By Jason Gilmer, HubCity Writers Project
With 90 minutes until kickoff, fans are lined up at multiple gates waiting to storm in and reserve their spots on the concrete bleachers at Byrnes High School’s Nixon Field. Most wear royal blue t-shirts and ball caps and will get seats high on the bleachers so they can watch one of the nation’s top prep programs, right here in Spartanburg County.
ESPN will broadcast the game at noon on a steamy August Saturday and fans are counting on a season-opening win against a nationally-ranked high school team from Florida.
I’m here at a table inside the stadium to sign copies of a new book I have just written about the history of prep football in Spartanburg County, a county that is steeped in football tradition. Since 1950 no other county in South Carolina has won as many state championships as Spartanburg.
This highly anticipated match-up is one of the first games played in Spartanburg County this season. By the following Friday night all nine high school programs will be in action. There are expectations for success at every school in this county, from Landrum in the North, to Woodruff in the South, Broome in the east and Dorman in the west. Spartanburg County is a great place to witness why passion is so high for prep football.
For a decade, my vantage point on Friday nights each autumn didn’t vary: as a reporter for the local newspaper I constantly stood on tiptoes to look over someone’s shoulder pads. With a yellow legal pad and multiple click-top pens, I would walk behind some of top football players charting the action on the fields.
Spartanburg County is a place where football tradition runs as deep as the roots of the tall oaks that dot the landscape.
Residents don’t need to drive across the county’s lines to witness the best football in South Carolina. Some schools, like Byrnes and Woodruff, have won more state championships than others in the county, but every school contributes to the winning ways.
“Spartanburg County has that football attitude, sort of like the SEC’s attitude,” Dorman High School coach Dave Gutshall once told me. “Football is really important and the community loves it.”
I’ve seen grills and tents set up as families grill out in parking lots before big games. Local retail stores in some of the county’s smaller towns remove notices of “50 percent off sale” on their outside signs and replace them with banners reading “Good luck, Panthers!” or “Nice Win, Vikings!” Eateries along main streets fill up on Friday evening with fans donning their school colors.
This doesn’t happen once every few weeks, but every week. With the Wofford College Terriers in town, the Clemson Tigers and South Carolina Gamecocks just hours away and an NFL program in the neighboring state, you’d think fans would have bigger games to watch.
But Friday night football is big here. I’ve seen almost 15,000 fans pour into a stadium to watch a high school game. The largest crowd ever hosted at Wofford College’s stadium was there for a prep game between rivals Spartanburg and Dorman high schools.
In Spartanburg County we watch kids on Friday night who ultimately continue playing on Saturdays for college programs. Some are lucky to continue playing in the NFL. We knew them “back when.” Four local players are currently in the NFL—former Byrnes running back Marcus Lattimore was selected in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers last year; Broome’s D.J. Moore is a nickel back for the Carolina Panthers; Spartanburg’s Landon Cohen is now on the defensive line with the Dallas Cowboys and Byrnes’ defensive end Everette Dawkins is with the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad.
Many other successful NFL players have come out of the county—like running back Stephen Davis, quarterback Steve Fuller and defensive linemen Ryan Sims and Gabe Wilkins.
Spartanburg County has dominated the prep football landscape because of these stars and because of thousands of others who never draw similar headlines. In the 1970s Woodruff High School won four state titles, Spartanburg High School won four in the 1990s and Byrnes has won eight since 2000.
Here at Nixon Field, the fans poring through the gates know that their bellowed Byrnes Rebels have been one of the most talked about programs in the nation for several years, finishing several seasons ranked in national polls. ESPN is back to broadcast the team because of those rankings and the atmosphere at the stadium.
“You have different walks of life coming together,” Byrnes coach Bobby Bentley once told me. “It’s not just guys who love football. You have the upper class coming and the lower class coming. You have a lot of ladies who love Byrnes football. It’s something that rallies the community.”
A large inflatable helmet stands in the end zone for the Rebels to run through, and as they gather at its mouth, the stands erupt. Players run through it onto the field, raising their arms and pumping their fists. Fans go crazy. The atmosphere is charged.
Even I want to put on pads and tackle someone.
Jason Gilmer , HubCity Writers Project
Jason covered dozens of prep football games as a sportswriter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. His new book, published by Hub City Press is Where Champions Play: Spartanburg County Prep Football.
Byrnes High School won the game he describes in this piece, 51-36 against Apopka, Fla. High School, which was ranked 22nd in the nation. (Photos by Pam Duncan)