There is a great reason why three high schools can have as great a rivalry in football-crazy Rock Hill as in the days when just two schools battled it out for who was best.
That reason is not just because South Pointe and Northwestern both came in Friday night at District Three Stadium with 8-1 records and throwing haymakers at each other in a battle for a league title. And it's not just because the winner's fans can brag for a year about who has the best team in the city.
The reason is a fan, Sean Miller, the terrific father of two sons he brought to Friday night's game. I watched Miller root for his team, Northwestern, and at the same time show the grace and respect and deep-down joy for South Pointe's success, too.
In stands filled with thousands of people, the Millers cheered and clapped for both teams.
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The Miller family, Sean and sons Gage, 13, and Chance, 8, cheered from the South Pointe stands. Daddy Sean rooted for Northwestern. Little Chance rooted for Northwestern, even throwing out a few fun "Boo Stallions!" when South Pointe scored. But Gage rooted for South Pointe, because he has two cousins playing for the Stallions -- twins Aaron and Barron Currence.
"My daddy loves Northwestern, but I have to root for my family," Gage told me.
That is what having three schools means in the best way: Families had cousins going to both schools Friday night, so they could root for their favorite and even like it a little bit when the other side did well.
Friday's game, in South Pointe's second season, was the first time the new rivalry game was a big deal. With Rock Hill High in a down year, the game was about who can gloat. Who can carry on at barber shops and work break rooms.
There wasn't a capacity crowd like so many Northwestern-Rock Hill games have been, but it was a big crowd for sure. It was community and family.
Sean Miller was a star player at Northwestern in the mid 1980s. He lived the old Rock Hill-Northwestern rivalry. But the third team doesn't mean the old rivalry has to wither, he said. Three teams can make rivalries more exciting.
"In time, the rivalry between all three teams will be excellent, a rivalry that reflects how Rock Hill the city has matured," Miller said. "This game tonight is great. Fans on this side for South Pointe love their team. Fans across the way love their team. There is room in Rock Hill for three winners."
Then Sean Miller the dad looked at his son, Gage, the turncoat rooting for South Pointe, and winked.
"Of course, if Northwestern loses tonight, Gage has to sleep outside on the porch."
Throughout the stands, that same rooting for one team, but respecting the other, rang true. One group of Northwestern fans sat on the South Pointe side, on purpose, just to stand and clap against everybody around them. They did it with joy and without ambivalence. It wasn't anything more than fun that makes the blood flow faster and makes life sweeter.
And yes, Friday night really was a rivalry game. The outcome was in doubt for most of the game. When South Pointe star quarterback Stephon Gilmore juked and danced for a long touchdown run in the third quarter to bring the Stallions within striking distance, red-clad fans screamed out and yelled, "You are ours now!"
A few minutes later, when Northwestern star quarterback Will King scored on a run after a beautiful pass moments before, the refrain "Touchdown Trojans!" rose in the air from the fans and the home public address announcer.
South Pointe already beat Rock Hill High in one city rivalry game this year. And yet to come is Northwestern and Rock Hill in their annual rivalry game. I hope Rock Hill High fans show up for that game and make that tussle as great as it always was in the old days when there were just two siblings, not three.
By the way, Gage Miller got to sleep in his snug bed Friday night. Northwestern pulled away in the fourth quarter, winning by the score of 41-18.
But so what. Friday night's football game in Rock Hill was a wonderful, electric place to be. A dad can make a joke about his son having to sleep outside, then that dad can put his burly arm around his son's thin shoulders, like Sean Miller did for Gage Friday night, and say, "Son, this was some night. Your turn is coming some day." And that son can walk out, his dreams intact, and growing.
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