In a moment on this otherwise random Thursday afternoon in September, Lee Blackmon will have everyone’s attention.
But for now, he’s unnoticed, pacing in the middle of the Andrew Jackson High School locker room. A football spins in his hands. A single plug-in fan blows the musty, still air.
Blackmon was invited by Volunteers’ head coach Todd Shigley and his staff to come and speak to the team. It’s a day-before-game ritual that Shigley implemented for several reasons. Among them: it connects these players to the community of Kershaw, the school’s surrounding municipality, and it reminds these players of what, and who, they’re playing for.
Blackmon, 42, puts down his navy blue tote bag and takes a peek inside as if to assure that the memorabilia he wanted to incorporate into his talk is still there. Blackmon played quarterback for the Volunteers back in the 80s. By 2001, according to media records compiled by longtime Andrew Jackson statistician Douglas Adams, Blackmon was third in program history in career touchdown passes, with 19, and fifth in passing yards, with 1,467. Today, his playing-day relics are in this bag: There’s his old Andrew Jackson football jersey (he wore No. 10), and a black and white picture of him playing in a game decades ago, taken by The Lancaster News.
Once he assures that everything is all set, Blackmon quietly looks around the room and waits for Shigley’s sign to begin.
“Alright guys listen up!” Shigley suddenly belts over the room’s laughter and chatter and unbuckling of shoulder pads. Shigley runs through a few team announcements and then introduces Backmon, who’s wearing faded blue jeans and a white and orange collared shirt with the A.J. emblem on it.
Blackmon then starts.
“I promise you what I’m about to say is going to mean a lot more to me, probably, than it means to you,” he says.
Blackmon carefully steps and turns as he talks, as if he’s trying to make eye contact with everyone.
The team he stands in front of includes several boys he used to coach when these now-high schoolers used to run around in the town’s youth leagues. It’s a group that includes his three-time Tri-County Player of the Week son, Gavin, and one of the top-producing high school quarterbacks in South Carolina, Chas DeBruhl. It’s a group that has started 6-1 — shutting out its opponents in its first four games and allowing just 16 points through its first six.
And it’s a group that, after a decade of program apathy, has turned Andrew Jackson football into a point of pride again for this small town in Lancaster County.
“I promise you, like I told you earlier, you’re not just playing for the people on this team,” Blackmon said.
“You’re playing a lot for these old guys, like me, who wore these colors too.”
Hoppy: ‘Pride in life’
Kim “Hoppy” Roberts sat in the stands on a Friday night ahead of Andrew Jackson’s fourth football game of the 2019 season when he realized that this atmosphere is how it once was. The lights in the stadium bounced off the astroturf. The stadium buzzed.
For the record, this wasn’t just any Friday night: It was the celebration of Andrew Jackson High School’s 50th anniversary. Alumni who hadn’t been to any game in years marked their territory in the stands. The Volunteers were playing North Central, a rival.
All that said, Roberts — who graduated from Andrew Jackson in 1975 and has come to, by his estimate, over 200 of his alma mater’s football games — took a seat in the stands like he always did. He chatted with the same group of A.J. fans he does every Friday night, and conversation didn’t deviate from the familiar: The group talked about how good Heath Springs High used to be back in the late-60s, and how unfortunate it was that Andrew Jackson’s 1975 football team didn’t win a state championship despite having three Division I-bound players on its roster.
Roberts said there were about 1,800 fans in the stadium, most of whom were packed in the home-side bleachers.
“A lot of them commented that it was good to see that they’re back — that they’re one of the best teams in a long, long time,” Roberts said of this Andrew Jackson team. “And for people my age, it looked like Andrew Jackson in the 70s.”
Attendance wasn’t up just for the North Central game. Roberts said on any Friday night this season, he could look into the crowd and see a face he hadn’t seen in a long time: “They’ve come out because they want to identify with a winner. There’s no other way to say it. It gives them pride in life, almost. This is a football town.”
In its first 28 years of existence, Andrew Jackson had 18 winning seasons. In its first-ever season, in 1969, the team went 8-2. In 1990, the Volunteers went 10-5 and played for the 2A State Championship. In 1997, they started 9-0 and ranked first in the state 2A poll at one point before losing twice to Central of Pageland — the team that went on to win that year’s state championship.
In many ways, this football team had been a reason to gather for this community.
“It’s like the town would shut down,” said Douglas Adams, the aforementioned longtime team statistician. “Everybody went to the football field to watch the football game. And then after that, one of the churches would have something for us to eat after the game, and we would all go there and get together and talk about the game.”
But then, sometime before the new millennium, somehow, the football program lost its way.
Shigley: ‘What’s the deal?’
A few games into Andrew Jackson’s 2014 season, Todd Shigley, an assistant coach at the time, gave his friend Doug Adams a call.
Shigley had been coaching the Volunteers for less than a year, and the job wasn’t what he wanted: Practices weren’t organized. Players would try out for the team, play half the season and quit by homecoming week.
