Game Day – South Point High School, Belmont

One play, one and a half yards to go. The South Point Red Raiders huddle around their coach, get their instructions, and then, weary but hungry, line up across from the ball. If they can keep the Lincolnton Wolfpack from crossing the goal line, they win. If not, they lose. Simple as that. Eight thousand fans in a rollicking sea of red and white are on their feet and screaming when the ball is snapped. Lincolnton’s quarterback runs right as a swarm of red closes in. He cocks his arm and throws.

The game started at 7:30, but that’s not when it began. For some people, it started on their first day of kindergarten. Maybe even before that, if their parents graduated from South Point. For others, it started in Pop Warner football, where each and every Belmont team runs the same triple option offense that they’ll run if they’re lucky enough to be a Red Raider someday. For many, the game never ends, even after high school. Some of the same people are in the same stands, every Friday night, some for more than thirty years. This is Belmont, and in Belmont on a Friday night, this is what you do.

In forty-one years of existence, South Point has won sixteen conference championships and four state titles, the latest one last year. The team has done it with just three head coaches. Four hours before kickoff of the second game of the season, Scott Van Pelt rattles off more facts as he rides around on his gasoline-powered cart, veering down a path to a kudzu-framed practice field. “You don’t walk here, you run,” he says, and points to a thermometer carved from wood, hanging from a shed, eternally fixed at 72 degrees. Any time a player complains about the Carolina heat, a coach can simply point at the thermometer. See? It’s not as hot as you think.

Van Pelt drives with a spot of sweat on the back of his blue T-shirt, his sunglasses hovering over his mustache, and a BlackBerry strapped to his belt. He’s trying to find an extension cord. Every Big Red booster has a job. Scott is the co-vice president. He does the maintenance. Scott is on the phone with the other co-vice president, his wife, Rhonda. Then he’s back on the cart, looking at the field. The SP logo in the center is faded. Scott can’t find the person responsible. “I think he’s going to get more paint,” he says.

Van Pelt takes a lap around the field, the turf green and freshly mowed. He rounds a corner and hits the gas as he motors down a straightaway on the asphalt running track. The weathered concrete stands whiz by on the left, fronted by a chain-link fence full of red and white banners advertising nearly everything Belmont has to offer, from Clement’s Automotive to Chick-Fil-A. The bleachers simmer in the bright August sun. A few Red Raiders fans have already put down blue tape, blankets, and bleacher seats to mark their territory. Some spots have been taken since 2, a full five and a half hours before kickoff. In the middle are nearly 400 red plastic seats bolted to the aluminum, with last names printed on the back. If you want one of these, you’ll need to come up with $50 for a permanent seat license. Yes, Van Pelt says, the same concept that helped pay for Bank of America Stadium helps the Red Raiders pay for football. Only eight to ten people a year give up their PSLs, he says. The waiting list has 150 names on it.

A PSL or a ten-dollar bill gets you into the hospitality area behind the west end zone, where a restaurant in Belmont caters every home game. Tonight, it’s Graham’s Fish Fry. Van Pelt thinks it’ll be a good night. The varsity team is not back yet from its pregame meal across town at Unity Baptist Church. Players eat grilled chicken, green beans, and a baked potato. Every week. Different church. Same meal.

The cart lurches back up the hill into the parking lot that separates the stadium from the school. The best spots are reserved for the PSL owners and boosters. Here, Scott finds Rhonda, who has returned from the grocery store. She is surrounded by JV players. They don’t get a meal. They hover around her as she stands on the sidewalk and looks down at her clipboard through her clip-on sunglasses. Some are her students at South Point High School, where she’s taught business for the past ten years.

“How come they don’t paint the middle of the field?” a player in a Hollister T-shirt asks her. The logo is too faded for his liking. She tells him to quit whining, and the Hollister kid whines anyway. “We just killed Lincolnton last night!” he says of the JV team’s triumph. He wants to know why the varsity gets the perks. Rhonda squints at the new championship banner that hangs on the back of a storage shed. “I hope everything’s spelled right,” she says. “I didn’t get to proof it.”

