An overcast sky loomed over Clemsons Memorial Stadium on Dec. 4, 1993, as the Northwestern Trojans and the Gaffney Indians prepared to battle for the South Carolina Class AAAA Big 16 football championship. Despite a steady drizzle, approximately 20,000 fans were on hand to witness what many felt was destined to be a classic gridiron encounter. And what a classic it turned out to be.
No one ever imagined that Charles Palmers fumbled snap and safety would cost the high-scoring Indians, or that Northwesterns Curtis Wilmore would be able to block a potential game-winning field goal despite a badly injured knee. And certainly no one thought the final score, a 2-0 win for the Trojans, would be the lowest in championship history.
Anytime you win a state championship its big, said the Trojans coach, Jimmy Wallace. But to win 2-0? That was big.
Northwesterns championship win served as a measure of revenge for a thrilling 13-12 loss five weeks earlier to the Indians in Gaffney.
But the history between these two football teams stretched back more than five weeks. The previous year, 1992, Northwestern prevailed in the regular season only to drop a 6-3 decision to Gaffney in the state semifinals. In 1991 the Trojans again won the regular season meeting but had their undefeated season come to a stunning end as a 6-6 Indians team captured a 14-6 playoff victory.
More than Gaffney, it was the loss of a teammate in a tragic boating accident that proved to be the driving force for the Trojans that season. Rising junior Al Coleman, a defensive stalwart, drowned a month before preseason practice was to begin. Colemans heartbreaking death was especially traumatic for quarterback P.J. Jennings.
He was my first cousin, Jennings said. My mom and his mom were sisters. It really devastated the team.
Punter Jay Thompson echoed Jennings sentiments.
It brought everybody together, said Thompson. The coaches did a great job handling Als death. Playing in Als memory was motivation in itself. He was a good dude and a great friend.
The Trojans honored their fallen comrade by wearing his number 32 affixed to their helmets. Linebacker Richard Allen, who had 10 tackles in the championship game, added, we did everything for Al. His spirit was right there. We had his helmet in the dressing room before the game and held it up as we ran onto the field and again after the game.
The loss of a player was equally devastating to the coaches.
It solidified that team, said Wallace. Think about it, what do you say to a team that lost its best friend? We dedicated that season to Al Coleman.
Just one blemish
It was with heavy hearts that the 1993 season began; but it also started with driven spirits. Led by the coaching acumen of then-defensive coordinator, and current York coach, Bobby Carroll, the Trojans manufactured shutouts in three of their first four games. The offense tallied 123 points over the next three wins with junior tailback Dee Feaster, who ran for over 1,500 yards and 27 touchdowns, amassing over 300 yards rushing versus Boiling Springs.
In the penultimate week of the regular season at Gaffney, the Trojans suffered their only loss in a precursor to the state final.
Northwestern led 10-6 through three quarters until the Indians took advantage of a fourth quarter Trojans breakdown in the kicking game. Gaffney was able to shoot the gap and block Thompsons punt, and on the ensuing play from the Trojans 29, Indians quarterback Tyrone McGill went around the right end for the go-ahead score and a 13-10 lead.
Down 13-12, the Trojans had one last chance for a potential game-winner after advancing to the Indians 27, but a final pass attempt fell incomplete on fourth down, and Gaffney marched on unbeaten.
The Trojans playoff journey began with a 14-0 win over Marlboro County, followed by a 59-0 thrashing of Orangeburg-Wilkinson. That win almost proved costly as Wilmore, who went on to be named Shrine Bowl defensive player of the game later that season, suffered a partial tear of a ligament in his right knee late in the contest. Fortunately for the Trojans, Wilmore had a brace custom-made that same night, which he wore the rest of the season.
I started wearing it the following Wednesday, Wilmore said. In the championship it was uncomfortable because it kept slipping.
A long trip down to Summerville for the semifinals didnt deter the Trojans march as a rock solid defense put the clamps on the Green Wave 21-6 to set up the rematch with Gaffney. Anchoring the defense up front all season long were Quinton Killian, Terrence Miller, and Tony Aldridge. In addition to Wilmore and Allen, the linebackers were Rogdricus Neely and Wanto Wherry. Ian White, Eric Westbrook, Tedrick Wylie and Snoopy Pendergrass patrolled the secondary.
We had tough players, aggressive players that bought into our system, said Wallace, who retired with an overall coaching record of 286-83 and three state championships. And we were blessed to have great coaches.
Northwesterns defense finished the season surrendering only 61/2 points per contest. Facing a Gaffney squad with three 1,000-yard rushers, the Trojans defense saved its best outing for last.
The grueling campaign culminated on that soggy Saturday in Clemson. Gaffney, defending state champions and ranked as high as No.7 nationally, had scored 42, 35 and 51 points in a trio of playoff blowouts to reach the final, and were the favorites after its regular-season win over the Trojans.
Wallaces team gave Gaffney a sample of how tough the afternoon would be on the games first possession when it stopped the Indians on a fourth and goal. Midway through the second quarter, the Trojans were forced to punt from near midfield and Thompson got off a 46-yarder that was downed just short of the Gaffney goal line. The clutch kick was especially gratifying for Thompson after the regular season block by the Indians.
We warmed up before the game on the Gaffney side and they were giving me a hard time, but I was oblivious to it, Thompson said. I was motivated to do better.
Ultimately, a punting miscue decided what Gaffneys coach, and current Rock Hill head man, Joe Montgomery called a boring game. Three plays after Thompson pinned the Indians, Gaffney fullback/punter Charles Palmer dropped the snap from center, picked the ball up, and stepped out of the back of the end zone for a safety with just over 4 minutes left in the first half.
No one could have ever imagined that would be the lone score in the game.
Montgomery said, Our thought was not to give up a touchdown. We didnt think the safety would be a factor in the game because we thought the score would end up in the 30s.
After a barren third, the sides went to the fourth quarter still separated by two points. A pair of fortuitous plays kept Gaffneys final drive alive. First, a pass skipped off Trojans Tedrick Wileys hands for an Alvin Littlejohn reception and Indians first down. Then, Littlejohn was in the right spot to corral a Tyrone McGill fumble that popped several feet into the air. On a later fourth down, McGill hooked up with Cornelius Bonner for a 14-yard completion to the Northwestern 15 with just over three minutes remaining. Facing another fourth down with 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining, the Indians elected to try a 34-yard field goal.
With every fan at Death Valley standing, Wilmore knifed through untouched between Gaffneys guard and center to make the block on T.J. Whites attempt. Marques Steele fell on the bouncing pigskin at the Gaffney 29 and claimed possession for Northwestern, the 2-0 lead safe. Several snaps later, a 15-yard run by Feaster netted a first down and sealed the deal as the Trojans were able to run out the remaining time for the schools second football state championship.
Earlier this month, when it was suggested to Wilmore that many folks say his block was the biggest play in Northwestern football history, he beamed.
Ill take it. But D-Ross (Derek Ross) had a big play at the end of the game (1997) against Rock Hill on a Hail Mary to Shawn Woodward, Wilmore said.
Even though 20 years has passed since that historical game, many of the players wont ever forget the 1993 season. Inspired by and dedicated to the memory of a fallen teammate, the Trojans capped things off in the best way imaginable: with a ring.
Wilmore, now 37 and a multi-system technician with Comporium, reflected on that season.
I remember Coach (John) Barrett telling us this would be the best days of our lives, he said. That year it all started with those two-a-days in the hot summer. Everybody had a job to do to reach that final goal.
And the Trojans reached that final goal. By the most improbable score.