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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Paladins Wake Up the Echoes in Remarkable Win (Part 1)

Saturday was 1978 all over again.

Nearly 35 years to the day, Furman earned their first-ever Southern Conference football championship during that remarkable inaugural season under Coach Dick Sheridan. On Saturday, the Paladins pulled off an even more mind-boggling--and record-setting--13th championship.

They beat the Wofford Terriers, their oldest and perhaps most annoying rival, in order to get it. After finishing their part of the job, the post-game scoreboard watching paid off. Samford engineered a miracle comeback to beat Elon and give the Paladins their first automatic playoff bid since 2004, and first playoff appearance since 2006.

It was a terrific day, partially spent greeting old friends with whom I played during my brief and relatively forgettable (at least to everyone else) Furman career. I spoke with Brian Bratton, who was part of the last SoCon championship in 2004; and a winner of the Grey Cup as part of the Montreal team.

I also shook hands with some of the same men that won Furman's first conference title in '78, including current Furman coaches Bruce Fowler, Tim Sorrells and Jimmy Kiser; and former coach Bobby Johnson. I saw a slew of other players that I had once chased around the field for autographs after every Furman game.

I was seven years old at that first championship game. I trudged up the hill to sit on the scratchy concrete bleachers of the old Sirrine Stadium in downtown Greenville, ready to cheer on these college students who seemed like giants to me. Even in those days, Sirrine was a relic, with its rickety wooden field houses and cinderblock steps. It fit the surrounding landscape of a downtown area that was deteriorating and falling behind the times along with Furman's football venue.

This was in the shadow of the plot of land that once housed Furman University, the version that my parents and grandparents once new. It fit into a disappearing world when students could walk to the stadium after visiting Belk Simpson or Meyers-Arnold on what was once a vital Main Street. With the mills closing down and the stores moving out to Haywood Mall, downtown needed something good to happen. Why not a Southern Conference Championship?

I was decked out in whatever purple I had to wear. Affordable Furman merchandise was even harder to come across in those days than it is now. We actually took food into the game with us (Can you believe this was ever allowed?).

For every minute of that day in 1978, I sat on the edge of those concrete bleachers, hoping that Furman would beat their arch-rivals, The Citadel, for the first time in seven years to have a shot at the conference title. We saw Citadel fans wearing t-shirts that said, "Beat the Doo-Doo Out of Furman" as we walked in, forever cementing my spite for the Bulldogs.

(Side note:  I remember my mother being appalled at those t-shirts and that awful language. Yes, even in the 70s, it was a much more genteel time when southern ladies still clutched their pearls at such things. We might be relieved these days if that was the worst thing we heard or saw at a game).

The Paladins had come out of nowhere, under first-year head coach Dick Sheridan, to go 7-3. They needed help to win the conference, but they had to take care of business first.

Across the field was their despised rival and their former head coach, Art Baker. He left Greenville for the head coaching position at The Citadel, an act of treason punishable by making you an outcast at the wine and cheese tailgates of the Furman faithful.

Baker followed the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy when he made the move. He didn't win a single game against the Bulldogs while coaching the Paladins, and changing sidelines would not change his luck. Not today.

Halfway through a somewhat lackluster game (this was in the days when football still involved defense), Furman President Dr. John E. Johns left the press box, walked down to the cheerleader microphone stand, took of the purple jacket and grabbed the mic. Apparently, he had enough of the fans saying Bravo! and clapping gently, because he looked at the crowd and said, "We're gonna make some noise!"

He went well beyond the "FU One Time!" cheer. He kept the microphone in hand until Furman's last fateful play.

The Paladins had taken a 17-13 lead on the backs of an old-school defense and methodical offense. But The Citadel had the ball for one final drive, and masterfully moved the ball to a point where they could only become a part of Furman football history.

Furman stopped the 'Dogs on the final play of the game that wasn't the final play of the game. A penalty gave The Citadel the ball at the one-yard line for one more chance with no time left on the clock. An oh, by the way, they had one of the best running backs in the nation in future Pro Bowler Stump Mitchell.

That's when it happened. The Stand.

They didn't exactly have HD in 1978...
Everyone in the stadium new who was getting the ball, and that included Steve Botkin. He was the center of the storm that greeted Mitchell before he even sniffed the goal line, along with just about everyone else. The Furman defense overwhelmed the Bulldogs and made a goal-line stand for the ages. The sidelines and the stadium erupted, players and students rushed the field, and Furman football history changed forever.

The Paladins beat The Citadel in 12 of the next 13 match-ups. They also proceeded to win 11 more conference championships and a national title, things never envisioned before Nov. 18, 1978.

I pulled my mom and dad and somewhat disinterested sister onto the field as fast as I could. I ran with my game program to get autographs from Russell Gambrell and David Kelly (whose injured arm could barely write). Then I found quarterback David Henderson, who said, "Here, want a sweatband?" He tossed it to me like Mean Joe Greene tossing a jersey to some kid with a Coke bottle. And with that fateful toss, his least important of the day, he cemented my eternal passion for Furman football.

The deal was not quite sealed at that point. There was scoreboard watching to do. For some reason, WLOS-13 carried the Western Carolina-Appalachian State game that evening, a game that Furman needed Appalachian to win in order to make their first championship official. I glued myself to our 13-inch screen inside of our wooden console television, hooked up to the stack antenna on the roof. With mom yelling at me to get up and clean my room, I refused to budge until I knew the trophy was officially coming to Greenville.

On Nov. 24, 2013, I was a 42-year old who was once again 7 going on 8. The stadium is on campus rather than downtown, with field turf and a modern, updated facelift being added. But many of the original championship players from the relic of Sirrine were still there, including Furman coaches Bruce Fowler, Tim Sorrells and Jimmy Kiser. I shook hands with Steve Williams, Bruce Lancaster, and Charlie Anderson, the same guys that I chased for autographs after every Furman game when they wore the diamond F. I also had the honor of shaking hands with guys like Don Clardy, Fred Sturgis, and Kevin Welmaker, with whom I wore the uniform during my brief and relatively uneventful career.

This time, I sat on the edge of my metal-backed seat, and took pictures with my iPhone as someone unveiled the numbers "2013" on the field house, under the sign heading that said "Southern Conference Championships". And I followed ESPN Game Cast as I sat at the restaurant, waiting for confirmation that Samford would beat Elon, giving Furman the title and the automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.

I don't think I was one bit less excited than I was in 1978. And I am forever grateful to that group of players who tolerated annoying little kids and overcome everyone's lack of expectations to begin a history that culminated in the unlikeliest of championships last Saturday.

Like the Originals, the 2013 edition of Furman football came out of nowhere to earn a championship, to prove that they had grit and perseverance beyond anyone's expectations. This group continues the legend of the 1978 Paladins by simply refusing to believe that it can't be done.

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