Fans at center of it all in Charlotte
Neutral site for ECU-South Carolina meant travel for everyone
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – College football fans come from all over on Saturdays to see their favorite teams play at home. They also follow them on the road, near and far.
So when it comes to neutral-site games, both teams are in the same boat. There are all sorts of travel plans involved, details to be hammered out. Where’s the tailgate going to be on foreign soil? Who’s bringing the grill?
As was the case Saturday night in downtown Charlotte when East Carolina met No. 12 South Carolina for the first time since 1999, at Bank of America Stadium – home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers. And what a game it was.
The Gamecocks fought out of a 17-0 second-quarter hole to put away the Pirates 56-37, thanks in large part to quarterback Stephen Garcia’s spark off the bench after sitting out the first quarter because of all-too-familiar disciplinary reasons.
It was considered an East Carolina home game. But that’s a bit deceiving. ECU’s campus is a solid four-hour drive. Columbia? Only an hour and a half away. That might explain the 60-40 fan advantage for Gamecocks fans in the crowd of 58,272. But that doesn’t explain some of the far-away places that some fans came to see their favorite teams.
They make our road trip seem easy.
Take Michelle Lorenzo, an East Carolina alum who drove from Jupiter, Fla. That’s 650 miles for those keeping track at home. She had to be here Saturday night with her friends.
“It’s the atmosphere because you feel like you’re at home,” Lorenzo said. “Most of these people are alumni and you know so many people. Anyone who’s an outsider doesn’t really fit in and we won’t let them into the club.”
South Carolina fans made the trek from just to the south in droves. It was a no-brainer for almost everyone involved when the game was announced in June 2007.
“As soon as tickets went on sale we got them,” Joe Allen said. “This is one of the easiest road trips we’ll take to see our Gamecocks, though. We go to every game no matter where it is. We’re a family and we wouldn’t have it any other way. They need us here.”
They really will follow their Gamecocks anywhere. Including a 23-hour drive in June to see them win a baseball national championship. There is no place that’s too far.
“You’d follow your team anywhere,” Lois Seward from Columbia said. “We’re here to support them because they do a lot for us.”
“I’d go to the west coast if they were winning,” Mary Ann Young said. “We’ve gone down to Florida in the past and to bowl games. I think this year we’re so caught up in South Carolina thinking they are going to be good that it was an easy decision to come up here.”
Then there’s the Paulk family. Leonard and Sonya Paulk had a unique perspective Saturday night. They had a son on each team, South Carolina linebacker Rodney Paulk and East Carolina defensive back Leonard Paulk met for the first time on the gridiron since playing on the same Columbia, S.C., high school team which made the state championship game in 2005.
But this game could’ve been played anywhere in the world and they’d find a way to follow their sons in split ECU-South Carolina jerseys and hats.
“When we found out about the game we went ahead and got these jerseys made [picture],” Leonard Paulk said. “I have a cousin in Korea who was able to make five of them for us and send them here.”
“They could be playing thousands of miles away and I would be here,” Sonya Paulk said. “It’s the love and the atmosphere that people keeping coming back for and following the team. It’s a family bond; there’s camaraderie.”
This isn’t saying that they are the only two fanbases that travel. It’s simply highlighting part of the pageantry that can get lost sometimes in the shuffle of everything else from week-to-week.
While on the road from Atlanta to Charlotte, we couldn’t keep track of the number of skull and bone flags and Gamecocks car magnets. Not to mention plenty of other schools as well. Were they heading to Clemson to see the Tigers? Were they on the way to Blacksburg to see the Hokies?
Knowing the way most college football fans operate, they were.