After going 11-2 in 1997, Andrew Jackson would go the next 20 years without a winning season. In the mid-2000s, the Volunteers had five coaches in four years, one for every losing season and an extra coach who accepted the helm in the summer one year before landing another, apparently more desirable, job two weeks later.
Shigley had known Adams for years. And, as someone who’d always been enamored with history, Shigley couldn’t resist but explore the program’s past.
When he started digging, he found something he wasn’t expecting to.
“As a history guy, I started looking at their past seasons… and you had guys that had set these state records for rushing 20 years ago; you had another guy that had transferred from Northwestern to here that set a state record as a receiver.”
Shigley asked himself: “Well, if they got all this talent, then what’s the deal?”
The coach said it was hard to know why football participation numbers were down and intra-program apathy ran rampant. History doesn’t give an exact answer.
That said, a broader look at the Kershaw community around the time of the program’s darkest years offers a narrative.
Through Andrew Jackson’s first 30 years, people in the town of Kershaw were mostly employed by Springs Industries, a company that ran textile mills and manufacturing plants for decades across South Carolina. The nature of the work in those mills — with jobs like card roomers, weavers, ink carriers, maintenance men — matched the town’s prideful, self-sufficient, hard-working veneer.
As The Herald’s Andrew Dys once wrote: “In Fort Mill, where Springs headquarters remains, there were two plants. Lancaster had a huge plant in the city. Chester had two mills. Fort Lawn got plants. The Lancaster Grace Bleachery near the Catawba River, filled with so many dreams of kids going to college so they wouldn’t have to work in those mills, employed thousands.”
But then, by 2007, many of the plants closed. Demolition of the plant in Kershaw, specifically, began December 2011.
And at the time, Andrew Jackson’s football team was in an historically dark period.
“When the mill closed, it became a depressed area,” Roberts said. “I mean, jobs were hard to come by. The football team wasn’t doing nearly as well as we’d like for them to. And I think it kind of feeds off itself a little bit …
“We had success in other sports, but football was king.”
Elder: ‘A reason to play’
In the months leading up to the 2015 season, A.J. was in the market for a new coach. Shigley, the aforementioned inquisitive assistant, did more than toss his name in the proverbial hat. As he walked into his interview, he carried what he called a “manual” under his arm, which was essentially a comprehensive pitch detailing the goals and plans for the football program he would run if afforded the opportunity.
Although he didn’t get the job until two years later, most of the plans he once had in that manual are executed today.
For one, he had plans for increasing participation. His goal was to have 77 players across the junior varsity and varsity teams. It was an ambitious mark, considering that the school normally has less than 650 students.
He now has more than 80 students who play football.
For another, he had plans for developing his players as people: Every Wednesday, the team doesn’t go out to the practice field and instead spends time on “character development.” Coaches also keep up with players’ grades. He calls a lot of what he does in this department merely “doing stuff the right way.”
Shigley even had plans for connecting his football teams with the surrounding community: This year, every Friday, he has his players visit the local elementary school and read to its students. Earlier this season, he organized a “Meet the Vols” event, where parents and fans can get to know the players for whom they cheer.
“It means more when you know what’s going on around you,” said Chas Debruhl, the team’s quarterback who, in his first five games, accumulated over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns passing. “So when we go out and we do the ‘Meet the Vols’ and come talk to them and help serve meals at the local restaurant… it adds an effect. And when they come and support you when you go out and help them, it’s a give-give.”
Senior corner back and strong safety Tyleik Elder — whose family attended Andrew Jackson for generations, some even playing football for the school — said hearing from old players propels this team forward.
“It’s cool because you can build off their experiences,” Elder said. “You compare yourself to them all. Like, no team has ever won state here, so the more they describe how close their teams got, the more it makes you want to push harder so you can reach that goal.
“It gives you more of a reason to play.”
Old meets new
For a moment on that Thursday in September, when Blackmon spoke to this Andrew Jackson team, something seemed normal.
It shouldn’t have, considering everything.
After all, this group has the largest senior class — 22 — its had this century. In 2018, the Volunteers earned its first winning season in 20 years; this year, seven games in, the team has matched its win total from last year. The Volunteers are looking to win their first region championship since 1982 and their first state championship ever.
Yet, despite all that’s newly at stake, there’s a feel in this musty locker room that this is how it’s always been — as if those years of program apathy didn’t happen. As if this football school, surrounded by this football town, never actually lost its way.
Blackmon ended his spiel with a quick prayer and exited the locker room. But on his way to the parking lot, Blackmon stopped in front of the Andrew Jackson field. His blue tote bag was slung over his shoulder. There was a twinkle in his eye as he looked out on the artificial grass, as if he was daydreaming, watching himself play 20-plus years ago.
I stuck out my hand to introduce myself. He shook it, smiled and told me what he saw: a perfectly-clear sky; his brothers-by-team on the field with him, wearing orange, blue and white; bleachers so packed that fans were scattered along the chain link fence that separated the track and the field.
Not like it always has been, but how it used to be.
Like it is now.