South Carolina football has never had The Season. There have been great seasons -- a conference championship in 1969 (the school's lone title), a 10-win affair in 1984 -- but never has there been one season where USC was clearly the best team in the country.
Without that to cherish, the Gamecocks instead focus on their great moments. There might be The Game, or The Pass, or The Kick. There has been The Dive, The Drive and The Catch.
Ten years ago today, another of those moments again brought USC football into the national eye, for however briefly it stayed there. An unknown walk-on quarterback and one of the program's best receivers connected for a magical six seconds that left each of them as Gamecock legends.
Erik Kimrey was as much of an enigma as his counterpart, Jermale Kelly, was famed. A local boy from Dutch Fork High School, where he had racked up all kinds of awards while quarterbacking his father's team, Kimrey was a two-year squad member who wanted to play at a big-time school, even if he would never see the field.
"I was pretty realistic about my abilities," said Kimrey, now the football coach at Hammond School. "I was the smart guy who knew where to throw and how to throw it on time. I was limited in athleticism and arm strength -- I always kind of knew that."
Kelly was the opposite. Also an in-state player, although he hailed from Greenville and Berea High, Kelly turned down several national powers to play for USC. Honored as South Carolina's "Mr. Football" in 1996, Kelly redshirted his first collegiate season due to a knee injury but exploded into a dependable and often spectacular wide receiver.
The only knock on Kelly was he played the majority of his career on miserable teams. He committed to coach Brad Scott because he wanted to be in a pass-happy offense; a 1-10 year when Kelly was a redshirt sophomore got Scott fired and Lou Holtz hired. Holtz loved to run the ball and went 0-11 during Kelly's next-to-last season, leaving 2000 as Kelly's final chance.
"My sophomore year, it was rough," said Kelly, now in marketing for Greenville's Corporate Connection Relocation Service and also an assistant football and assistant girls basketball coach at Southside High. "One and 10, then 0-11, that was really rough. That was a tough time."
Kelly had played and played often, catching at least one pass in 33 straight games before the 2000 season began. Kimrey had yet to see the field but was regarded as the backup to starter Phil Petty.
Each was part of a team that had a lot to prove. After 21 straight losses, the Gamecocks knew they had talent but had to show it.
"We knew we were going to be successful," Kelly said. "We had come to the point where we were tired of losing. We were the laughingstock of college football. We knew we couldn't get any worse."
The losing streak ended with a walloping of New Mexico State, where the Williams-Brice Stadium goalposts were torn down by a deliriously happy mob of USC fans. They were barely up in time for the next week's game before they came crashing down again, due to an upset of ninth-ranked Georgia.
USC crushed Eastern Michigan to improve to 3-0 but No. 25 Mississippi State was coming to town the following week. The Bulldogs, two years removed from an SEC West championship and playing what would become just the second 10-win season in school history, were good and they knew it.
The Gamecocks listened to them proclaim it all week long.
"They had (former USC assistant) Joe Lee Dunn as their defensive coordinator and one of the best defenses in the country at the time," Kimrey said. "Their cornerback, Fred Smoot, was talking all before the game about how he was going to shut us down. And you know, in the backs of people's minds, that game was probably the one where they really didn't anticipate us being for real that year."
It seemed to be an omen, after USC went into the fourth quarter trailing 19-10. Petty was having a heck of a day, eventually throwing for 305 yards, but USC couldn't cross the goal line. Reid Bethea chipped in a 26-yard field goal to cut to the score to 19-13 with 8:08 to play, but the Gamecocks were staring at having to get the ball back, then drive downfield against a defense that wasn't tiring in the muggy Columbia atmosphere.
"Certainly it looked pretty bleak in the fourth quarter," Kimrey said.
Still, Petty regrouped and led the Gamecocks downfield, setting up a first-and-10 at the Bulldogs' 25-yard-line. Two passes fell incomplete, one as USC frustratedly howled for pass interference.
"They were in cover zero, press man, with every defender on the line," Kimrey said. "They were really pressing us to throw, taking away the running game."
With 4:52 to play, Petty rolled out and saw that his protection was shredded. He threw the ball away but went down. Trying to rise, Petty couldn't put any weight on his right ankle.
Kelly, who had already caught seven passes for close to 80 yards, spied his quarterback limping and shook his head. He knew the Gamecocks had to get 10 yards through the air from a quarterback who had thrown eight passes all season, all in garbage time.
"When Phil got hurt, I thought, 'Oh, Lord, it's fourth down, what are we going to do?'" Kelly said. "We had Erik, and I knew he could throw the ball, but he had not had many opportunities to throw the ball. It wasn't about the first down, it was a win or lose situation."
The eyes of close to 80,000 people crammed into Williams-Brice turned to look at the anonymous walk-on backup, the kid who they knew would be a great coach someday but was clearly not an SEC quarterback. That he was wearing No. 13 was supposedly yet another example of the hex hanging over USC's program.
He felt every pupil staring at him.
"When Phil went down, my first thought was, 'Get up,'" Kimrey said. "He tried to get up and he fell back down. I thought, 'OK, better go get my helmet."
Receivers coach Todd Fitch asked him on the sideline. Offensive coordinator Skip Holtz called down on the headset. Each had the same question.
"What play do you want to run?"
Kimrey, who had been charting the plays, didn't hesitate.
"I said, 'Let's run 18,'" Kimrey said. "That play was the outside guy running the fade. Coach Skip and coach Fitch said OK."
