly, it resulted in a voluntary bowl ban. Lou Holtz presided over both teams before leaving in the usual cloud of muttered apologies and buyout checks.
Steve Spurrier, though. The former Florida coach was doing enough since he’d arrived in 2005 to keep the Gamecocks at a consistent level of 7-5ish. The greying Spurrier banged on alumni for facilities money, got assistants to step up recruiting, and kept up gamely with the younger man’s recruiting game. At times he even seemed to adjust to the realities of the SEC in the 21st century, passing less and relying on defense and the running game. (Not happily or willingly, but still.) He did the cha-cha slide with Lattimore’s mother in their living room during a recruiting visit. Spurrier got favorable reviews, despite Lattimore’s mother insisting Spurrier needed to loosen his hips up a bit.
Dancing prevailed over history. Lattimore, a perfect running back, announced his decision in a suburb of Spartanburg, a town known for being the corporate headquarters for Denny’s and for being the one-time headquarters of the South Carolina Game Fowl Breeders Association.
South Carolina is old. American old, but still, old in so many ways most of its neighbors are not. South Carolina is old enough to have failed colonies on its coasts, places where English and Spanish came to shore and disappeared into the mud. Early colonists described it as a “healthy” climate. Most died of malaria. People coming from England in the 18th century had no idea what healthy meant.
South Carolina is old enough to be English-ish. When enough people made it to the colony and survived the fearsome casualty rates from malaria, dysentery, and other body-devouring horrors, South Carolina metastasized out of the marshes and scrub pine as something less like a hotter, diseased Connecticut, and more like Barbados. Farming reigned. The slave population boomed.
Something about the state — the latitude, the heat, sitting at the exact distance from the home world, the proximity to the more Anglophile colonies of the Caribbean — caused South Carolinians to remember only the least practical elements of being English. The planters wore heavy, woolen London finery in the heat like bewigged, sun-poisoned jackasses. Charleston got a Queen Street, a slave market, and no functioning sewage system. Gentlemanly pursuits included gambling, drinking, and cockfighting, usually mixed together. Disputes between white men often ended via duel.
If the whole region suffered from the derangements of the culture of honor, South Carolina had a scorching case of honor culture derangement so disproportionately intense, even other Southern states talked about it in awed tones. South Carolina dueled longer and more often than anywhere else.
By 1833 in New England, dueling was already an embarrassing throwback. Challenges were rare, easily refused, and laughed off.
That shit did not fly in South Carolina.
In 1833, just outside Columbia, South Carolina, Govan Roach and James G. Adams fought a duel with pistols. The cause: a fight in the dining hall of South Carolina College over a plate of fish. Beating each other senseless in the cafeteria would not be enough. Honor had been violated. Someone had to die.
I mention this for two important themes.
- Both fired their pistols, both with intent to kill. Both succeeded. Adams got lucky and died a few hours later. Roach lingered in pre-modern-medicine South Carolina for a year before his injuries caught up with him. Two people fighting over a plate of fish met in an orderly fashion to shoot each other under a set of rules where, by rule, neither could attempt to avoid getting shot. This is a pointless fight that no one won.
- South Carolina College, founded in 1801 to promote understanding between the feuding upstate and low country, would become the University of South Carolina. Their eventual rival would be Clemson University.
Marcus Lattimore won the job of starting running back as a freshman.
There is nothing springier or more indestructible than a freshman running back. They do not understand a lot about football’s basic brutalities.
Running back prospects coming out of college know they have an expiration date on their bodies. They know that date comes a lot sooner for them than for other players not teed up for contact on every snap. Running backs leave as soon as they can to get NFL money and ask for as much of it up front as possible. If they make it to 30 in football, they might as well be 40, and if they make it to 35, they might as well be 60.
At Florida on Mondays, I used to pass running back Fred Taylor walking to class. He was 21 years old and looked not one day younger than 35. After game weekends, I’d see him hobbling up North-South Drive in Nike slides with two ice packs on his knees and a hellacious limp. If someone asked me to guess how long he would play in the NFL, I’d have guessed three seasons. He played 13 before retiring. His ankles have to feel like broken glass in the mornings.
