Fans hope rivalry wasn’t taken too far

A piece of Howard’s Rock is missing after it was vandalized earlier this month.

A sophomore-to-be Clemson student, Dylan McNeace says his dad favors his Tigers, but his mom roots for South Carolina.

“I grew up a hardcore Clemson fan, in a house divided,” the Union resident said Thursday.

Join the club, kid.

A classmate standing next to him, Michael Williams of Aiken, revealed his uncle went to Clemson, but his mom and sister are USC-Aiken products and therefore identify themselves as proud Carolina fans.

Both McNeace and Williams are among the masses across the state with familiar connections to both sides of the Clemson-USC rivalry.

They also supported the same general wish in response to the startling vandalism of Howard’s Rock, which was damaged nearly two weeks ago, sparking an ongoing investigation by the Clemson University Police Department.

McNeace, Williams and many fans on both sides of the fence hope this wasn’t another case of heated college football rivalry gone too far.

See, head south on Interstate 85 and you’ll end up in Auburn, still coping with the loss of Toomer’s Oaks — its own decades-long artifact which wasn’t so lucky to prevail in a broken shell of itself like Howard’s Rock. In the aftermath of Auburn’s 2010 SEC championship victory, Alabama fan Harvey Updyke took his rage out on the old oak trees, poisoning the twin towers sheltering Auburn’s downtown area and then bragging about it on statewide radio.

Two and a half years later, Updyke’s ballyhooed legal drama has ended, and despite Auburn’s best efforts to save the trees, the Oaks were removed April 23 with plans to replace them with wires and an exhibit so fans may continue to roll the area with toilet paper after victories.

“You think of what happened in Auburn, you thought it was just one idiot doing something, and here again, another idiot’s doing something,” said Daniel Canterbury, a fifth-year senior and friend of McNeace and Williams. “Whether they’re from wherever — nobody really knows at this point who did it or why they did it. You always jump to rivals or something like that, but you just hope it’s one idiot and not a group of people dedicated to something.”

Clemson fans can relax knowing at least Howard’s Rock is, well, a rock. And about 85 percent of it remains intact after the mysterious security breach.

“If it was completely gone, it would be, like, devastation to the Clemson family,” Clemson graduate student and James Island Charter graduate George Hamilton said. “There would be some bad stuff going on. I’m glad the whole thing’s not gone.”

Hamilton didn’t want to jump to conclusions, though it’s easy to assume the motivation behind the treachery done just inside the gates at Death Valley.

“Everybody says it was a Gamecock, it was a Gamecock. Not necessarily,” Hamilton said. “It could be anybody.”

All fans interviewed expressed earnest hope, like Canterbury suggested, that it was an isolated incident rather than premeditated. Even many Carolina fans took to social media and message boards to share respectful condolences to rival supporters.

“On the news (Thursday) night,” Hamilton said, “I saw where a Carolina fan tweeted, ‘I’m a Gamecock, but it’s still sad to see somebody would do that.’”

Rick Cutaia, president of the Charleston County Gamecock Club chapter, concurred.

“I, like most Gamecock fans, am really disappointed … in the actions of some real immature individuals who hopefully will be caught and punished accordingly,” Cutaia wrote in an email. “In my opinion, the rivalry has been taken to a level of bitter hatred, which is a shame for both sides.

“This is a special rivalry dividing our state, and often families, into choosing sides. I hope that true fans can make this a peaceful and respectful rivalry again.”

The next Clemson-Carolina game takes place in Columbia on Nov. 30, in a season in which both sides share great expectations. But seven times this fall before the Tigers and Gamecocks collide, Clemson will play again at Memorial Stadium.

In pregame ceremonies, the players likely will feel something different — literally and figuratively.

“It’s for them. I have to think it especially stinks for some of the juniors and seniors who have consistently put their hand on that rock and run down the hill,” Canterbury said. “Coming this year, it’s not going to feel the same. That has to mess with your head a little. It’s great for the fans, but it’s really there for the players.”