Lou Holtz came striding up to his backup QB, asking the same question.
"Let's run 18, coach," Kimrey replied. "He said, 'OK, let's do it.'"
Kelly also got on the headset to Skip Holtz and got the play.
"He just kept saying, 'The fade, the fade,'" Kelly said. "I wasn't running the fade. He didn't say for me to run the fade at all. Skip asked me just to run on that side."
The play was on, the clock winding.
Kimrey swallowed the golf ball-sized lump in his throat and ran onto the field.
With 4:47 showing, Kimrey lined up 5 yards deep of the center and read his line. Kelly left, James Adkisson right. Adkisson had Smoot on him. The MSU defense was stacking almost everybody else in the box, knowing the pass was coming and planning to send the zoo at Kimrey.
"I did not have time to get nervous," Kimrey said. "It was kind of like before you get in a car wreck. Everything moves in slow motion and you do the best you can in the time you're given."
The snap rifled into Kimrey's hands. Playing on straight instinct, Kimrey took one step back and launched to the left sideline, aiming for the 5-yard-line.
"I had to get rid of it," Kimrey said. "With 11 guys on the line of scrimmage, if I thought about it at all, I was going to get hit."
Kelly came off the ball with a little shake-and-bake, then sprinted past defender Kendall Roberson. He was hoping Roberson would think he was on a dummy go route, with the pass really going over the middle.
"He actually was in my hip pocket," Kelly said. "I didn't look up until the last minute. They always teach you not to look up, just to glance, and that's what I did."
Kimrey, a split second before he released, saw Kelly slightly bumped at the line and adjusted.
"I put a little more air under it, a little more touch," Kimrey said. "As soon as I let it go, I thought, 'That might be a little bit too much.'"
"I saw it was far as I got to full speed, and I knew I had to run," Kelly said.
Kelly kept churning and got his body between Roberson and the sideline, creating a natural screen. As Roberson cast his eyes straight across the field, Kelly leaped behind him, stretching both hands out over his man's helmet.
The ball plopped neatly into Kelly's hands as he came down in stride, and he kept running right into the end zone.
"Perfect ball," Kelly said. "Couldn't be no more perfect." "It was more a better catch than a better throw," Kimrey said.
Kelly's feet crossed the goal line as he and Kimrey crossed into USC history.
TAKE A BOW
The Gamecocks went ahead on Bethea's extra point and got an insurance field goal with 1:37 to play. USC won 23-19 and began a season 4-0 for the first time since 1988.
The season became a magnificent turnaround, resulting in an 8-4 record and an Outback Bowl win. Kimrey started the next game, a loss at Alabama, before being replaced by Petty in the second half and returning to his backup role. Kelly completed his career as one of USC's all-time greats, still ranking fifth on the school's receiving yardage chart.
The season became known for the eight-win resurgence after one of the darkest periods in program history, and for one play that helped send the Gamecocks on their way. Kimrey thrust it into the lexicon with his post-game comments, saying several times that all he said on the sideline was, "I can throw the fade, coach."
When the play was being drawn up, Kimrey only said, "Let's run 18." But with Holtz's gift of mangling the English language and the headiness of being a hero immediately after the game, Kimrey and Holtz inadvertently changed it to the more popular saying.
Kimrey and Kelly had no idea at the time that they would be remembered 10 years later for a play that only lasted six seconds.
"Know what's so funny about that?," Kelly asked. "Still to this day, everybody remembers me from The Fade. That was my senior year. I scored 10 touchdowns my freshman year. Ask me about that. No, they ask about The Fade. It's got me baffled."
Kelly had his share of wonderful catches at USC, recalling a one-handed touchdown grab of an Anthony Wright pass against Ole Miss as his favorite, but realizes the importance of The Fade. It probably helps that The Fade helped win a game; many of Kelly's other catches, like the Ole Miss one, came during losses.
A few cups of coffee with the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers became a championship run with the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe, before Kelly called it quits and came back home to coach at his alma mater. He moved on to Southside, where he helped coach the girls basketball team to the Class AA state championship last season.
He hasn't spoken to Kimrey much since their defining play, saying it's one of those things where they keep missing each other. Kelly would like to change that soon, and although he can seem flustered about only being remembered for The Fade, he can handle it.
"It's a great accomplishment," Kelly said. "Especially up here, where there's nothing but Clemson Tiger fans about to drive me crazy.
"Just to be known as a player that caught the fade pass, in that history, that's a big accomplishment. I'm proud of myself and proud of my teammates that helped me get to that point."
Kimrey, who took over at Hammond when he was 24 and has been there since, also recognized the notoriety for being a former Gamecock who was fortunate enough to turn in one legendary play. Living in Columbia, he still gets recognized for that one toss, although it was 10 years ago.
"It happened a lot right after that, and it still happens," Kimrey said. "But then again, sometimes a program gets known for a lot of negative things, and I'm known for a positive thing."
USC has cycled through several quarterbacks since Kimrey passed his way into history, and several have made memorable plays. That's OK -- Kimrey never brags about The Fade, but will cheerfully accept if he is congratulated for it.
"I wasn't a very good football player, but I was known by a good play," Kimrey said. "A lot of quarterbacks threw that late interception, you know.
"But I ran into (former USC assistant) Jon Fabris one time, and he said, 'You know what, Erik? There were guys a lot better that nobody will remember, but they'll always remember you and remember that play.'"
"I'm certainly the worst player in USC history to be remembered for something good."
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