Friday Night Lights, Part II: The Chesnee Eagles and the Third Week of November, 1996
This isn't a story about heroes. It's not about overcoming obstacles or underdogs or how good guys always win. This is a story about how life, even in the surreal bubble of high school football can be uprooted and ripped apart like a decades-old oak tree in the middle of a tornado.
The 1996 Chesnee Eagles football team was destined for greatness. Coming off of an incredible 1995 season which saw them start 9-0 before losing to Chapman and then in the state quarterfinals against Batesburg-Leesville, the '96 team was expecting to do big things.
The season was set up perfectly. Despite two early losses to tough Greer and Chase High teams, the Eagles rolled through region play, easily winning the conference with an undefeated record. Not one team scored more than 17 points on them in the regular season.
Chesnee had two of the best players in their history on the same field that year playing both sides of the ball. Dwayne Lowrance and Jermaine Davis were more than football players, they were gridiron gods that had several colleges drooling at the idea of either gentleman playing Saturdays for them.
Lowrance was a dominating linebacker who was invited to play in the North-South All Star Game and also was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Herald-Journal, taking place in over 20 sacks during the season. Jermaine Davis was another all-area selection playing both linebacker and running back, rushing for 1,150 yards and 15 touchdowns. Both men stood around 6 feet 4 inches and weighed around 230-240 lbs. Think a slightly shorter Jadevon Clowney without the dreads.
The Eagles also featured several players on the All-Conference team: Justin Valentine, Todd Morris, Shane Henderson, Jay Cash, and Chad Dodd. Both Davis and Lowrance also made the All-State team.
On top of that, the Eagles were a senior-laden team whose experience saw them through from the preseason jamboree where then knocked off AAAA powerhouse Dorman all the way through the first two playoff games where they beat their two opponents by a combined score of 82-6.
That third week of November was going to be special. It would be the week of the game that would get Chesnee to a place it hadn't been for a while: the Upper State championship. Stars were aligning. The magic was in the air, and you could sense a cloud of hope amass over the town. Chesnee football was back and perhaps better than ever.
On Tuesday, November 18, that glimmering hope faded.
The call came on Tuesday afternoon of that very week. My mom had taken the message from one of my friends letting me know Marvin Foster and another student Labreeska Upton had been killed in an automobile accident. It didn't compute. As the sudden death of anyone rarely does, thinking that a classmate I was playing basketball with just hours before was dead just didn't seem factual.
The next morning, walking into school felt somewhat surreal. Death always brings out emotions, but when someone so young is taken from the earth, the emotions feel more confused than mournful. What had happened here? Literally just the day before he was here. He was in the gym class flirting with the girls. He was walking these same two hallways of classrooms cutting jokes. And now?
Jamie Humphries who was a sophomore in 1996 on the football team remembered the same about Marvin. Jamie had shop class with Marvin, and remembered the teacher crying in class the next day. The same happened in my gym class that Marvin was in. Though Marvin wasn't a football player, the school and the community as a whole were shell-shocked.
One of the cruelest things in life is that it gives us so little time to grieve. We're expected in some fashion to take our share of deep breaths and a moment of silence, then soldier on. After all, classes must go on, the students must continue learning, and yes, even the games must be played. It was just a few nights until the quarterfinal matchup between Chesnee and Mid-Carolina.
Humphries too recalled practicing very little that week. "Everyone from the seniors on down were shaken."
The big playoff game that Friday was preceded by Marvin's funeral on Thursday afternoon. Sitting in the pew at the church that day, I was filtering through a million thoughts and questions just like many others were. Why Marvin? Why now at age 16? There's an old saying that death either comes too early or too late. When it's a teenager, it comes much earlier than anyone deserves.
To this day I've never experienced as emotional an event as Marvin's funeral. You didn't have to have ever met Marvin to feel the pain radiating through the church. The hole left in the soul of Chesnee High would not soon be filled. Chris Miller, who was a junior at the time and was also on the football team reflected on the week:
Just over 24 hours from the close of the funeral and graveside service, the Eagles took the field to play Mid-Carolina. The scene at the stadium that night was somewhat typical: the stands were packed, onlookers hoping this team that had showed so much promise through the year would finally, finally get over the hump and push to the next round.
However, there were small indicators around that reminded you that this, the third week of November 1996, was not typical in the small town of Chesnee. Both Marvin and Labreeska's initials were painted beneath the goalposts. A moment of silence was held before the game. This was a game of course, and the team would go out and do what it could do to win, but everyone knew this game after this week was different.
The game itself went back and forth. Mid-Carolina jumped out to an early lead, only to see Chesnee steal it away in the third quarter. After a late drive in the 4th quarter, Chesnee jumped back up again after the Rebels had retaken the lead. Now up 21-20 with just minutes to play, the Eagles needed to hold on just a bit longer, but a Rebel conversion on 4th down inside the Eagles 20-yard line set up a last second field goal that split the uprights. Mid-Carolina wins 23-21. Just like that, Chesnee's dream season was over.
The post game scene was one of silenced panic. This wasn't supposed to happen. This team wasn't supposed to lose this game. The hulking players trounced on the field downcast. Cheerleaders scanning their eyes from the field to the scoreboard back to the field again began crying. Us lonely spectators stood in disbelief.
Both Miller and Humphries believed that the emotions running throughout the week played a big factor in the game. "If it had been any other normal week in Chesnee I know we would have won that game and won a championship later on that year," said Miller. Humphries agreed: "there is no doubt in my mind that had that tragedy not occurred, the 1996 Chesnee Eagles would have won the State Championship".
Had Chesnee won, they would've gotten the chance to play dominant AA powerhouse Abbeville who ended up winning the state title that year without losing a game. As it was Chesnee finished with a 10-3 record, earning that many wins for just the 4th time in school history.
The weeks and months passed by, and the grief that enveloped the town slowly lifted and gave way to spring time, then summer, then the next season of football would get underway with some new faces, some old ones, and some that graduated on to bigger and better things.
The 1996 season made us feel a way that can't really be explained in words. It's one thing to compartmentalize the fandom and focus solely on the game itself. But life interrupts us. It forces us to feel beyond what we want to feel. Losing teenager classmates tragically will reveal raw emotions most of us don't know we even have in our hearts until something like this happens.
Those of us that remember Marvin questioned why he had to die. Was it God's cruel way of teaching us a lesson? Was it a way to get us to recognize the fragility of life? Maybe we needed to know there was more than just football. Maybe there was no lesson at all, except that life can be unfair and we cope with it the best we can.
I don't know. I really don't have an answer. There's not a silver lining to this story. There's not a last minute hero, there's not a neat bow to wrap it all up with.
If one thing could be said for the third week of November 1996, it's this: we all grew up. We all mustered the resolve to keep going. We didn't find strength in a football game. We didn't need to. When the fabric of community is woven tightly enough, no moments of darkness can penetrate it for long. Chesnee was that community. Chesnee still is that community.