Running backs know this. At 19, they never believe it, though.
Their fast-twitch lizard brains — unconsciously reacting to defenders in play, dodging, flighting-and-fighting through defenses — do not believe they are mortal. They act accordingly. They do things like Lattimore did, but few on the level he could.
In his second start for the Gamecocks, he broke 42 tackles on 37 carries against Georgia. None of these came off long runs. Lattimore just chipped it out of the defense three or four yards at a time, twisting while falling through holes, shaking off ankle tackles. He worked forward with an unmistakable lean, low and crouched but somehow stealing another yard or two at a time.
Lattimore was not a knockout artist. He worked through submission. When South Carolina beat Alabama in 2010, Lattimore only got 23 carries in a lumbering game played at Nick Saban’s glacial pace. Neither team had more than 60 snaps on offense.
Neither team really seemed to care, either. Alabama played that way anyway, and South Carolina under a reformed Spurrier ran deliberately because they had Lattimore. He only had 93 yards total, but brutal running controlled the clock, got crucial first downs, and opened up just enough space to let Alshon Jeffery cripple Alabama’s secondary. Lattimore had two touchdowns on the ground and one receiving TD. It didn’t matter that this was normally shaky South Carolina against the defending national title holders. Lattimore was foundation enough for a gameplan.
South Carolina beat Alabama at their own game, hammering away until they upset the Tide 35-21. The submission artist was infectious. Lattimore thumped out 40 carries, 212 yards, and three rushing TDs in new-look Carolina’s win over division bully Florida. In the script, this is the turning point: the coach upending his former program in their own stadium, the long-suffering team finding form, the brilliant youngster rallying a program to uninterrupted glory. South Carolina won the SEC East for the first time. Things were coming. Good, palpably exciting things.
This is where that would usually happen. But instead in the SEC Championship, South Carolina rematched with Auburn, a team they’d lost narrowly to earlier that season. The Gamecocks caught 56 points of hellacious, Cam Newton-led offense right in the teeth in Atlanta. In the Chick-fil-A Bowl on the same field a month later, QB Stephen Garcia threw three INTs and South Carolina lost to Florida State.
Lattimore left the game after three carries, one catch, and one concussion suffered when FSU defender Greg Reid screamed out of the backfield and puts his shoulder into Lattimore’s chest. After the season, Lattimore won several freshman of the year honors. His NFL stock, per Todd McShay of ESPN, was “on the rise.”
Clemson and South Carolina never held a proper varsity cockfight. They also never held a proper duel.
If they wanted to, they would need a four-chapter, 27-step process just to get to the field of honored combat. The procedure involved in orchestrating a duel could be years longer than the actual duel itself. It involved note-sending, formal receipt of those notes, and a proper correspondence to examine degrees of insult, receipt of said insult, and receipt of receipt of the agreement on insult.
Setting up a duel by the rules was so involved and specific that it’s probably worth assuming a fair percentage of challenges never came to be, via everyone just forgetting they sent a letter in the first place. The eight-chapter guide to dueling was written by John Lyde Wilson, and its full title is a good indicator of how 19th century authors did not like to leave much to the imagination.
THE CODE OF HONOR;
RULES FOR THE GOVERNMENT
PRINCIPALS AND SECONDS
Wilson took up writing the guide as a diversion after he served as governor of South Carolina.
Football games only took a few hours and required fewer notes than duels. They still got sideways, and fast — usually off violations of one or the other’s “honor.”
In 1902, after a week of buildup rife with brass knuckles and a pregame parade featuring a transparency of a triumphant rooster standing over the ruined figure of a tiger, Clemson lost their rivalry game to South Carolina 12-6.
After the loss, Clemson cadets — the school was an all-white, all-male military college until 1955 — stuck around in Columbia to hang out at the state fair. When they spotted a similar cartoon transparency of a rooster crowing over a disheveled tiger in a shop window on Friday, the enraged cadets went apeshit.* They grabbed their rifles and marched a mile and a half to the South Carolina campus with bayonets at the ready. A standoff ensued with outnumbered but heavily armed South Carolina students inside a building.
