Andrew Dys

Great Falls' common ground is the gridiron

GREAT FALLS -- This little town can take a punch.

The once-great, sprawling mills that gave the jobs and paid for the groceries closed long ago in Great Falls. Then last year, the biggest one burned. Bad news on the front page. An interstate was built miles away that took the through traffic. Bad news. An argument turned into gunshots a few years ago, leaving a man dead and a community divided temporarily by the color of skin. More bad news.

Then, goody-goodies decided that instead of factories where proud men and women can work, they'd try to pin Great Falls' hopes for the future on tourism from the Catawba River next door. Great for the rich to kayak, and for the paddlers of little boats who can sneak out of salaried jobs where the benefits are great and the demands few. Ridiculous if you find yourself up that creek without a job or a paddle.

But Great Falls has some broad shoulders. The place has survived. People are still there, and they hold their shoulders back with pride.

And Friday, as the clock strikes noon, the young men in shoulder pads wearing the Great Falls Red Devils jerseys have a chance to remind this spot along the river in southeastern Chester County that greatness is again within a fingertip catch for a touchdown.

The football team from Great Falls High School plays Blackville-Hilda Friday in Orangeburg for the Class A, Division II state football championship. I found Blackville and Hilda on a map. Barnwell County. I had to look three times. You know a place is small when it is overshadowed by Denmark. Denmark the village, not the country.

Great Falls should win because it doesn't need two towns for one school. One town, Great Falls, is enough.

I know this because along S.C. 97 heading into Great Falls from that same Interstate 77 that took all the traffic away are three homemade signs urging the Red Devils to victory. I am not smart, but I know enough to pull over and find a guy in rural South Carolina who happily has a devil in his front yard. The devil isn't that horned rascal himself, but the Red Devil of Great Falls.

The signs, and the yard, and the house, belong to a 60-year-old man named Tommy Evans. He played for the team, his brothers did, and his son-in-law now is a coach.

"My theory is this," said Evans. "We haven't won a state title in football since 1991. That's about when the mills were going or gone and the highway was coming or already here. We have had our ups and downs in Great Falls since then, but we always come back. That '91 year, it kinda helped us all feel good about Great Falls. This team this year has done the same thing. Football has helped to bring that spirit back."

This week, Evans isn't 60, but 10 years old, back when he was the team manager.

"I ran onto the field and picked up the kicking tee," Evans said. "I was the manager before I played. Now, my grandson is the manager. And Friday, my grandson will run onto that field and pick up the kicking tee for his favorite team, and mine, the Great Falls Red Devils."

Football runs through generations and binds Great Falls. That binding is black and it is white, just like the laces of the football binds the pigskin together. The school has had great success in basketball over the years, but football is where mill towns, even towns without mills anymore, show how tough they are.

Corey Murphy, the high school's first-year principal, said the success of the team has brought a feeling of unity that is "palpable."

"You can sense it, feel it, a feeling that transcends athletics," Murphy said.

The talk was football Tuesday at convenience stores, outside a mechanic's shop, in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. The game was the talk at Tiffany's Restaurant, where a lady named Brenda Hinson said, "My son is so excited that he's taking his family Thursday night to Orangeburg to stay in a motel so he can get there early for the game."

The game was the talk at the car wash where a 21-year-old former player named Tormarkous Brown -- "I was number 52 and played on the defensive line" -- added, "Everybody in town is going. Race isn't an issue. The only issue is football."

I heard it all over town. In Great Falls this week, there is only a "we" or an "us."

The search for what this game means to Great Falls meant climbing that mill hill where the burned factory remains. At the end of Birch Street is a bench where a boy used to sit. Nearby is his little red wagon, the wheels gone, with pansies planted in it by his mother. There is a mum beside the bench that has defied drought and bloomed to enormous size.

There is no doubt the mum has grown because on that bench for years sat a boy named Clint Cameron. Cameron, fighting a disease called Goldenhar Syndrome, would wave to people and greet the football players who would come to see him before games if he was too sick to go and watch. He never kicked a football but he was given the 2006 spirit award for the school: A plaque with a football and helmet on it is still on the wall inside the house.

Inside the house is where Greg and Kay, Clint's parents, still live. About 13 months ago, after a too-short, 21-year life of cheering for his team, Clint Cameron died. The team that dedicated the 2006 football season to Clint didn't make it to the state championship last year.

But it has now.

"I sure wish Clint had been here for this title game," said Kay Cameron. "He loved that team so much."

Around the corner from that bench and on the way out of town, where those signs are in the front yard, I asked Tommy Evans if the team will win this game for Clint Cameron.

"You betcha," Evans said. "And I know Clint will be watching. He will have the best seat in the house. You can see the whole field pretty good from Heaven."