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December 24, 2013

Hood: Goodbye, old friend



I loved Pat Vella.

Judging by the overflow crowd that attended his emotional and remarkable funeral mass Monday morning at St. Peter's Church in downtown Columbia, so did many other people.

Pat was a soldier, warrior, gifted athlete, visionary businessman, faithful husband, father and perhaps the greatest Gamecock fan alive until his untimely death last week at the feisty age of 88 only hours after attending (what else?) a South Carolina basketball game at Colonial Life Arena.

Until his final days, Pat was the head usher at St. Peter's for more than 30 years, bouncing up and down the aisles as he found seats for the late arrivals or those too shy to nudge somebody and slide into an open space.

Always, when I walked through the doors to enter the church on a Sunday morning for 10 o'clock mass, Pat was there, greeting me and my wife with a smile and a comment about how he saw me on the news during the week standing behind Steve Spurrier during a media session. Rarely a week passed without a discussion about the state of Gamecock athletics, be it football, basketball or baseball.

Pat's slender frame disguised the fact that he remains one of the greatest athletes ever from Rockford, Ill., (he received the city's Most Valuable Athlete/All City Award two years in a row) and a Gamecock football player in the late 1940s.

When he departed the military after loyally serving aboard the U.S.S. North Carolina during World War II fighting campaigns in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay, he received a slew of scholarship offers - USC, Illinois, Notre Dame, Purdue and Wisconsin, among others.

He chose USC, of course, when Rex Enright, another Illinois native, was the head coach of the Gamecocks and journeyed to Columbia.

Vella never left the Midlands.

Today, he is remembered as the "Godfather of Cayce" because he emerged shortly after graduating from USC with a bachelor's degree as a savvy business leader. He established one of the first businesses along Knox Abbott Drive, "Vella's Open Air Market."

Soon, that flourishing business mushroomed into Vella's Shopping Center, Vella's Deli and now the popular Vella's Restaurant and Tavern.

Multiple former Gamecock athletes have talked about going to Vella's, which became an institution in the local area, for a nice meal for college students. Vella never forgot his roots.

Visiting with Pat almost every Sunday morning made me realize why he was able to succeed in business - he was entirely a "people's person" with a vibrant personality and knew exactly the right thing to say at the right moment. His unique skills at comforting people in need or distress were off the charts.

Whenever my wife and I would step out into the aisle for communion, Pat always shook my hand and said, "Good man."

He certainly touched the souls of a multitude of people during his life. His popularity crossed racial, ethnic and religious boundaries as the large and diverse crowd at his funeral on Monday clearly showed.

Nonetheless, his greatest legacy might be his unparalleled devotion to USC athletics. He attended EVERY Gamecock home football game as a player or fan since 1946, a remarkable 67-year record of devotion matched by few college football fans anywhere in the nation.

I thought I was doing well having attended every USC home football game since the beginning of the 1994 season, but Vella's record could be unbreakable considering technology and the seemingly limitless entertainment options available today.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to sit down with Vella at his house about seven years ago to talk about the old days of USC football. Of course, the conversation eventually turned to Steve Wadiak, still one of the top half dozen or so players in Gamecock history.

Vella played on the same teams with Wadiak, so he got to see him every day in practice and throughout his career as he made one dazzling run after another.

I remember asking Vella for his opinion on who was the better running back - Wadiak or George Rogers? He said Wadiak by a slim margin. Vella was very good friends with Wadiak, so perhaps he was a bit biased, but there is no questioning Wadiak's greatness or the amazing numbers he posted during his stellar career.

Despite all his accomplishments, Vella remained modest and humble. Never one to brag or boast, he let his many medals won for military valor and bravery (prominently displayed following his funeral) speak for him.

But that was Pat.

Goodbye, old friend.

DM


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