File/Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT
Garrett Chisolm was among the Gamecock players who carried coach Steve Spurrier off the field to celebrate South Carolina’s 36-14 victory over Florida on Nov. 13 of last year.
All the sadness and death in Garrett Chisolm's life gave way to pure joy on a sweet Saturday night. The same senior offensive lineman from Charleston who lost both his parents to cancer within the previous 10 months was carrying Steve Spurrier across the field after South Carolina's unprecedented victory at Florida in November.
"It was a great feeling," Chisolm said of the 36-14 victory that secured the Gamecocks' first SEC East football title.
"I had never been part of a winning football program, and to be part of a division winner in one of the best conferences and beat Florida on their home turf was unbelievable. Picking Coach Spurrier up was like icing on the cake. You could see him, he was smiling. And when we got in the locker room, he was really, really happy. I love when the man smiles."
Chisolm is on his way to the NFL Scouting Combine this week after achieving All-SEC second-team honors as an offensive lineman, and winning several team academic awards. His story might be one of the most inspiring in recent college football history.
He was not a major college prospect as a struggling student at West Ashley High School. He paid his way at the University of South Carolina after attending Trident Technical College in Charleston and Pikeville Junior College in Kentucky. He joined the Gamecock football team as a 6-foot-6, 299-pound unrecruited walk-on.
Chisolm's mother, Purcella, died in January of 2010.
His father, Garrett, died in September.
"My parents were my world," Chisolm said. "No words can really define how I felt then and how I feel now. But I just have to keep on pushing the way they would want me to keep on pushing and just do great things.
"It has been a difficult process. But I feel like with hard work, prayers and determination, you can make your dreams come true."
Senior Day against Troy came exactly one week after the big win at Florida.
The other senior football players stood with parents or family members during a pre-game ceremony before a crowd of 74,117 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
One senior stood by himself.
But Chisolm was comforted in his own special way, a carefully considered plan to honor his parents.
Leading by example
Garrett and Purcella Chisolm ran a janitorial service in Charleston.
"My dad worked from sunup to sundown and my mother did the paperwork," the younger Garrett Chisolm said.
Chisolm hoped to "make a better life" for his parents. Now he wants to be a good example for his younger brother and cousins. So far, it's hard not to be inspired.
Cedric Chisolm was on the academic honors list last fall at Louisburg College in North Carolina, and Garrett expects to graduate from USC in May with a major in sports management and a minor in business.
He will attend the NFL Combine in Indianapolis despite sitting out the Gamecocks' Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Florida State with a knee injury, a torn ACL, suffered while playing basketball in December. Chisolm has been rehabbing his knee and has an agent, Fort Lauderdale-based Christina Phillips, a USC graduate.
"I feel very blessed for the combine opportunity," Chisolm said. "I'm not going to be able to do all the running and lifting and stuff, but I'm going to do my best and hopefully have some great interviews and represent Charleston the best way possible."
None of the coaches at USC knew Chisolm when he asked for a walk-on shot as a junior in 2009.
"He went to the scout team and pretty soon (defensive backs coach) Lorenzo Ward said that 'Chisolm needs to come to the real team,' " Spurrier said. "We took him off scout team and he was starting by the end of the year."
Chisolm also fared well in the classroom.
"In high school, I kind of did enough to get by," he said. "I don't think I really applied myself. Once I got to South Carolina, I just decided that if I applied myself I could make something of myself and do better. It made my mama and daddy proud to see those good grades, so I got addicted to it."
The Gamecocks noticed a stronger, more confident Chisolm as their eventful 2010 season began. But his father died the week after USC improved to 2-0 with a 17-6 victory over Georgia.
Chisolm was home for the funeral and missed the next game, against Furman. But he was back in the starting lineup at Auburn a week later and helped the Gamecocks stun No. 1 Alabama in Columbia on Oct. 9.
Running back Marcus Lattimore, the consensus national freshman of the year after busting through defenses for big gains all season, gave Chisolm plenty of credit.
"He's probably the most physical (blocker) on the offensive line," Lattimore said. "He's a very focused guy. He comes off the ball with force. Every time I see the hole on his side, I know he did it. He's been a big part of my success."
Most NFL teams think Chisolm is a guard, but Phillips said some believe he can play tackle, his position at USC.
Defensive linemen Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson and Nick Fairley of Auburn, rated by many analysts as the top two overall prospects in the 2011 draft, were across the line of scrimmage from Chisolm for back-to-back games late in the season.
"Good competition makes you better," Chisolm said. "I have confidence I can play, but I'm just going to take it one day at a time."
Eventually he wants to work as an athletic director in high school or college and "maybe develop a youth center in Charleston."
"I want to help kids learn about life and sports," Chisolm said.
No matter what happens with the NFL, he will have quite a story. It is a tale of glory and cruel blows and perseverance.
Then there is the bravery of Senior Day. Going into the season, Chisolm hoped to be able to walk out on the field with his father.
"But after my daddy passed away, I decided what I was going to do on Senior Day," he said. "I drove home to Charleston and got a picture. I got a picture of my mommy and daddy. I drove back to Columbia and I took that picture out there on the field with me."
All season, Chisolm politely declined interview requests. You can understand why, but now he is ready to talk, determined to make his parents proud over and over again.
"It makes you stronger, but I feel like you also pay a price," Chisolm said. "I just have to keep on pushing. It's really hard, but you can't let it weigh you down. It's just going to be a process that is going to be done with time. I hear that time heals all wounds."