Just like he had done for every game of the NCAA Tournament, Carlton Thompson took his seat at Salty Dog Cafe in Columbia to watch the South Carolina men's basketball team take on Florida in the Elite Eight on March 26.
Thompson, better known as "Gamecock Jesus" to South Carolina fans, witnessed the Gamecocks' defeat of the Gators that sent them to the first Final Four in school history. After the game was over, he heard a lot of commotion coming from the surrounding establishments in Five Points.
"I heard the crowd of students after the game was over," Thompson said. "I ran over there, and they just carried me all over the place. It was so much fun."
Five Points and virtually all of Columbia celebrated for hours after the historic win, and around a hour and a half later, Thompson caught wind of an effort to send him to Phoenix for the Final Four.
A GoFundMe account had been created to raise money for the trip, and the initial goal of $3,500 was raised in less than five hours after the Florida game. By the end, nearly $5,000 was raised to send Thompson, a Gamecock fan for nearly 50 years and staple at South Carolina athletic events, out to Phoenix for a trip he would otherwise not be able to take.
It was an unbelievable experience for Thompson, who suddenly found himself on the way to witnessing history in person.
"We take care of each other, and Gamecock Nation is (full of) the most wonderful people in the world," Thompson said at the Phoenix watch party for the South Carolina-Mississippi State women's National Championship.
Thompson was able to take his two sons and best friend, and on the way out to Phoenix the group changed planes in Dallas. There in the airport they were able to watch the South Carolina women's team play a dominating third quarter against Stanford in the national semifinals. That was the turning point of the game, but Thompson had to board the plane to Phoenix before the game ended.
Of course, anyone who knows Thompson and his reputation knows that he loves being a part of "Game-Cock" cheers, and that was no different thousands of feet into the air.
"Everyone on their cellphones was watching the fourth quarter, so we were celebrating the whole way to Phoenix," Thompson said.
Once Thompson made the trip to Phoenix, it turned into an unforgettable experience. He was overwhelmed by the support, and his story and GoFundMe account soon made national news.
Thompson retired from his job as a nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at Dorn VA Medical Center right before he got on the plane in Columbia to head to Phoenix, making that special week even crazier. Thompson has worked at Dorn for 33 years, but has been a nurse for 42.
"I had to work that (Friday), and they told me, 'We'll get you out by 12,'" Thompson recalled. "Well I was out by 10:30 a.m."
Thompson, like most other Gamecock fans, was just happy that the men's team broke the 44-year NCAA Tournament winless streak against Marquette in the first round. But the fun obviously did not stop there.
"Then they won the next game against Duke, and I knew then that this team was so special and we had the chance to go all the way," Thompson said.
South Carolina was the underdog in every one of its NCAA Tournament games, but kept picking up monumental victories against Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida. Soon, the Gamecocks found themselves on the biggest stage in college basketball. The dream ended with a loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four, but it will be a dream that Thompson will never forget, thanks to the support of Gamecock fans.
"It was like heaven being with all those people in that huge arena," Thompson said. "It was just wonderful. Everyone wanted to take pictures and everyone wanted to say hello, and I was trying to thank everyone because I know there were hundreds of people donating money for us to come. I am so grateful."
The day after the men's game, Thompson was back with hundreds of South Carolina fans at the women's watch party in Phoenix. He was doing what he does best, waving his Gamecock towel around and leading cheers to pump up the crowd.
After the National Championship win by the Gamecock women, Thompson was interviewed by Corey Miller from WACH Fox, and repeatedly pointed at his shirt that had a single word featured on it – believe.
It's a shirt he wears all the time, and no matter the situation, "Gamecock Jesus" will always believe in the Gamecocks.
**Story and photo by Kyle Heck**