Devlin’s number still speaks volumes

Monday, November 5, 2007

S.C. State fullback John Devlin died during a 1965 practice, but friends and family still remember him fondly

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 The first mention of John Devlin’s death in The State newspaper came three weeks after the sophomore fullback succumbed to heat stroke on Aug. 26, 1965.

It was in The State’s Sept. 15 college football preview that Devlin’s name came up when discussing who would replace graduated fullback James Brown. His name was misspelled:

“The tragic loss at the start of training of hard-running John Devin, promising sophomore fullback, compounded the problem. ...”

The four lines of type do little to explain Devlin’s continuing impact on his family more than four decades after his passing or why his No. 31 jersey was retired by the school.

“He was a good guy, a fun-loving guy,” said George Devlin, one of John’s seven siblings. “He was not the type that walked around with his head down. He was always upbeat, always having fun.”

Ida Wideman, one of Devlin’s three sisters, was attending South Carolina State the same time as John. But since the fall semester had not begun, she was not there on Aug. 24 when he fell during a steamy afternoon practice in Orangeburg.

“The only people there were football players and dining hall workers,” Ida said. “The night it happened, I rode down to Orangeburg with my parents.”

The large family lived on a modest farm in rural Greenwood County and lived off the land for the most part. Even as a child, it was clear to the Devlin clan that John had a future elsewhere.

He had a penchant for working out, but the only place he could train was in the town of Bradley, five miles away. Never one to ask for a lift, he made the daily sojourns on foot.

“That was John for you,” Ida said with a laugh. “He didn’t let anything get in the way.”

Not even heat stroke. He lived for 33 hours after passing out on the practice field. He never regained consciousness, but doctors marveled at how long he held on.

Ida has a theory as to why.

“He held on for us,” she said. “To say good bye. The doctors said he couldn’t hear us, but I always believed he knew we were there.”

Ida took John’s hand and called him by his family nickname, “June,” short for “Junior.”

“His eyes didn’t open, but he turned toward me and squeezed my hand,” she said.

John fell out on Tuesday. Ida and her parents returned home Wednesday and received a call Thursday morning informing them he had passed.

The Bulldogs, who had nicknamed him “The Horse” because of his imposing size and penchant for running high, had lost more than a fullback with his passing. They lost someone who had been the life of the party wherever he went.

Years later, the Devlins found out just how much John meant to the school. When Ida made a simple request for a No. 31 jersey so her parents could have a keepsake from his S.C. State days, the school instead decided to have a ceremony and retire the number.

He was remembered by his former teammates for his larger-than-life stature.

“I don’t know whether he lived knowing his life would be coming to an end, but like the reverend said at his funeral, he lived more in his 19 years than most did in 50,” Ida said.

Back home following the funeral, Ida said laughter and smiles were in abundance.

“We were so upbeat that Sunday of the funeral,” she said. “People would come up to us and say, ‘I can’t believe y’all came from a funeral.’

“That’s because of who he was; just a fun-loving guy,” she added. “People just loved him to death.”

By PATRICK OBLEY ( Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473.