It’s 4:30. Amid the bustle of the painting, the cooking, the unfolding, and the carrying, a six-year-old boy with messy blond hair walks on the edge of the field, running his hand along the fence on the perimeter. He points his wide eyes at the grown-up next to him. “Can I play football here?” he says.

 

The bus rolls back in from Unity Baptist. Under-classmen stream into the locker room. The seniors are allowed to park behind the west end zone, just so the entire stadium can see their beat-up sedans and pick-up trucks. Call it an auto show for senior hubris. Girls twirl South Point flags between two tan buildings as the drum line’s warm-up beats bounce off the bricks. In the parking lot, the cool kids tailgate around a smoker, cooking up meat and playing corn hole. They do their best to look uninterested. Up the car-clogged street, Lisa Jackson and her Facebook-organized tailgate party have taken over the nearby tennis courts off Nixon Road. The smell of propane and hot dogs fills the air as parents eat and kids toss footballs and cartwheel across the pavement. Lisa moved here thirteen years ago from Gastonia because she wanted to live in a football town. She enunciates this. “Belmont is a foot. Ball. Town.”

Back inside Lineberger Stadium, cheerleaders dressed in red and white with ribbons in their hair concentrate on primping themselves inside the women’s restroom. Awestruck little girls stand behind them, watching. Red Raider dreams aren’t only for the boys.

 

It’s 7 ’o clock, and the players are antsy. The Red Raiders sit, fully padded, inside the locker room, silent. The loudest noise is the ice maker in the next room. Players drink, nervously. Ice cubes clank around inside Gatorade bottles as they try to hydrate; the sound echoes off the red concrete floor and bounces around the room. Legs quiver, full of restrained energy and tension. A defensive lineman bangs his helmet gently on his head. Thunk. Then again. Thunk. Nobody looks anyone else in the eye.

At 7:07, the seniors stride in. They kneel on the concrete. There is no more space on the benches. A coach walks in, barking at a defensive back. “You better get your jaw set,” the coach snarls as his victim woefully looks up. “He busted a kickoff against you last week, didn’t he?” Suddenly, frustrations snap back into focus. Words erupt. The locker room is abuzz. “Shut up!” someone yells and, like that, it’s silent again, except for the whirr of the ice maker.

The quarterback, a buzz-cut junior named Patrick Horne, sits in front of a dry-erase board full of diagrams and formations: 50, 4-4, 6-1. On the left side is a schedule. Minute by minute, it describes the day. There are only three lines left to go:

7:17: Reminders
7:24: Captains
7:30: Lincolnton

Suddenly, the coach is in the room. “Everybody grab a teammate,” he says as he walks, and everybody in the room puts a hand on the shoulder of someone nearby.

“Our heavenly Father,” he starts. “Only thing I ask is that you give us all the strength and courage it takes to play this game.” A defensive lineman closes his eyes. “Keep these young men safe on both teams.” And then, the Lord’s Prayer. The young men shuffle back to their seats. Amen.

Coach John Devine peers out over his players from behind his metal-rimmed glasses. His face is clenched, his tan skin pulled tight in a frown. His players wear red. His uniform: a white hat, white T-shirt, khaki shorts, and keys hanging from his belt. It is 7:17. Here come the reminders.

“It’s gonna take passion,” Coach Devine starts, the words punching through the silence. “It’s gonna take passion. You can’t play this game flat-lined.” He repeats himself. Over and over. Passion. “We gotta have forty-eight minutes of Red. We gotta put Red all over this field.” The Red needs to run, Coach says. Run through blocks. Through the line of scrimmage. Through the defensive line. The Red needs to run and run and run. “We need to put passion back in this football team. You know what I’m talking about?” And then, all at once, “YES, SIR.”

Coach Devine stalks back and forth in the center of the locker room. The players have parted to give him space. His voice hits higher, staccato notes. “Forty-eight minutes of red! That’s the way this team was built, that’s the way it’s gonna be built from now on.” The messages are simple. Passion. Don’t be sloppy. Attack the goal line. Run through people.