*Yes, it’s true. The ACC has been playing on Thursdays since 1902.
The standoff ended in part with an act so immense, it has to go in the annals of country badassery as nothing less than canonical:
Assistant coach Christie Benet arrived about this time offering to diffuse the situation by fighting any Clemson student chosen by the cadets.
After Benet’s rolling up, jumping on the wall the South Carolina students were using as a barricade, and offering to fight anyone Clemson had to offer — and receiving no takers — the situation was defused, mostly by the arrival of the police and university officials threatening expulsion for anyone who dared fire a shot.
Negotiations ensued. The offending transparency was burned between the two sides, and everyone left to go look at the lion on display at the state fair. (The lion’s name, for the record, was Wallace.) Benet would go on to a long career in Southern politics.
In every situation, there are those who help, those who stand by, and those who — intentionally or not — just make things worse. It is a natural talent. They are the pilots who reach for the fuel dump button when trying to restart engines over water. They are the drivers who mash the gas instead of the brake when careening toward a crowded crosswalk. They are everywhere, and in South Carolina there are two for every helper. In 1861, there had to have been two men standing over the cannon with a lit fuse pointed at Fort Sumter, plus one running and yelling: Again?
In 1946, counterfeiters set the stage for a riot by flooding the Clemson-USC market with fake tickets. Angry fans with bogus tickets mobbed the gates. This was all very bad, but remember, there is always someone who makes it worse.
Making it worse in 1946 was the Clemson fan who — at the fever pitch of civil disorder in Columbia’s stadium — decided to strangle a live chicken at the 50-yard line in front of God, both fanbases, and Strom Thurmond. (Who, for once, was not the one making a situation worse.) Fans were finally allowed in, and stood right up to the edge of the field in droves to watch the game.
The Gamecocks won 26-14. The poor chicken disappeared, another carcass tossed into the vast, rank pile of historical chickens of South Carolina.
Marcus Lattimore started at running back again for South Carolina’s 2011 season. He was better as a sophomore, and needed to be. Spurrier was breaking in a new quarterback, Connor Shaw, a QB best described by his ability to run well enough, front squat a truck, and (eventually) pass well enough as a senior to throw 24 TDs to just one INT.
It also helped for South Carolina fans that Shaw looked like the first search result for “Stephen Garcia, but the opposite.” Garcia looked and played like an ultimate frisbee champion moonlighting as a quarterback for beer money. Shaw looked like he’d just walked out of the barber shop at Parris Island, took orders well, and didn’t get the dishonorable discharge Garcia would get six games into the 2011 season.*
*Garcia violated the terms of his 2011 suspension, earned by disrupting an April 2011 meeting about making better life choices, which was in part the result of a suspension for violating team rules during the bowl loss the prior season. I know. It’s as complicated and amazing as Garcia himself. Did I mention that everyone else in Garcia’s family went to Harvard? And he chose to go to South Carolina?
Lattimore did not so much restart as continue. He battered Georgia for 176 yards on 27 carries in a wild, 45-42 victory in Athens. That stat is mostly forgotten in favor of the game’s main legacy, that Spurrier called a fake punt using a 278-pound defensive end, Melvin Ingram, and that it not only worked but freed up a man the size of an ostrich to run through the entire coverage unit.
The CBS camera zoomed in on the face of Georgia’s costumed mascot, Hairy Dawg, clapping his paws to his face in horror. Anyone who says one expression can’t convey a full range of emotions has never watched a sweaty person in a plush bulldog costume react to their team’s moment of negligence.
Lattimore gobbled a greedy 246 yards against Navy, was balanced and caught the ball well in a win over Vanderbilt, and struggled in the Gamecocks’ first loss of the season against Auburn.
