Searching for remnants of my father in Benedict's football culture

Michael Bergen/The State/MCT via Getty Images

Benedict's Devin Gainer wrestles down South Carolina State running back Justin Taylor in the first quarter of the Palmetto Capital City Classic at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, on Sept. 21, 2013.

In September, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on college football.

It is a beautiful day for football.

After minimal rainfall in the wake of Hurricane Hermine, everyone breathed a collective sigh, the weather unfurled itself, and the sky cleared. Instead of the usual overly oppressive heat, there was a gentle breeze making its way through the stands, caressing passersby on their way to their seats. The 15th annual Palmetto Capital City Classic football game would go on as scheduled.

Students swathed in purple and gold started to fill the stadium. Alumni displayed their paraphernalia, calling one another by their old college nicknames, the inside jokes and significance of the moment lost on me, a stranger.

I find a seat and try to get into the game. For the first half I am engrossed, trying to forget that I am here without the man that loved this type of atmosphere. He could fellowship with anyone and used the game as an excuse to make new friends out of the people sitting nearby.

My father went to Benedict College, a historically black liberal arts institution, founded in 1870 to give educational opportunities to freed slaves.

Educators turned an 80-acre plantation into a factory for agents of change that embodied the values I learned at home: a respect for academics, professionalism and leadership, earned with hard work and dedication.

My father had those ideals, along with the concepts of fairness, equality and black pride, hammered into him on the corners of Harden and Taylor streets, when he came to Benedict in the 1970s. I lost my dad to cancer three years ago in September, and every year around this time I get edgy.

I stop sleeping. My lunch often goes untouched and many nights I'm inconsolable.

Unable to save myself from this grief, I hoped, in some way, to find him in football. I travel from Spartanburg to his old stomping grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. I decide to search for him at the apex of two things he loved: this school and football.

There isn't a place that I go to when I need to find my dad -- I don't visit his gravesite often because he was never alive there. When I need him, I think of the things he was most passionate about, those spirited moments, and I chase them.

So I focused on the swell and push of the crowd, the cat daddies in their Stacy Adams and pressed linen suits carrying cups of lemonade down the steps, swaying to the band's rendition of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." and Prince's "Purple Rain."

For the first half I watched the battle of brute force, and tried to keep up with the offensive plays, rushing yards, interceptions and missed field goals.

Livingstone College scored first, but eventually Benedict got the interception, the first of three. With less than three minutes left in the half, the Tigers tied the score with a field goal.

The score was now 3-3.

Last year Livingstone won 49-6. This wasn't that type of game. The Tigers aren't expected to win. They are in the midst of a 12-game losing streak and hadn't won a game since Oct. 25, 2014. After halftime I left the bleachers, desperate to shift the focus, unsure of what I would learn from all of this.

I found my daddy when I smelled the fish. A small no-name trailer was selling whiting and flounder, and I knew that smell -- vegetable oil meeting Lawry's seasoning salt and cornmeal. I had to have it. I buy a plate -- five dollars is nothing when it comes to nostalgia.

I dip my fillet in some mustard. I return to the stands, where Benedict is burning up the clock, playing defense. The score is 5-3, in favor of my dad's alma mater.

Game over.

The football team stands in front of the marching band, listening, purple and gold helmets punching into the navy sky. Loyal fans, the ones who stayed, who stuck it out, singing at the top of their lungs, ferocious spirit and Tigers pride on display.

My dad loved this, the comprehensive package: the food, the atmosphere, all of the sights and sounds of HBCU football culture.

He lives in all of this, somewhere. I find him at the tailgates, the fish fry, the music, oh my God the music, that sweet blend of funk and R&B that cranks from the trucks of the fans before the game and follows us into the stadium, whispering about things that we all experience but are too hesitant to admit that we feel: love, loneliness and loss.

Latria Graham is a writer, editor and cultural critic. She is currently living in South Carolina. Follow her @LGRaconteur

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