The 18th season of the Orangeburg Touchdown Club opened with Thursday's meeting at The Cinema, and guest speaker Mike Ayers, the former Wofford College head football coach for three decades.

South Carolina State head football coach Buddy Pough spoke first of his Bulldogs opening the season on Saturday at home at 6 p.m. against Wofford. Before he introduced Ayers, Pough spoke of taking on the Terriers, who will bring in a roster that includes many players recruited while Ayers was still coaching Wofford two seasons ago.

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"It's so good to be back at the touchdown club here; there was a moment or two there (after last season) where I wasn't sure whether I was going to be back (coaching) or not," Pough said, referencing his new contract for the 2019 season. "But, I can tell you that I'm excited as I can be.

"Part of that excitement is because we've got a pretty good group of guys coming back. It will be interesting to see exactly what this team will be. We've got most of the pieces in place to have a pretty good team here in 2019. But, it's a tough start with Wofford coming in here Saturday."

With all of Pough's enthusiasm concerning Saturday's matchup on Willie E. Jeffries Field inside Oliver C. Dawson Stadium, the 71-year-old Ayers delivered the message that some challenges he faced on the Wofford sideline for 30 years (1988-2017) don't compare to the challenges a retired coach faces.

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"Normally a football team for us was 100 people, so I dealt with 100 people nearly every day for 46 years in (college) coaching," Ayers said. "But, somehow, I'll tell you that it's harder to keep up with five grandchildren than it was to keep up with 100 college football players."

Ayers joked that for him and his wife, Julie, keeping up with one grandchild for a stretch of more than a week was "harder than two-a-days" football practices with a college team.

On a more serious note, Ayers said that he learned how important relationships are between team members and between team members and coaches.

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After leaving college and the chance to play football, Ayers said he returned to his Ohio hometown with his only option being a low-paying job on a garbage truck. After that, he was drafted and entered the Marine Corps. A few years later, he was taken off active duty, returned to the waste management job and thought his options were limited.

One phone message left at his house changed his life forever. His mom said a coach had called him and wanted to speak with him. It was Tom Dowling, a former Ohio high school coach who moved on to coach at Georgetown College (Ky.), Liberty University, and University of the Cumberlands.

Dowling, who died in 2018, talked Ayers into joining his team and enrolling at Georgetown. The impression of the coach-player relationship began and led to Ayers' impressive coaching resume.

"Coach Dowling, or Father Dowling - as we called him, even though his players were the only children he ever had - made a difference in my life," Ayers said. "It was one of those deals where I was gone, I was lost, and in a couple more clicks of life, I would have been off the register altogether.

"But, by the grace of God, he called me. I had not talked to him in five years. I called him and, as soon as he heard my voice, he said 'Hillbilly, do you still think you can play?' I said 'coach, give me a chance.' He gave me that shot and I graduated with my undergraduate degree, my masters degree, and I got to start coaching. He kept me on his staff as a graduate assistant and then, 46 years later, I finish and I'm retired. Was it a stroke of luck or God's plan? I don't know, but I'm so thankful that one man made that difference in my life."

Ayers told the OTC meeting crowd that he believes each person can be a difference-maker in life.

"The greatest thing that I learned as a football coach - with all the brave folks in the stands yelling 'pass the ball, coach' or 'run, the ball, coach' - was that there is no accountability in the stands," Ayers said. "The accountability comes when you're on the field, when you must face the challenge, kick it off and compete.

"I love competitors. But, I know this, life can get you down to a point where you're willing to stop, give up, give out and give in. But, somewhere along the line, I truly believe that there's that special person who will reach out and give you what you need to sustain the rest of your life. The greatest factor in football isn't blocking, tackling or the better scheme; it is who has the closest team, the group of guys who believe so strong in the process and in the man next to them that they are willing to fight the fight all the way through."

Edisto senior quarterback Dawn Muller was recognized as the ATI Physical Therapy Offensive Player of the Week from his Week Zero performance in the 40-26 Cougars' home win against Hunter-Kinard-Tyler, while Calhoun Academy senior defensive end Blake Edmunds was recognized as the ATI Physical Therapy Defensive Player of the Week from his Week Zero performance in the Cavaliers' 54-14 home win against Hunter-Kinard-Tyler.

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