COLUMBIA, S.C. - When Charleston Southern kicker Nick Ellis saw the scoreboard flashing, "Big South Champions" and the "21" lit up in the yard-line indicator, he thought of his friend and roommate, Bucs receiver Eddie Gadson.
"It was his number," said Ellis, remembering Gadson, all-Big South Conference wide out who died in a car accident last June. "It was if he was saying, 'Hey boys, here I am."
Ellis choked up recalling the Bucs improbable 34-27 win over Coastal Carolina last Saturday that gave them a share of the league crown.
The scene was only slightly less jubilant Friday night when the Buccaneer basketball team broke a 23-game losing streak to city rival - and mid-major success story - College of Charleston.
While the two landmark victories may have comprised the greatest sports weekend in school history, they also brought moments of joy to an athletic department and campus struck by the tragic deaths of Gadson and freshman pitcher Grant Ringenberg earlier this month.
Ringenberg fell into a coma and died Nov. 8 after a fight with another student.
Charleston Southern is a school of about 2,600 students affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Until 1990, its name was Baptist College so success isn't measured in sports trophies and Gatorade showers, athletic director Hank Small said.
"As a Christian school, we try and bring in coaches of faith, men and women," Small said. "We're always talking about teachable moments. They happen at great times of excitement and in great times of tragedy. We've helped our athletes through both."
Gadson was a walk-on receiver who quickly became one of the team leaders. He led the league with 69 catches, 792 yards receiving and nine TDs. Gadson's death left a large impact on the close-knit team, said Ellis, who attended Union Grove High with Gadson in McDonough, Ga., outside of Atlanta.
Ellis had 17 teammates stay at his family's home for Gadson's funeral.
When the Bucs got ready for the season, Gadson remained in their thoughts. His locker became a memorial, Ellis said.
The Bucs field carried "EG 21" logos this season in Gadson's memory. Eddie's father told the players if a conference title was on the line against Coastal Carolina, he would be there to watch - a circumstance that seemed unlikely with Charleston Southern, 1-11 two years ago, generally picked fifth in the five-team league.
But there were the Bucs facing the Chants for part of the Big South championship. And the ending left Charleston Southern players, coaches and fans certain a higher power was at work.
Coastal led 24-10 with less than three minutes remaining. A quick Charleston TD cut the margin, but with only 1:39 to go, a Bucs win seemed remote.
Facing 4th-and-21 from its own 38 with 10 seconds left, Coastal called on receiver Jerome Simpson to line up at punter and run through the end zone for a safety. Simpson, though, apparently thought time had run out when he stepped out of bounds at the 4. Instead, there was 1.5 seconds left.
Charleston's Collin Drafts threw a touchdown pass to Markus Murry. Ellis' point-after sent the game to overtime.
After trading field goals in the first OT, Andre Copeland scored on a 2-yard run for the Bucs. Coastal could not match, touching off a wild celebration where both goal posts came down.
"There's no way you cannot say some type of divine intervention was involved," Ellis said.
True to his word, Edward Gadson attended and was awarded a game ball by coach Jay Mills.
"You think about how hard that is to know your son is supposed to be out there," Charleston Southern basketball coach Barclay Radebaugh said.
The Bucs finished 7-4, their best mark since beginning football in 1991.
Charleston Southern President Jairy Hunter praised the coaches and players who "worked with unbelievable determination to have a winning season despite heavy hearts."
The weekend began Friday night with the Bucs' basketball win. The school was still Baptist College the last time it defeated the College of Charleston on Dec. 3, 1988. Since then, the Cougars have gone to four NCAA tournaments and become one of the college game's leading examples of the little school that could.
This time, Dwayne Jackson had 16 points and Terrell Brown and Trent Drafts had 13 each in the Bucs' win. Drafts is the older brother of quarterback Collin. Their father, John, is in the College of Charleston's Hall of Fame and their mother, Pam, was an all-America swimmer with the Cougars.
Radebaugh was pleased, but says there's much improvement to make in his first season. He understands, though, the impact victories like these have on all the students. "We're very aware of what happens on our campus," Radebaugh said. "We just have allowed God to use these things to strengthen us."
Small, the AD, says students and athletes have helped each other cope during the tragic times and celebrated together this past weekend. Many of Ringenberg's baseball teammates were at the basketball victory and helped bring down the goal posts, happily shouting with Gadson's football teammates.
"Sports can really bring people together to celebrate," Small said. "We definitely saw that."
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