Die-hard fans make football rivalry part of their holiday traditions

  • Dan, Stryker, 3, and Rachel Gehlken. Wednesday October 10, 2012 at their Goose Creek home. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)
  • Provided Desmond Chapman, and orthodontist in Walterboro, is a USC fan and her husband Jeff loves Clemson. In this photo, their son J.J is a Clemson fan.

Two days after families gather around the table to give thanks on Thanksgiving, South Carolina families will be gathering together again for the state’s biggest rivalry... the USC versus Clemson football game.

Played annually since 1896, this heated rivalry known as “The Battle of the Palmetto State” brings out the fan in everyone. Whether fans are watching from the comforts of their own home or from the seats of Death Valley (where this year’s match-up will take place), this rivalry can quickly boil the garnet blood of a Gamecock or make the claws come out of a feisty Tiger.

And it doesn’t have to be a stranger in a sport’s bar or crazed fan seated in front of you to get you riled up during the third longest continuously played rivalry in college football ... nope, it’s often the people you love the most.

Your spouse. Your kids. Your family.

For the Bell family of West Ashley, the household is split down the middle on game day. Brian is a Gamecock fan and his Clemson-loving wife, Julie, share the rivalry with sons, Chris, 16, a Carolina fan and Logan, 11, a Tigers fan.

“It’s always interesting around our house,” jokes Brian, whose father is a Clemson graduate. “Somebody is always happy and someone is always sad. I’ve been known to throw my hat into the ceiling fan. It’s pretty bad all the way around, but the kids aren’t as bad as we are.”

While they’ll often invite friends and family over for the big day, Julie’s sister, Kathleen – a Clemson alumnus – refuses to come over.

“Her sister won’t come over. She can’t stand it!” laughs Brian.

“She’s too competitive around Brian,” jokes Julie, who admits that like her sister, she takes a loss very seriously.

Julie’s brother Tim, a USC graduate, doesn’t mind coming over but there aren’t too many words said between the two. “Brian is usually the one talking to him,” she laughs.

Four-year-old Stryker Gehlken was born in the middle of college football season and was sporting orange and garnet “ASAP” says his mom Rachel, who has been a Clemson fan since an early age.

“When he was a baby, he had two outfit changes a day. One would be Clemson and the other Carolina. Now that he’s older, one day he likes Cocky, then the next day he’s all about tiger paws,” says Rachel, whose husband Dan is a diehard Carolina fan.

“He’s a kid divided.”

Stryker’s dad, Dan, grew up in North Charleston and was introduced to the Gamecocks at age 15. With a high school mentor who had season tickets to the games, Dan quickly learned the ropes of college football Saturdays.

Currently, Stryker is enamored with Cocky, the USC mascot, and recently traveled with his parents to Augusta for the 2012 Border Bash to meet him. Even at his young age, he already knows how to play both mom and dad.

“He knows if he picks up something garnet and black, daddy will buy it,” Rachel admits. “And if he picks up something orange, mommy will buy it.”

Stryker has both a Clemson and a Carolina pillow pet, equal number of shirts for each team and new hats for each team, says his mom. But to her, it’s not just about the performance on the football field.

“I would love for him to go to Clemson to be an engineer when he grows up but that’s his decision. If he’s a Carolina fan, I’ll deal with it. I’m pretty outnumbered.”

When the Gehlkens watch the games it’s usually at a friend’s house and far too often, Rachel is the only Clemson fan in the room.

“Everyone is cordial until that one game day,” she says. “Then I have to stand my ground.” But if they lose, well, that’s a different story... “I’m a sore loser. I take heart with the orange.”

Rachel does admit that she is happy to support her husband’s team during games where they don’t play the Tigers by wearing USC’s team colors and Dan will also return the courtesy.

Although Stryker hasn’t been to a game yet, they’re hoping he will be ready next season and they both agree, “He’s definitely going to be the confused one.”

Another youngster that may be confused during future game days is 6-month-old J.J. Chapman. Sure... he has no idea what a touchdown or interception is, but his parents are already battling out the rivalry.

Mom, local orthodontist Desmond Chapman, graduated from USC in 2001 and has a long family history of Gamecock fans. J.J.’s dad, Jeff, is a 2001 graduate of Clemson. He, his father and sisters all graduated from Clemson and his family still lives there.

The football team has a special place in Jeff’s heart, as he was a student strength coach for the football team while attending the university. He’s only missed less than ten home games since he was one year old. And one of those missed games was his first date with now-wife Desmond.

Jeff’s favorite memory is when Clemson beat USC 63-17 in 2003. And Desmond reminisces about the first game they watched together as a couple when Carolina beat Clemson in Death Valley.

Needless to say there’s a healthy rivalry between them and now J.J. is part of the fun. “I do the drop-off for day care for J.J. and Jeff does the pickup,” Desmond says. “Last year, I dressed J.J. in Carolina gear and Jeff didn’t see it. When he picked J.J. up from day care, he got a surprise from his outfit.”

Annually, they put a friendly wager on the game and like to change it up. Desmond is already trying to bet that whatever team wins the 2012 Carolina/Clemson game, J.J. will wear their team colors for next football season. “Jeff isn’t taking this one on... wonder why?” she laughs.

They will spend Thanksgiving in Clemson this year and the sore spot of Carolina’s three straight wins against Clemson have already come up. But once game day comes around she admits, “We tailgate and have fun but when game time hits, there isn’t a lot of talking to each other. For about five hours every year, we don’t speak much.”

Ryan Nelson is a local freelance writer. Have an idea for a story? Share it with her at ryan@nelwater.com or via Twitter @Ryan_NelsonSC.

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