At 7:24, out go the captains, right on schedule. A vein throbs in Coach Devine’s neck. His right hand is balled up in a fist. It pounds the air. Separate. Pursue. Pursue. Pursue. Attack the ball. Get turnovers. “Make ’em spit the bit out!”

Now both fists are clenched. They swing wildly but with the beat, as Coach Devine hits a crescendo. The words pound on ears and resonate in young minds. Run through blocks. Run through the line of scrimmage. Run.

“Play the game with passion!” screams the coach. And then, they can take no more. The players burst into the air and make the loudest noise they can and try to squeeze all at once through the only door to the field, as if there is no other place on Earth that they should be. Out they go, down the hill, under the goal posts, through the paper banner and onto the field, to the roar of thousands of fans who would rather be nowhere else in the world right now.

Coach Devine, silent, gathers up stray water bottles. He is the last one out.

 

The game does not start off well. Lincolnton’s Michael Cunningham takes the opening kickoff up to the forty-six yard line. A few plays later, Cunningham catches a pass and burns everybody, sprinting forty-five yards down field into the end zone. 6-0 Lincolnton. The kids who were tailgating at the smoker are now hanging out in the front rows, straddling the fifty-yard line. A few are shirtless, with SPHS spelled out in red duct tape on their chests. On the ensuing kickoff, they wiggle their fingers at the field. Maybe that will work.

It does. Patrick Horne, the quarterback, runs seventy-three yards for the South Point touchdown. The crowd erupts in cheering and back slapping and whoooo-ing. Two small children overdose on excitement and run down the track, hopping and smiling and bobbing and weaving as fast as they can go. After the fight song, cheerleaders kick up their legs seven times as the students start chopping the air with invisible tomahawks. 7-6, Red Raiders.

 

“Thirty-one! Hit someone!” yells a man in a white hat and white shirt and athletic Tapout shorts. His thick Southern accent blends in but his crisp young voice rises above the murmur of the crowd. Each time the Red Raiders disappoint him, he flings up his hands in frustration. When South Point picks up yards, he slaps his hands together so everyone can visibly see him clap, even if they can’t hear him. The next play is a good one. “Chicken!” he screams at anybody from Lincolnton who might hear him. “Go shake your tail feathers off! Then go play!” Then he takes a big swig of Gatorade.

It would be easy to mistake him for a coach if he weren’t sitting fifteen rows up in the stands. Brandon Guffie, who will turn twenty on the Tuesday after the game, cannot take his eyes off the field. Play after play, he stares in deep concentration, his goatee framing a frown, his Oakleys wrapped around his hat. He is built like a high school linebacker because, two years ago, he was a high school linebacker, the captain of the South Point defense. He was the guy who had the radio in his helmet so Coach Devine could call in the plays directly to him. The passion never left.

Instead, the game left Guffie. Here he was, with X’s and O’s and Raider red running through his veins, and in the last game against Crest, he tore his Achilles tendon and broke his ankle in two places. There went the football scholarship to UNC-Pembroke. There went the playoffs for Brandon. He watched Coach Devine radio the plays to someone else. South Point won every game in 2008 except for one: the last one before the state championship. “We just got careless, man,” Guffie says about that game, as if he’s talking about the one that’s going on right now. “I told ’em that. I was like, we’re not playing our kind of football. … But it just didn’t go our way.” He looks out on the field. His voice drops. “Oh God, I miss it, like, with a passion. That was my sanctuary right there. After the time I walked through those goalposts, everything was right out there, nothing went wrong.”

Guffie now uses his linebacker’s build for maintenance work at the Cypress Club in Charlotte. “It pays good money,” he rationalizes. “I make a real good living for myself and my girlfriend. I’m hoping to start a family.” His girlfriend sits inconspicuously next to him. A while back, Victoria Brooks’s grandparents brought her to Brandon’s church. Now, Victoria and Brandon have been dating for eight months. “I want to at least go a year,” he says. “You know, make sure I really know her real well.” By comparison, Brooks has been nearly silent during the game. But then again, she went to North Gaston.