His semi-slump continued through the fourth quarter of a brutal, 14-12 road win against MIssissippi State. The game was an SEC classic in the worst sense. No one moved the ball at all. Quarterbacks played indifferently and under constant pressure. Running backs like Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard — a dishonest 5’7” and truthful 225 on the cleat, low to the ground with an ass best described as “Costco-sized” — and Lattimore saw more defensive line facemasks than open grass. The game was the most usual of disappointments, an SEC matchup so tight, a well-struck fart could have torn the thing apart at the seams, with no one actually feeling impolite enough to try.
In the fourth quarter, Lattimore blocked down on a direct snap to wide receiver Bruce Ellington. A lineman spilled out of the slapping, grabbing, and tossing at the point of attack and rolled up on the outside of Lattimore’s left knee. Lattimore crumpled to the grass. His mother came down to field level. Lattimore left Starkville with what Spurrier described as “a sprained knee.” The running back woke up in Columbia a day later with a torn ACL and MCL.
Lattimore was done for the year.
Despite losing the engine, South Carolina continued to do good things. This alone — not collapsing on the spot — was a miracle all by itself. Every other major uptick in South Carolina history came with its own regressive snap back to the mean, a mean that in columns looks like a long string of bad Texas Hold ‘Em hands: six and fives, seven and fours, five and sevens all the way down.
The franchise had only 10 ten games once before in the entire history of the program. In 1984, a chain-smoking, aviator sunglass-wearing, walking Camaro ad of a coach, Joe Morrison, got the Gamecocks to 10 wins and a brief #2 ranking. Morrison was pure sex for the Gamecocks, bringing the Black Magic uniforms, installing a frenetic run ‘n’ shoot, and starting the tradition of playing Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as pregame hype music. He had a mistress that followed him from his former job at New Mexico and no one really cared.
Morrison starred in a local ad for a limo company in Charleston.
Watch it and figure out the whole story, how a moment like this goes in South Carolina history, how every gesture is the public flip side of a desolate counterfactual.
The coach walks off a private jet. Morrison was either paying players or looking away while others did it. Morrison has the door held open by a waiting driver. Coaches at South Carolina were giving steroids to football players in the locker room while Morrison pretended not to notice. Morrison cruises through town to meet some friends. The administration was going to fire him after the 1988 Sports Illustrated article broke the whole scandal.
Morrison sits and urges you to consider this fine Charleston restaurant, and when you do, take this local limo service to get there. Morrison beat everyone to the punch by dying of a massive heart attack in the stadium showers after a racquetball game on February 5, 1989. He and his friends toast. The restaurant had been recently been seized by the federal government as part of the largest drug sting in South Carolina history, centering on a wealthy group of laid-back dealers who met as undergrads at the University of South Carolina.
In 2011, despite losing Lattimore to a knee injury, South Carolina wins 10 games for only the second time in school history, and becomes the first Gamecock team to win 11 when they defeat Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl. They finish, for the first time ever, in the top 10 of both major polls.
The head kick is the part to remember.
The cause is usually forgotten, the buildup completely erased, the aftermath barely recalled. People might forget that, in the brass-knuckled history of South Carolina vs. Clemson, the phrase “near-riot” is common, but “actual riot” rare. For all the upstate/downstate hate-mongering, the fruitless years of ruining each other’s seasons, the minute pickings-apart of what makes Clemson-ness and South Carolina-hood better or different, the two teams had never really a.) stopped playing each other to cool down, like Alabama and Auburn had, or b.) fought.
The 2004 South Carolina-Clemson game was already ugly enough on paper. Gamecocks coach Holtz was done already. He was broken by too long a stay in Columbia, age, and a pair of deflating asskickings by Tennessee and Florida. He was on fumes, the team functionally headless and miserable.
If this were an NTSB investigation of a plane crash, the words “mice living in wiring, open gas cans in cargo hold” would appear 15th on the list of possible issues with this flight. The players wanted to send Holtz out a winner. They spent the night before the game watching Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson level hapless dudes on the court and in the stands in Detroit during Malice at the Palace. The players talked about it — a lot.
Clemson had just lost to a one-win Duke the week before. There were no good signs here.
Everybody was already mad, and it got worse when the Tigers lined up to run down their hill and found a group of South Carolina players waiting at the bottom. A small brawl ensued, but was broken up without too much incident.
