There is excitement in western York County as the noon kickoff for Saturday’s Class 4A Division II state championship game between York Comprehensive and Spartanburg high schools approaches.
For the fathers and grandfathers of several York Cougars, their pride will come from more than just watching their boys play at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. They will be reliving the best of York high school football.
Four players – Caleb Clayton, Seth Wood, Drew Carroll and Bryson Stephenson – have fathers that played for Cougar state championship teams in 1986. Two of the players, Clayton and Wood, had grandfathers that played in, and ultimately lost, when York High School’s Green Dragons played in the 1960 state title game.
“It feels sort of like you’re living your life back through the son,” said Shane Clayton, who was a senior in 1986 when his team won under coach Bill Pate.
Clayton’s son, Caleb, 16, is the third generation of Claytons to play for a state title. His maternal and paternal grandfathers both played on the 1960 team. Harold Clayton is hoping to make the trip down to Columbia to see his grandson play. Joe Blackwell, Caleb’s maternal grandfather, died a few years ago.
“That’s just crazy to me,” Caleb said, remarking that York’s football success has ebbed and flowed over the years, yet peaked when his family is involved. He grew up looking at his father’s state championship ring and his letterman jacket.
But if there’s one person in the Clayton family who’s the most excited about the family history, it’s easily Joanna Clayton – Caleb’s mother, Shane’s wife and the late Joe Blackwell’s daughter.
“At the beginning of the year, I felt like it was destiny,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to say anything because I didn’t want to jinx it.”
In a sports family like the Claytons, superstitions matter.
But as the playoffs unfolded after a great regular season, the stars were aligned for York. First, York’s rival Northwestern wound up in a separate division of the playoff bracket. Then, Lowcountry powerhouse Goose Creek was eliminated by River Bluff.
Joanna Clayton said she just knew it would be Caleb’s turn to follow in his father’s and grandfathers’ footsteps – playing for a state championship.
For Caleb and Shane Clayton, the family history is really secondary to just getting play in such a big game.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to play in the title game against a very good team,” Caleb said. “You’re brought up and you hear talks about the state championship.”
And on Saturday, one way or the other, he’ll have his own state championship story.
Shane Clayton said he cried when the Cougars won on that day back in 1986. It was an achievement shared by players, cheerleaders, coaches and fans alike.
“We dedicated our game to the fans of York because York’s always been a football town,” Shane Clayton said.
Caleb said his team will do the same thing Saturday and try to win it for the fans in the stands and back home, just like his father and grandfathers taught him,
“It’s more than just a football team,” Shane Clayton said. “It’s the Cougar spirit that still rolls on.”