“I love her to death,” Guffie says, “but I told her that my dream was to keep playing football, that’s all I ever wanted to do. But like I said …” And then he goes on, talking about hittin’ and hollerin’ and jawin’ and gettin’ people’s numbers and gettin’ ’em back. He talks about this year’s team and how they’re coasting on last year’s championship and how they’re getting showed up by teams they should beat. He is reliving 2008 from the fifteenth row up. He’s tempted, he says, to go to school to be a gym teacher. And then, maybe, a coach. “If I can’t play, at least I can pass along what I have learned.”

Guffie looks back at the field and sighs. “Yeah, I miss it with a passion,” and the passion leaves his voice. It will return shortly, and a few minutes later he’s yelling at the refs and players and coaches again, just like he used to. If only they could hear him.

 

A few rows behind Guffie, another voice emerges from the crowd: the ear-splitting, raspy screaming of a fifty-year-old woman. It happens to belong to a twenty-year-old. Denise Cope wears a black South Point T-shirt, her brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, her hands cupped around her mouth. She will yell the entire game and swear that she is never hoarse the next day. She has something to say about every play. “Go, Red,” usually. Throughout the first half, she doesn’t let up:

Lincolnton goes up 20-14 on a run: “Come on, Red! Get MAD!”

Lincolnton gets its onside kick back: “Dag-GUM!”

Tall, lanky Justin Watkins intercepts a pass: “That-a-way, RED! This is your house!”

Patrick Horne runs it in with :57 left in the half: “That-a-way, RED! You so MAD!”

Somebody a few rows down leans in to a friend and, with Cope’s vocal chords fraying behind him, says what everybody is thinking: “Are we going to have to listen to that all night?”

Actually, no. Moments before the half, Lincolnton’s center snaps the ball over the quarterback’s head and it bounces free, twenty yards behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterback picks it up and heaves it. Everybody figures he’s a goner. And so, when Lincolnton’s Michael Cunningham leaps into the air, pulls it in, turns, and scores his third touchdown, Cope is silent. 27-21, Wolfpack.

 

At halftime, red and white T-shirts are for sale. A little kid runs by in a custom-made Ramon Costner jersey, doing his Ramon Costner impression. (The junior running back is “the fastest young ’un I’ve ever seen,” a booster remarks.) A girl in a cheerleader’s outfit sits just outside of a five-foot-tall sheet-metal Red Raider helmet as a volunteer paints a tomahawk on her face. The rest of the area between there and the concession stand is filled with clumps of purposely aloof students, much too cool to care about the game, let alone watch it. Some play keep-away with a souvenir football. Mop-headed and faux-hawked boys in T-shirts try their best to look like men, at least when women are around. As the second half begins, two zitty-faced kids are making out in the concession line, to the disgust of their friends. “At least tell me, so I can look the other way,” a teenage boy says. His girlfriend tries to stop them by putting a hand in their faces. It doesn’t work. At the same time, South Point’s Tyler Bray leans forward and runs into the end zone, right in front of the TV cameras. The Red takes a one-point lead, 28-27.

Up in the press box, a newspaper reporter scribbles shorthand onto a piece of loose-leaf paper. The stat man reaches into a bag of peanuts with one hand and types numbers into a laptop with the other. Someone in the back row is looking up scores on Twitter. He yells them out to Kenny Williams, the public address announcer, who then calmly reads them to the crowd. South Point is up. But not for long. “Oh no. Oh no,” says a spotter as a Lincolnton player scampers into the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The two-point conversion makes it 35-35.

The crowd below hears the stats, but only the folks in the press box get Williams’s analysis. “I’m worried they’ll score too quick,” he says after a long South Point run. Williams graduated from the former Belmont High School in 1964. He’s been the PA announcer here since 1972. He lugs a 2009 state championship ring around on his finger; the gold and red jewelry looks heavy enough to be a paperweight. He’s wearing glasses, a South Point hat and golf shirt, and a mustache over his lip. He remembers nearly everything that’s ever happened on this field. But at this moment, he remembers a newspaper reporter’s prediction for tonight’s game. “One of you guys said 35-31,” Williams snickers. Somebody checks the Gaston Gazette to see if he’s bluffing.

