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Feb. 25, 2013

The University of South Carolina welcomed back some of its past greats Monday afternoon. Around 50 former South Carolina football players who have played or are currently playing in the NFL gathered together in Columbia for a Gamecock Pros luncheon, held by the athletics department. A wide range of eras were represented with men as far back as Lou Sossamon (1940-42), dual football and baseball star Bobby Bryant (1964-1967) who played for the Minnesota Vikings for 14 seasons, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick George Rogers, turn of the millennium players like Sheldon Brown and Andre Goodman with long NFL careers, and on up to players who just recently left Carolina such as Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson, both currently playing for the Atlanta Falcons.

“I think it’s awesome to be back, especially when you come back and see the facilities and the way the program is going,” said Sheldon Brown, now a Cleveland Browns defensive back preparing for his 12th season in the NFL. “You always want to be a part of it even when you have coaching changes. You still want to support the players who are following in your footsteps. We wouldn’t have had the success we had without the older guys before us.”

Players dined on a great meal from Seawell’s while sharing stories and hearing from Athletics Director Ray Tanner, head football coach Steve Spurrier, and other members of the athletics department staff. Gamecock baseball analyst and past president of the USC Association of Lettermen Tommy Moody introduced by name the impressive list of attendees and their accomplishments, including Super Bowl winners, first round draft picks, USC Athletics Hall of Fame members, and Pro Bowlers.

Both Tanner and Spurrier emphasized to the players that they are welcome and appreciated. Both shared a few anecdotes about the players in the room. Tanner recalled Sheldon Brown’s talents on the baseball diamond in addition to the gridiron, while Spurrier joked about the best play Na’Shan Goddard ever made – recovering a fumble and getting it out to the two-yard line at Tennessee in 2005, saving a safety and two points for the Vols. The Gamecocks earned their first ever victory in Knoxville that day by just one point – 16-15.

“You’re always welcome back. This is your school,” said Tanner.

Gary Gregor, president of the USC Association of Lettermen and a former men’s basketball player at Carolina, spoke to the group about the desire to strengthen the association and continue to support student-athletes. Clyde Wrenn, who previously worked in the athletics department and recently re-joined the staff, was instrumental in gathering all the attendees and thanked them all for their attendance and participation.

The players themselves were excited about the opportunity to get together, see old friends and meet new ones.

“A lot of guys after they’re done playing football they kind of go in their own direction,” said Houston Texans and Pro Bowl defensive back Johnathan Joseph. ” To have a chance to come back and see former players and interact with guys we haven’t seen in years, and some guys I haven’t even met before who paved the way for me at the University of South Carolina, it’s really big.”

“It’s unbelievable. I’m almost speechless just to see the rich history of a program that’s not known for its history,” said Na’Shan Goddard, owner of two Super Bowl rings, listing off several names in the room. “It’s awesome what they’re doing here; it’s awesome that they’re bringing us back together and I think we’re going to talk today about doing some more stuff together.”

The former players see each other as a family. Young players like Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson have the added benefit of having two Gamecock veterans on the Falcons’ team with them in John Abraham and Dunta Robinson. With Abraham also playing defensive line (and playing well, we might add – he’s the active career sacks leader in the NFL), he has a unique perspective in being able to help guide fellow linemen Matthews and Robertson.

“I consider this my home,” said Robertson, who is getting married on the USC campus this spring. “We love coming back and being able to interact with the older guys that we didn’t play with. It’s good to meet new people and just know that we’re all one big family.”

“No matter from Lou Sossamon and Punky Holler down to Patrick DiMarco or guys who just got done playing, it’s still the same. We’re all family here,” said Ryan Brewer, 2001 Outback Bowl MVP and soon to be president of the USC Association of Lettermen in 2015. “I’m meeting some guys I’ve never met before and guys I haven’t seen in 10 years but it’s just like yesterday. It’s good to see the camaraderie of the group.”

Although a lot of time was spent reminiscing, this group of Gamecocks still keeps their eye on the current team and the unprecedented success of the past few seasons. Brown had praise for Ace Sanders and his great abilities on punt return to make multiple people miss (“Ace is a heck of a talent, he’s a fun guy to watch.”) Goddard said the hit by Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl was his favorite moment of the season, closely followed by the Clemson win and the play of Dylan Thompson, which was also a favorite for Brewer. Current Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Jamon Meredith actually had the opportunity to attend the Outback Bowl in person (“That was an exciting game to watch. I was really impressed with how they’ve come along.”)