Chester turns head over heels in support for Cyclone football

A sign hangs in support of the Chester High School football team along

J.A. Cochran Bypass in Chester on Wednesday.
A sign hangs in support of the Chester High School football team along J.A. Cochran Bypass in Chester on Wednesday.

CHESTER -- The road south into Chester, S.C. 72, passes smack by the parking lot where two white brothers allegedly beat two young black men last week.

There were claims to police the alleged attackers hurled racial slurs. Police said one of the white men tried to use his prosthetic leg as a bludgeon.

Yet, thankfully, there is no sign to mark that spot. Thankfully, the only signs around town are about football.

Hate is not Chester most days, most weeks, most years. And this week, Chester is not the monthly guillotine of some of the highest unemployment in the state. It is not the dead Gayle Mill on one side of town or the lone smokestack of the long-closed Eureka Mill on S.C. 72.

Chester this week is WRBK, the Chester radio station of oldies and shag music, blasting The Temptations' "Get Ready" as you roll into town on S.C. 72 with the windows down.

Just past the J.A. Cochran Bypass intersection on S.C. 72 is a sign in front of The Holy Place Church. "Chester Cyclones, It's Our Time," the sign says.

In the parking lot of the church stood Tommy Sanders, son of Bishop Tommy Sanders, who runs the church.

"Oh yeah, it's our time," Sanders told me.

I asked if he meant Chester the football team, Chester the school or Chester the community.

"All of them," Sanders said. "Rich and poor, black and white, football has brought back the Chester spirit. We haven't played for a state championship in 40 years."

Technically, 44 years. Chester High School plays Wilson on Saturday in Class AAA football for a chance at its first state title since 1963.

Back down the bypass heading west is a marquee in front of the Crossroads Restaurant. "Go Get 'Em Cyclones" states the sign. There are flashing lights on the sign in case you missed it the first time.

The other way on the bypass, toward this high school that at least this week has unified a town, I stopped at the Handy Pantry. Because at this very store, a super guy from Chester has twice hit big money in the state lottery. A million bucks the first time a couple years ago, then $400,000 a few months ago.

I stopped and filled out a Powerball ticket, using the numbers that correspond with C-H-E-S-T-E-R. The No. 3 for C, 5 for E, 8 for H, 18 for R, 19 for S, and 20 for T. The jackpot is $155 million. I hope I win.

If I don't, I am submitting the $1 as a business expense to my boss.

"Well, everybody in here says Chester is going to win this weekend, so you just might win," said a nice lady named Linda, the clerk. "There's more signs down the road."

At the vacant shopping plaza farther down the bypass, where car dealers used to be, there are signs painted on bedsheets on each side of the roadside marquee. "Good Luck Cyclones," in bold red letters a foot high.

Farther along is another sign, "Go Cyclones." Then a "Go Cyclones" above a sign that says "Christmas trees for sale." At the KFC restaurant "Go Cyclones" greets the hungry, underneath the part that advertises "5 to 8 p.m. Buffet $5.99"

Back toward downtown on U.S. 321 Business is the sign for the Cyclone Restaurant, named for the Chester High sports teams. At Black's Drug Store, tickets for the game are sold. More than 40 were sold Wednesday morning alone at $8 a pop.

There are racks with Chester Cyclones T-shirts for $12.99, and hooded sweatshirts. Coffee travel mugs for $4.50. Stuffed bears that are inscribed "Property of Cyclones." T-shirts sold so fast they had to order more, and hats are coming, too.

'Good for the community'

"Playing in this game is good for the community," said Tammie Gonzales, who works at the store. "It's a good time to be from Chester."

Her husband, Tommy, who works there at the register, agreed.

Around the corner at Gene's Restaurant, where coffee is $1.30 if you have one cup or three like I did as the waitress hovers and says, "Little more, honey?," football was the talk. Even by those who didn't get to go to Chester High School because they were black. Finley High, the Blue Jackets, was Chester's black high school until integration.

"I played quarterback and safety from 1946 through '49," said 77-year-old Robert Wilson. "We won a state championship, too."

Wilson and others told me that Chester is "together" over football.

"This is about more than football," Wilson said. "This game means a whole lot to Chester."

There were many people in that restaurant Wednesday who went to segregated schools in an era that is thankfully long gone. Whites and blacks sat at tables and said hello to each other and more. I overheard questions about each other's kids and grandkids. People talked about the football team and the big game. Most conversations I eavesdropped on had something like "We will whip them Saturday."

We meant Chester the team. The school. Chester the community. Everybody.

Andrew Dys • 329-4065