As you get older death tends to accelerate around you. That sounds morbid, but it’s the natural order of things. We get older, and people who have had some sort of impact in our lives, big or small, seemingly die at a more frequent pace. Some elicit a mild response, like “aw man bummer”. Some tug at you a little harder. Some take your breath away.
I was on a tarmac Thursday getting ready to fly home to Atlanta when I got a text from my nephew that Phil Petty had died. It took a moment for it to register with me, because Phil Petty was a young man and was not supposed to die. Phil Petty was supposed to be home with his wife and two kids, preparing to coach this upcoming football season, spinning yarns about his days playing under the blazing sun at Williams-Brice stadium under Lou Holtz.
It took my breath away, much like when I heard the news about Kenny McKinley.
Petty came to South Carolina in 1998 as a Brad Scott recruit, just as Scott was putting the finishing touches on running the USC football program into a ditch. Petty was just another guy really, there were no gaudy star ratings, no YouTube mash-ups of his high school career. He wasn’t a runner, and he didn’t possess a particularly strong arm. But he showed enough that freshman year to earn playing time in ten games as the Gamecocks limped to a 1-10 finish.
In 1999 under his new head coach, the aforementioned Holtz, he only played in six games due to injury as South Carolina ran through eight starting quarterbacks (yes, it’s ridiculous, you might want to check my math on that). That season ended 0-11 and the Carolina football program was at the low point of its 100-year history.
When the 2000 season rolled around there was really no reason to believe Phil Petty was our savior at the quarterback position. He won the starting job, but against no real competition. After breaking a 21-game losing streak against New Mexico State, ninth-ranked Georgia rolled into town for what was sure to be a bloodbath. But South Carolina stunned Georgia that day 21-10 behind a ball-control offense and a suffocating defense, and football was reborn in Columbia. Petty was solid in the face of a tough Georgia defense, finshing 18-28 for 154 yards and no turnovers.
The Gamecocks would ride that momentum to an 8-4 season and which included a stunning 24-7 win over Ohio State in the Outback Bowl, completing one of the great turnarounds in college football history. And Petty was the steady hand at the helm all the while.
In 2001 the Gamecocks picked up where they left off, winning their first five games, including a 14-9 victory at Georgia. South Carolina scored with just over a minute left on one of the gutsiest throws we’ve ever seen a USC quarterback make.
Also included in that opening streak was a rousing 37-36 comeback win over Alabama, which for my money is one of the most exciting games ever played in Williams-Brice. Petty, often described as a game manager, had the best statistical game of his career, throwing for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game winner with two minutes to go.
The 2001 season ended with another Outback Bowl win, once again over Ohio State, and a final record of 9-3.
Think about that: from 1-10 and 0-11, to 8-4 and 9-3. Prior to 2000-2001 South Carolina had won eight or more games TWICE IN OUR HISTORY.
That is the legacy of Phil Petty on the football field. His toughness and resolve helped fuel a miraculous turnaround for a program in the depths of despair. He helped put the program back on solid footing and showed that you CAN win at South Carolina, and paved the way for the likes of Shaw, Lattimore, Clowney and the rest. Those years were incredibly fun and memorable.
The legacy of Phil Petty off the football field can be summed up in one quote for his former coach Lou Holtz, “I would be proud to call him my son.”
Farewell to thee. Forever to thee.