The cars were primed, the fenders sanded and the dents beaten out Thursday at Taylor’s Body Shop in Clover. But Friday is different. After work Fridays in Clover, for at least three hours between 7 and 10 p.m. the welding torches do not burn, the bars serve almost no beer, waitresses are lonely.
Because Friday night means football in Clover.
“Football, the Clover High School game, it’s the biggest thing in this town on a Friday night,” said Rusty Badger, 22, who ought to know. He played in some of those games until a shoulder injury shortened his career, just a few years ago, when Clover was great.
The Blue Eagles won a state title in 2007, and the whole town cheered.
But last year there were few cheers in Clover. A few weeks into the season, 13 players were suspended from school, and 10 players kicked off the team, after allegations of hazing rocked the school and community.
The school district had to call up younger players from the junior varsity and cancel the JV season. The outmanned and outgunned varsity team was throttled every game afterward.
Nobody was arrested in the hazing probe, but lawsuits were filed, accusations thrown like touchdown passes. What happened, and how bad, remains bottled up in courts.
The community was embarrassed by the allegations and embarrassed when the team took a weekly whipping afterward.
The last five games of the season Clover scored 29 points.
Their opponents scored 236 points.
But the greatness of high school football – not just a sport but a cultural and community identity in places such as Clover – is that the calendar turns.
A new year, even with a young team that might not be great or even good, means a community has the chance to come out and once again, have a common cause on Friday nights. The season opens, at home, against South Florence.
“They should come out, because Clover always supported the team before and people should now,” said Herb Kirsh, who like Rusty Badger 60 years younger than him, ought to know what football means in Clover.
Kirsh, who until 2010 was the longest-serving legislator in South Carolina, played for Clover in the 1940s and after college. He has attended almost every home game since.
The vanity tag on the front of Kirsh’s Lincoln Town Car reads: “Blue Eagles.”
“I don’t know what happened last year, but something happened,” Kirsh said of the hazing. “But this year is new. Clover should back our own. That is what we always did and what we should do again.”
Around the town Thursday, football wasn’t always the first topic of conversation but it wasn’t long before it came up.
At Killian’s Service Station – where the service is still full and Jimmy Killian wipes the windshield and fills ’er up – people talked about football. Bill Pate, the legendary former coach from rival York 10 miles south, pulled up and said he will be at Clover’s game tonight.
Clover so loves its football team that there is an Eagle’s Nest restaurant on U.S. 321 just north of downtown. Customers at the Eagles Nest said last year is history, and they expect support tonight.
There is an Eagle Building Center on S.C. 55 just east of downtown. The people there talked of Clover’s “die-hard fans” who are loyal and always support the team.
And at the Clover Grill, autographed jerseys are on the walls. Not signatures of pros, but local high school kids. There are towels and banners and schedules and pictures of football from Clover High. There are real football helmets.
Not the Carolina Panthers. Not even the South Carolina Gamecocks or Clemson Tigers.
Nothing but Clover Blue Eagles helmets.
At the town’s stadium Thursday, the grass looked impossibly green after a summer so hot, but football fields get better care than any other patch of earth in a Clover summer. Advertising on one scoreboard features a car dealer and a painter and a church.
New River Community Church of nearby Lake Wylie, where the kids go to Clover schools, sponsors the football team – even helps with pre-game meals and more, said Bud Fox, a 2005 Clover graduate and growth groups pastor at the church.
“Football in Clover is a huge part of this community, of the lives people live,” Fox said.
Fox did not play football at Clover, but he went to the games as a kid and still does as an adult.
“Clover’s team is a big deal here,” he said. “It matters.”
And that church, which reaches out to young people to preach that there are second chances in life with the right work and sacrifice, puts its money and spirit behind a team that, tonight, gets another chance.
“I’m hoping that people come out and support the team, because they are supporting more than just football,” Fox said.
Because football, said Fox and so many others, is a way for people to come together. In small rural places such as Clover, high school football on a Friday night is, by far, the largest gathering of people anywhere all year.
And the people will not be in the stands to talk about hazing – even if it remains an unsettled issue about what happened last year.
It remains unclear which adults at Clover schools did not properly take care of high school kids who were either hazed or at least ridiculed and embarrassed.
Unquestionably, supervision of the team last year before the lid blew off, and detectives spent a week at the school seeing if crimes had been committed, was not nearly what it should have been.
“Old news man, people have moved on,” said another body worker at Taylor’s, the body shop in Clover, when asked about the hazing.
When that ball is kicked off, the only sound will be cheers, followed by the crack of pads and helmets. Cheerleaders will yell and the band will play.
The lights in Clover at the stadium are so bright for this town of about 5,000 people, and so much brighter than anywhere else, that the glow can be seen for miles. The sounds of cheers can be heard at the Clover Grill, almost a mile away.
Nobody cheered a hazing investigation last year. But this football game brings a chance to again be a part of something that can, when done right, bring greatness to a small town.
A Friday night under the lights in Clover, said Rusty Badger that former player, is a feeling so great that feet do not seem to touch the ground.
“It was magic,” Badger said.
Maybe Clover can find that magic again.