Then for three quarters or so, there was a football game. It was not a good football game. South Carolina got down early, there was the kind of clumsy game where one team misfires and kicks field goals, and the other team refuses to make them pay for not scoring touchdowns. Anyone watching it remembers it as a stuttering kind of game from two teams who just wanted to lay down and cry in the dark for a while.
Then, with South Carolina down 29-7 with 5:48 left, everyone on the field started trying to tear each other’s heads off.
The initial spark: Clemson lineman Bobby Williams threw South Carolina QB Syvelle Newton down after an incomplete pass. A South Carolina lineman intervened, a Clemson lineman followed suit, and then the reason combat sports have rings and cages became very clear to someone watching at a distance. There was not enough head or swivel for anyone to stay safe — everyone in a 50-yard radius was eligible to catch it, in all directions, and without warning, often from huge men angry at mediocrity, being hurt, losing, and playing a game where, in lieu of pay, they received half of an education and a serving of something someone might call honor.
With the coaching staffs of both teams and a sizeable group of South Carolina law enforcement working frantically to de-escalate the chain-reaction brawl, the fight still took a good 10 minutes to unspool, a long time to sit and wait on anything, but an eternity in a fight situation. One hundred and two years after students from both schools were talked out of shooting each other, the biggest fear was the brawl spilling up into the stands.
Ken Ruinard, a photographer for the Anderson Independent-Mail, caught the photo of Clemson wide receiver Yusuf Kelly kicking Woodly Telfort, a South Carolina offensive lineman, in the head. That is the image to remember, per the official story of the game, but there is another no one caught on camera. In Holtz’s last game as South Carolina head coach, he was reportedly out there, a 67-year-old man clinging to someone’s leg, begging them to stop. You know: before someone really got hurt for no reason out there.
Yusuf Kelly now works in law enforcement in the state of South Carolina.
The other grand, vestigial English inheritance in South Carolina is cockfighting. It was the sport of kings and is the pastime of men named Sonny, Red, Bud, men who meet on private farms on dirty back roads marked only by oil drums standing to let you know: this way.
Nothing about cockfighting is a thing of the past. In 2004, a secretary of agriculture — Republican Charles Sharpe of Aiken — was accused of taking $10,000 from a cockfighting ring for protection from state investigators. He spent two years in prison for his part in protecting the cockfighting ring, a sophisticated group advertising itself as the South Carolina Game Fowl Breeders Association.
They staged cockfights on a 40 acre farm in tiny Swansea, South Carolina, about thirty minutes outside of Columbia in the middle of the state. Fights were open to members only, but dues could be paid in cash on the spot. Twenty bucks made anyone rolling up to the ring a member of the South Carolina Game Fowl Breeders Association. Entry to the day’s fights cost another $20 a head.
The setup at the farm in Swansea was serious: well-built fighting pits with stands, a scoreboard, a weigh-in station for chickens. They even had a concession stand. The only thing really distinguishing it from any other sporting event were the oil drums full of dead chickens. Once a cock was wounded and lost in the ring, it was beaten against a tree and thrown into the pile with the rest of the dead.
Investigators found barrels full of dead chickens when they raided the Swansea farm in 2002, and again in 2009 when they raided the same spot and arrested 21 unlicensed sportsmen for illegal gambling and cockfighting. They’d changed nothing.
Marcus Lattimore healed up for the 2012 season. He rushed for 662 yards before Herman Lathers of Tennessee came in for a tackle, rolled Lattimore over another defender, and trapped his leg between two Vols. Lattimore’s knee blew apart, dislocating and shredding every major ligament in the joint. He entered the NFL Draft after the 2012 season. He was taken by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round and played for a season and a half before retiring due to lingering issues with his knee.
Marcus Lattimore was a perfect football being. All perfect football beings become ruined, destroyed, battered past the point of utility or reason. Marcus Lattimore was a Gamecock. They are all gamecocks, briefly beloved by gentlemen on the weekends and select Thursday nights.