Friday Night Lights, Part I: The Camden Bulldogs and the Glory of Perfection
If you love something, anything at all, there are moments you remember about it. If you love cars, you remember the first time you get behind the wheel of some rusted old clunker handed down from your dad that to you felt like a brand new Cadillac. If you love to hunt, you will never forget the exact moment you took down your first 12 point buck. My love has always been sports. The passion for it never gripped me more than in the magical fall of 1990.
During that season I was a bright-eyed nine-year-old, the youngest of three kids with my sisters being students at Camden High School in Camden, SC. Camden football became a basic way of life for our family. It wasn't a question of "are we going to the game Friday night", but more of "where is the game and what time do we need to leave to get there before kickoff?"
Friday nights were more than football games. They were more than scoreboards and stat lines. Friday nights were community events. We tailgated before each game. We lost our voices after each game. We traveled as far as 150 miles north to Rock Hill to watch Camden play Clover and an hour east to watch them play at Hartsville. We were groupies of a band of teenage ball players, and we loved every minute of it.
These games, these autumn moments of triumph and heartbreak shaped my view of sports and heroes. I carried my football onto the field after games, reenacting plays of the greats. I followed around players with blank index cards to get their autographs, the great gridiron gods I saw them as. I was enamored with the entire football scene: the dewy grass, the bright lights, the thousands of people screaming, singing, cursing refs and shouting "atta boy" to various players referred to by the number on their black and gold uniform.
You wouldn't have known right away just how special the 1990 season would be. Sure, the previous two seasons gave you hope as the Bulldogs dug deeper into the playoffs each season. And coming off a conference title gave hope for another. Still, eternal glory can never be assumed in late August for a football team. It just gets closer to realization with each passing week.
The seemingly defining moment came in just the fourth game of the season. Hartsville, a school roughly an hour away came into Zemp Stadium in Camden with a 3-0 record. Of course, Camden boasted their own 3-0 record, knocking off AAAA giants Sumter and Spring Valley before thrashing Andrew Jackson just a week earlier.
A decorated sign ran lengthwise along the fence beside the entrance where the players ran out from reading "Bulldog Menu Tonight: Fox Fillets". Or maybe "Fried Fox Tails". Or "Roasted Red Fox". In any case, it was a simplistic fun way to take a creative dig at the opposition that happened to be on this night Hartsville High. The cheerleaders painted similar signs for each opponent that dared venture into vaunted Zemp Stadium which, to this day, remains the oldest active high school football stadium in the state. It was mere intimidation for teams that knew they were about to line up against some of the best damn football players in the state of South Carolina.
The game was a defensive struggle from the kick, a reality that surprised no one. A 7-7 stalemate stood as the fourth quarter ended. Hartsville got the ball first and was held to just a field goal. Because high school overtime rules make sense, Camden got a chance to go on offense in an attempt to tie or win the game. On a third down play, quarterback Andre Carter sent wideout Bobby Engram on a fade pattern to the left corner of the end zone.
Then the magic happened.
Bobby Engram, a wideout with respectable speed, excellent route-running ability, and great hands leapt in the sky so high to the point some began looking for an attached cape. With one hand, he hauled in the perfectly placed pass and won the game. The crowd forgot to exhale and instead roared with excitement. Final: Camden 13, Hartsville 10.
You can see the plays now echo from history's corridors. Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. Eli Manning to David Tyree. Catches that changed the course of a team's fate and even the chart of the entire franchise. There are other plays as well that rocked boats, such as Auburn's stunning field goal return for a touchdown to beat Alabama last season and help propel them to the national championship game.
It wasn't as grand a scale, and no one would have known at the time, but Bobby Engram's one-handed grab to beat Hartsville is one of the biggest moments in Camden football history. The Bulldogs went on to finish the regular season undefeated, earning home field throughout the playoffs.
Slowly, week after week Camden garnered more and more attention, both locally and state-wide. Not only had this team beaten Sumter who went on to win the AAAA state title, they also beat Spring Valley (1988 AAAA state champs), Andrew Jackson (lost in AA state title game in 1990), and three other teams that made it to the playoffs that year (Hartsville, York, and Fort Mill).
Entering the playoffs, however, would be a different deal altogether. How would this Camden team that had thoroughly dominated during the regular season deal with the cream of the crop in AAA?
