Orangeburg had a heat index right at 99 degrees when the 2019 Willie Jeffries Classic kicked off high school football preseason action at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School on Thursday night.
But players, coaches and fans were 100 percent excited, in spite of the high humidity and warm conditions. The event is, after all, the official signal that teams inside and outside The T&D Region are ready to scrimmage opponents in preparation for season openers less than a month away.
The crowd on Thursday grew larger by the hour, as early matchups (2 quarters that last 12 minutes each) took to the field prior to area favorites Bamberg-Ehrhardt and the host O-W Bruins facing their opponents for a half apiece in the final contests of the event.
One fan, in particular, was glad to grab his seat in the stands along with his grandson by 5:30 p.m., so they could take in all the action.
"I love this event and these games, and the weather never fazes me or any of these coaches out here on the sidelines," South Carolina State Head Football Coach Emeritus Willie Jeffries said, from his second-row seat in the O-W stands. "This is one of the first jamborees of the preseason, and it was started by (former O-W coach) Tommy Brown, who started at strong safety for me (at SC State), and once or twice they had this jamboree over in our stadium.
"But, it means a lot, when you turn 82 years of age and you can see your name on something, it means something. The young guys, they don't know a thing about Willie Jeffries, but the coaches do. So, I enjoy coming out here. I try not to miss a year, but I missed last year."
Jeffries spent 29 years as a collegiate coach, 19 at SC State, his alma mater. During two tenures (1973-1978, 1989-2000) as Bulldog head coach, he compiled a 128-77-4 record, which included six MEAC titles and as many postseason appearances. Overall, the SC State Hall of Famer, who also spent five years each at Wichita State and Howard, amassed a record of 179-132-6. He made NCAA football history in 1979 when he was hired as head coach at Wichita State, becoming the first African American to be head football coach at a major university.
"Being out of football as long as I have, since 2001, this is just a time of the year that I look forward to," Jeffries said. "This jamboree gets me back into it. Being with the sport of football since 1951, that's a long time. I've been able to see the game evolve into a lot of passing more than running, like we used to do in the old days.
"These players compete against each other every day in practice and they just yearn to see a guy in an opposite color jersey so they can hit them. I've been so impressed with these young teams. It looks like they've been practicing for a month, but they've only been at it for a week. These young guys now can pick up and grasp things. I call them abstract random learners, but I was a concrete sequential learner, taking it step by step by step."
Jeffries said he is impressed at how area high school teams are running zone reads and how the receivers run routes in the passing game.
"This has been a great event this year, even just through a couple matchups," Jeffries said. "Battery Creek brought a great crowd with them, and Manning High is warming up now, led by my former linebacker Reggie Kennedy.
"Talking with the coaches from Bamberg was great. It's like a homecoming for me, to see all these coaches I know."
Bamberg-Ehrhardt head football coach Robert Williams appreciates the Willie Jeffries Classic giving his Red Raiders a chance to line up for the first time this preseason against an opponent. The last time B-E lined up against another team 11-on-11 was in last year's Class 2A lower state semifinal overtime loss at Carvers Bay.
"We've gone against each other fairly physical, but our guys are ready to see somebody on the other side of the line," Williams said. "This is where you hit the ground running and find out what you've got.
"Tonight I want to see how our defensive backs play and how our kids without a lot of playing time at game speed react. It's good to do this early and make corrections in the coming days to see where you stand going into the season. We graduated about 90 percent of our offense and about 70 percent of our tackles. But, these jamborees help you see where you stand as a team, and it allows the fans to come and start getting excited for the season."
For Bethune-Bowman, a Class A team that graduated a considerable amount of talent last season - including 3 players currently on college teams - the Willie Jeffries Classic was a welcome event. Even with just 18 of 23 Mohawk players in uniforms, due to some missing early practices in pads, head coach Glynn Darby learned some things about his team.
"We love this event and we love it for our fans to see what we've been working on all summer and here in the preseason," Darby said, after his team fell 6-0 to Class 3A Lake Marion. "We lost 9 to graduation, but we've got a lot of young potential.
"They were ready to hit. They said 'Coach, it feels good to hit someone other than our own teammates.' This is experience they need to be ready for our season-opener against Blackville-Hilda."