Centennial keeps S.C. State tradition alive for Gardners

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Father and son will return to Bulldogs to be honored as part of top 100 players Saturday

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 Alex Gardner Jr.’s decision on where to attend college was simple. In fact, there was just one choice for him: South Carolina State, his hometown school and a traditional goal for black South Carolina football players in 1955.

It was different 25 years later, when Gardner’s son faced his own decision. Alex Gardner III, “Al” to family and friends, had other options in 1980, as well as concern about following in his father’s considerable shadow.

Ultimately, S.C. State’s tradition exerted its grip again on this Orangeburg family, though not enough so for a threesome. Al’s younger brother, Robbie, chose to play at Furman, and thus is not part of the Bulldogs’ season-long football centennial this fall.

Saturday at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium, the Alex Gardners will share something besides a name: recognition as two of S.C. State’s top 100 players.

Alex “Bubba Son” Gardner, who played both ways at halfback, was two-time All-SIAC and a 1958 small-college All-American who signed with the Oakland Raiders. He is a member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame, though he says football was not his initial motivation at S.C. State.

“I was one of the first in my family to get a (college) degree,” Gardner, 72, said. “I was a ‘home boy’ from Wilkinson High, and to be able to excel with those guys was a thrill.”

Two of “those guys” went on to star on different stages. David “Deacon” Jones played at S.C. State in 1958-59 before building an NFL Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Rams; Willie Jeffries later became the school’s winningest coach and a local icon.

Gardner, retired after 34 years with the city’s schools as well as 24 years at Orangeburg-Calhoun TEC, said the true function of S.C. State football was producing role models for future generations, in sports and in life.

“No doubt, athletics is one of the biggest recruitment (tools) the school has,” Gardner said. “But the guys who played, and the people they are in the community when they go back — that has been one of the biggest assets.

“(The school) opened its arms to young guys like me,” he said. “It encouraged us to get an education, not just football.”

Little wonder, then, that Gardner hoped his sons would want the same experience. But for his namesake, it was not that simple.

“I always had a thing, I didn’t want to go where he went,” said Al Gardner, 45, a U.S. Army colonel living in Washington, D.C. “Growing up, I was always compared to him; I worried about living up to expectations.”

He need not have fretted. From 1980-83, he was a two-time All-MEAC selection, and holds the school record for career field goals (30). In 1981, he scored 63 points, second-most in a season by an S.C. State kicker.

Gardner said his parents did not pressure him to go to S.C. State, but he concluded that “this could be special, playing where my father went. And it was exactly what I thought it would be.”

Uh, not exactly. Gardner, a tailback in high school, wanted to play there, too. But with Henry Odom (845 yards rushing in 1980), Anthony Reed (933 and 1,169 yards in 1981-82) and Frankie Darby (542 in 1983) available, coach Bill Davis was not inclined to risk his kicker.

In fact, twice — the spring before his junior year, and as a senior — Davis gave Gardner a shot at tailback. Both times, he injured an ankle. “I heard, ‘I told you so’ so many times,” he said.

Saturday, the Gardners will greet former teammates and argue with each other about who played on the better teams. “He knows I did,” the elder Gardner said, laughing. “That’s straight up; we played both ways.”

The two men will recall the long bus rides, cramped locker rooms and “crappy equipment,” Alex III said. And something else.

“There was something special about S.C. State. We brought onto that team how we were brought up; it really was like a family. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

By BOB GILLESPIE (bgillespie@thestate.com). Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.