The week after throttling rival Lugoff-Elgin in the regular season finale, Camden beat Woodmont in the first round of the playoffs 20-7. Next up? The defending AAA state champs, the Greer Yellow Jackets. They entered the game 9-3, their three losses coming by a total of 13 points. What was expected to be a tough game was anything but. Camden destroyed Greer 35-7 and set up what was sure to be a monumental showdown with Daniel High the following week for the Upper State Championship.
Daniel High, located just minutes away from Clemson University, is a football powerhouse. They've produced numerous NFL players and numerous state championships. Prior to the 1990 season, Daniel had never lost to Camden.
The game's atmosphere was surreal. To say "standing room only" would be a gross misrepresentation. People were standing at the gates three rows deep. Certainly, some fire codes were being violated that night in Zemp Stadium, but for the sake of potential football glory, no one dared complain.
The game that many thought would be a grinder until the end didn't happen. Camden controlled things from the opening kick and went on to win 27-7. To put the win into perspective, that playoff loss for Daniel in November 1990 would be their only loss until October of 1993. It still ranks as Camden's only win over Daniel.
Being Upper State champs in many ways was icing enough on the cake. Undefeated and blasting the Daniel Lions was monumental for any team, but now Camden would have the opportunity to go to Williams-Brice Stadium, home of the South Carolina Gamecocks, and fight for the right to be called the best team in the state.
The town seemed empty. One shopkeeper put up a sign in the window saying "Would the last person to leave Camden please shut the lights off?" Everyone was heading to Columbia. The chance to see your hometown team compete for gold championships rings and a big trophy doesn't come along very often.
Camden would face Hilton Head, a team that came in 12-2 and plenty of talent. It was a low scoring game, one marked by the continued impressive play of Andre Carter and Bobby Engram. Camden claimed the 1990 AAA state title, beating the Seahawks 13-3.
Camden High had, without question, one of the best seasons in South Carolina high school history. They outscored opponents in their 15 games by a total of 417-124. Only once did a team score more than 16 points on them. Coach Billy Ammons was named AAA Coach of the Year. Four players were named as All-State selections: Bobby Engram, Andre Carter, WR Kerry Hayes, and DE Shawn Elliott. Engram was also named to the Parade All-American team. He went on the play for Joe Paterno at Penn State becoming one of the school's all-time receivers. Andre Carter played briefly at Clemson after he graduated, Kerry Hayes played at Western Carolina, and Shawn Elliott at Appalachian State.
Two players from the team played in the NFL. Bobby Engram spent time with the Bears, Seahawks, and Chiefs before retiring. He now works as the receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Also on the team was a freshman defensive end named Vonnie Holliday who went to North Carolina and would later play for the Green Bay Packers, along with the Dolphins, Chiefs, Broncos, Redskins, and Cardinals.
The Bulldogs have since won another state title in 2001, a year that also gave an undefeated season thanks to some Engram-like heroics by a wideout named Kelvin Grant. The site camdenbulldogs.com recaps the play:
"...during a playoff game against Wilson, all hopes of a return to the top seemed to disappear when the visiting Tigers went ahead with under 10 seconds to play. On the ensuing kickoff, wide receiver Kelvin Grant returned the ball 88 yards for the winning score and allowed Camden to continue their season."
Usually the best teams, that championship teams, require a little magic along the way to win them all. No one would've predicted even after Bobby Engram's miraculous catch in 1990 that Camden would go on to win it all. It was only the fourth game. But those moments are visible proof of a team that has the resolve, grit, determination, and of course heroics to win championships.
There's been talk of Zemp Stadium eventually being demolished in favor of building a new stadium elsewhere, along with the fact that it happens to rest on the exact location of an 18th century Revolutionary War battle, but cannot be deemed as a historic site because it is, in fact, a football field.
What historians miss, however, is that Zemp Stadium is, without question, a historical landmark. A place where heroes were made from mere teenage boys. A place where community gathers. A place where families living off of nearby Bull and Church streets can hear the band playing as they sip sweet tea from their front porches. A place that unified a town after Hurricane Hugo ripped through in 1989. A place that from the outside looks like little more than a massive stone structure with yellow cinder block walls, but inside...a hallowed ground where champions have walked, run, yelled, and most important of all...won.
(above photo of Zemp Stadium courtesy of camdenbulldogs.com)