Already drenched in sweat from his warmup on the grass carpet of Williams-Brice Stadium, TJ Gurley stepped out of the September sunlight and into the cool air of the locker room. After peeling off his clothes, he quietly he took out his garnet gameday pants and pulled them over legs chiseled from his first summer of training as a Gamecock.
He fastened his belt, then donned pads that felt like feathers compared to the chip he’d carried on those broad shoulders every day since most Division I programs overlooked him during his recruitment.
He stretched a garnet number 20 jersey to fit around his muscular 5’10” 183-pound frame, but TJ’s suit of armor wasn’t complete until he’d draped his neck with a small golden cross necklace, a high school graduation gift from his mother and aunt that he wore under his jersey every game. Just hours before, TJ had awoken in a dimly-lit room and dialed his mother’s number to pray with her over the phone before his first collegiate start.
Once the call ended, he had fallen to his knees to pray for himself. Though prayer was a regular gameday practice for TJ, the freshman from rural Cairo, Ga., perhaps needed a little more help from the man above before stepping into DJ Swearinger’s starting spot at safety against Missouri.
With the Gamecock faithful beginning to dribble in toward their seats amongst the cavern of aluminum bleachers, TJ sat at his locker, his eyes scanning the Bible he held in one hand. He could remember being left out of the national listings of four and five-star prospects as a high school senior, and his eyes were set on proving himself at the college level, proving the so-called experts wrong.
He could recall choosing USC for a shot at Division I ball and watching highlights of Swearinger, the undersized Gamecock free-safety who hit like a freight train and never backed down from a challenge.
He also remembered latching himself to Swearinger soon after arriving in Columbia that summer, with wide eyes following the senior around during workouts and spending every night at his apartment watching film and learning the game. They became roommates for away games and kept working together all season, intensifying their efforts over the past week after learning of Swearinger’s suspension.
TJ had spent every day of that week emulating Swearinger’s movements while practicing with the first team, and every night watching film in the senior’s apartment, listening to the advice on how to make split-second decisions with the Mizzou offense bent on exploiting him.
“They’re going to be throwing the ball a lot,” Swearinger would say. “So please, don’t get beat deep.”
Just as the team was getting ready to head out onto the field, TJ saw Swearinger heading his way.
“The whole nation is watching,” Swearinger said to TJ. “You got to go out there and play.”
Those words still ringing in TJ’s ears, the freshman marched like a gladiator out of the home tunnel and into an arena where he was up against not just Tigers, but every skeptic who deemed him unfit for college football’s biggest stage.
Adrenaline gushing through his veins as he took the field, TJ went untested in each of MIssouri’s first three offensive possessions. All he could do was lock down his domain as the rest of his defense smothered the Tiger offense.
Assigned to the punt team with the score tied at zero and just over 12 minutes left in the half, TJ pounced on the chance to make his presence felt. Seeing teammate Ace Sanders field the punt in the middle of the field with room to breath, TJ sprinted downfield to make some room for him.
Flinging himself into a white jersey that was closing in on Sanders, TJ opened a lane for Ace to bring it up to the Missouri four-yard line. The thunderous applause of the garnet faithful wasn’t for him, but TJ was more than happy to punish an opponent for his team.
Bolstered with confidence, TJ flew down the field like a madman on the ensuing kickoff, hurling all of his weight into Missouri returner T.J. Moe and flattening the former highly-touted prospect to the Tiger sideline. Fired up, TJ headed back to the defensive huddle as a few Missouri players peeled Moe off the turf and handed him back his helmet.
Two Gamecock defensive stops later, USC was up 14-0 with six minutes left in the first half, but TJ had yet to make a Swearinger-like impact from the safety position. On a second and ten the next series, James Franklin rolled to his left and hit Moe with a strike at the first down mark. TJ was in perfect position to level the receiver a split-second later, but couldn’t bring him down until after Moe had dragged him an additional five yards.
TJ tried to shake it off in time for the next play, but found himself over-pursuing toward the sideline as Tiger running back Kendial Lawrence took a sweep to his right. It was a freshman mistake TJ couldn’t afford to make, and the senior back took advantage, leaving TJ grasping at air as he cut upfield for a 28-yard burst deep into USC territory.
Swearinger stood tight-lipped next to TJ on the sideline a few plays later as Missouri got on the scoreboard with a field goal, but the freshman knew what his mentor would have said.
“Football isn’t about athleticism at his level,” Swearinger had told him countless times in dim rooms illuminated by flashes of game film. “It’s all mental. You can’t get beat mentally.”
TJ threw on his helmet and took the field after halftime with renewed focus. He played his role perfectly as the Gamecock defense forced three-and-outs on Missouri’s first two series. Down 28-3 and in desperate need of getting something going, Missouri picked up good field position in South Carolina territory in the waning minutes of the third quarter.
On a third and nine with 2:17 to go in the third and Missouri looking to come back, TJ knew from his time with Swearinger that Missouri would test him. The Carolina faithful growing louder every second, TJ could sense the gravity of the moment. He knew it was time to slam the door. His eyes focusing on Franklin, TJ watched the quarterback snap the ball and stare down the number three receiver on a hook route.
With a quick twitch of his muscles, TJ burst toward the receiver as the ball left Franklin’s hands. A teammate, Reginald Bowens, made it there first, grabbing the receiver’s legs but hadn’t finished the tackle.
Just as Swearinger had done an infinite amount of times over his USC career, TJ had positioned himself in the right place at the right time, lowering his shoulders and leveling the Tiger receiver to the ground well short of the first down marker and out of scoring range. The game was in hand, and TJ and the Gamecocks could coast to victory.
When the clock hit zero, TJ stood victorious, celebrating with his teammates after they had won the day.
“Good job,” said a beaming Swearinger when the safeties found each other. “Good job, you did good. Come over tonight, and we’ll watch the film.”
Photo Credit: GarnetAndCocky