It is late in the fourth quarter and South Point is driving. “This is two-down territory,” Williams says. On fourth down, Horne hands off the ball to number 44, a 165-pound junior running back named Troy Leeper. He needs two yards. He gets more. “Troy Leeeeeeee-per!” Williams says into the microphone, his voice raising up an octave and reverberating over the crowd. Fans leap to their feet. Williams stays seated. Another fourth down comes, and South Point needs twelve yards this time. QB Horne drops back to pass, and the same spotter groans out the same “Oh no.” Interception, Wolfpack.

Lincolnton drives down to the eighteen-yard line before the team runs short on time. With four seconds left, Lincolnton’s field goal kicker trots out onto the field. The cheerleaders form a circle. The student section has started chanting and tomahawking in unison. “Chop ’em!” says a little blond-haired kid. His mother smiles.

The crowd is up and the ball is up, heading toward the uprights, if only for a split second. Somebody in red throws an open palm into the air in desperation and gets a piece of it, and the ball wobbles wide.

In overtime, it does not take long for Troy Leeper to gain his 253rd yard of the night, score his second touchdown, send the fans into a frenzy and put South Point up by seven. And then, the momentum comes to a screeching halt. Lincolnton’s Brandon Wilson, who has been slicing through the Red Raider D all game, bootlegs left, takes a nasty hit, and goes down, clutching a charley horse. South Point fans have no sympathy. “Get another quarterback!” says one voice. “Get off the field!” says another. Brandon Guffie, the former Red Raider, boos as loudly as he can. When Wilson finally gets up, five minutes later, some people clap.

On third down, South Point is offside and the ball ends up inside the one-yard line, and Denise Cope, the human megaphone, is back. “Hey, ref,” she wails, “you tryin’ to keep them in the game or somethin’?” A play later, Lincolnton pushes the ball into the end zone. Lincolnton decides not to kick the extra point to go to double overtime. They want two. And the win. Right now. In the bleachers, Brandon Guffie’s hands sweep above his head. Denise Cope screams. Kenny Williams calls out the distance to the end zone. The air becomes thick. The moon shines bright in the Carolina night. Nobody looks at it.

This is it. Brandon Wilson, back in the game, uncramped and ready, takes the snap, turns to his right, looks at his options, and runs. He shrugs off a Red Raider tackler, sets his feet to throw, and 8,000 fans notice what the South Point secondary does not, that right there in the end zone, Johnathan Gidney, all six feet, two inches, 200 yellow-and-black pounds of him, is wide open.

Fifteen rows up, Guffie looks forward, saying nothing. Then he leaves. “Oh, Red,” moans Cope. Then she leaves. In the press box, Williams says the final score, 43-42, Lincolnton, and thanks everybody for coming. Then he leaves. A defensive lineman heads toward the locker room, head down, shoulder pads in hand. Some kid tells him to shake it off. Then he leaves. Inside, the boosters running the concession stand are preparing the postgame meal for the players. “That was a bummer,” Rhonda Van Pelt says, weary from the day. She got here at 7 a.m. Midnight will come soon. Then she’ll leave.

The lights burn brightly into a warm Belmont night. Eight thousand people head for their cars. On the field, the game goes on. Young children, with energy to burn, run headlong across yard lines and throw passes with tiny white souvenir footballs. One tries a field goal, and at the last second, the kid with the ball balanced on his toe and his finger flinches and the kicker misses and whirls around dramatically, the Charlie Brown to the other’s Lucy. The children swarm like bees around the east end zone. This is where the game was lost by some. Won by others. This is where the game will be for them, someday, here on the green, under the goalposts and beneath the lights. The future is already here, playing, smiling, and dreaming. The passion marches on.

And there is always next Friday.

Jeremy Markovich is a television news producer and freelance writer in Charlotte.
 

Categories: News & Features, The Buzz