Two days after families gathered around the table to give thanks, South Carolina kin will get together again for the state’s biggest rivalry: the University of South Carolina vs. Clemson University football game.
Played annually for more than a century, the Battle of the Palmetto State seems to bring out the competitor in everyone. Whether fans are watching from the comfort of their homes or from seats at Death Valley (where this year’s match-up will take place), this rivalry can boil the garnet blood of a Gamecock or bring out the claws of a feisty Tiger.
And it isn’t just strangers in a sports bar or crazed fans in a stadium who get riled up dur- ing one of the oldest rivalries in college football. It even happens within families.
Your spouse. Your kids. Your favorite great-uncle.
Todd Nichols grew up loving Clemson along with the rest of his family. After all, his dad and uncle both graduated from the school. So he told his girlfriend, Kristian, that he could marry her only if she converted to Tigerism.
“Looks like she won that one,” he says.
Today, they are married with three children, and theirs is a house divided.
“The bad thing is, I told him I would (convert). But once I said, ‘I do,’ I had to tell him that I only bleed garnet and black,” Kristian admits.
She also grew up loving a college team, although hers happened to involve a Gamecock.
“All of my friends were Carolina fans! I just became one, too. Now, that’s my team,” Kristian says.
Today, their entire Summerville household and their friends make fun sport of the big rivalry.
“It’s so much fun in our house when it’s college football season. We cook out, have friends over, and there’s a lot of fun trash talking,” Kristian says. “The kids love it, too.”
And who do the kids root for?
“The boys love Clemson. I think it’s because they want to be just like their dad,” Kristian says about their sons, John, 8, and Drake, 5.
However, she still holds out hope for their 3-year-old daughter, Ella.
“It’s pretty funny because we both are always telling her that the other team is stinky,” Kristian admits. But, she adds, “This one is mine.”
The Bell family of West Ashley is another one split on game day. Brian is a Gamecock fan, so he and his Clemson-loving wife, Julie, share the rivalry with sons Chris, 16, a Carolina fan, and Logan, 11, a Tigers fan.
“It’s always interesting around our house,” jokes Brian, whose father is a Clemson graduate. “Somebody is always happy, and someone is always sad. I’ve been known to throw my hat into the ceiling fan. It’s pretty bad all the way around, but the kids aren’t as bad as we are.”
While they often invite friends and family over for the big day, Julie’s sister, Kathleen, a Clemson alumna, refuses to join in.
“She can’t stand it!” laughs Brian.
“She’s too competitive around Brian,” says Julie, who admits that like her sister, she takes a loss very seriously.
Julie’s brother Tim, a USC graduate, doesn’t mind coming over, but they keep chatter to a minimum. “Brian is usually the one talking to him,” she says.
‘A kid divided’
Stryker Gehlken, who’s 4, was born in the middle of college football season and was sporting orange and garnet right off, says his mom, Rachel, who has been a Clemson fan since an early age.
“When he was a baby, he had two outfit changes a day. One would be Clemson and the other Carolina. Now that he’s older, one day he likes Cocky, then the next day he’s all about tiger paws,” says Rachel, whose husband, Dan, is a diehard Carolina fan.
“He’s a kid divided.”
Dan Gehlken grew up in North Charleston and was introduced to the Gamecocks at 15. With a high school mentor who had season tickets to the games, he learned the college football ropes on Saturdays.
Currently, son Stryker is enamored with Cocky, the USC mascot. But even at his young age, he has learned how to play Mom and Dad.
“He knows if he picks up something garnet and black, daddy will buy it,” Rachel admits. “And if he picks up something orange, mommy will buy it.”
Stryker has both a Clemson and a Carolina Pillow Pet, an equal number of shirts for each team and new hats for each team, says his mom. But to her, it’s not just about the performance on the football field.
“I would love for him to go to Clemson to be an engineer when he grows up, but that’s his decision. If he’s a Carolina fan, I’ll deal with it. I’m pretty outnumbered.”
When the Gehlkens watch the games, Rachel often is the only Clemson fan in the room.
“Everyone is cordial until that one game day,” she says. “Then I have to stand my ground.”
If they lose, well, that’s a different story. “I’m a sore loser. I take heart with the orange.”
Rachel does admit that she is happy to support her husband’s team during games where they don’t play the Tigers. She wears USC’s team colors, and Dan returns the courtesy.
Although Stryker hasn’t been to a game yet, they’re hoping he will be ready next season, and they both agree, “He’s definitely going to be the confused one.”
J.J. Chapman also might be confused. Sure, the 6-month-old has no idea what a touchdown or interception is, but his parents already are battling out the rivalry.
Mom, local orthodontist Desmond Chapman, graduated from USC in 2001 and has a long family history of Gamecock fans. J.J.’s dad, Jeff, is a 2001 graduate of Clemson. He, his father and sisters all graduated from Clemson, and his family still lives there.
Jeff was a student strength coach for the football team while attending the university. He’s missed fewer than 10 home games. And one of those missed games was his first date with now-wife Desmond.
Jeff’s favorite memory is when Clemson beat USC 63-17 in 2003. And Desmond reminisces about the first game they watched together as a couple when Carolina beat Clemson in Death Valley.
Now J.J. is part of the fun.
“I do the drop-off for day care for J.J., and Jeff does the pickup,” Desmond says. “Last year, I dressed J.J. in Carolina gear, and Jeff didn’t see it. When he picked J.J. up from day care, he got a surprise from his outfit.”
But once game day comes, she admits, “We tailgate and have fun. But when game time hits, there isn’t a lot of talking to each other. For about five hours every year, we don’t speak much.”
Ryan Nelson is a local freelance writer. Have an idea for a story? Share it with her at email@example.com or via Twitter @Ryan_NelsonSC.