Over the past several years, South Carolina fans have pieced together clues here and there suggesting that NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shares their passion for the Gamecock football team, but the reasons that a celebrity with no apparent connection to the University of South Carolina would subject himself to that kind of torture remained a mystery.
When Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, he left behind a race team with hundreds of employees who suddenly lacked direction.
His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., could tell his Dale Earnhardt Inc. co-workers needed to boost their spirits. So prior to the 2002 season, he placed a call to then-University of South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz.
The idea, Earnhardt Jr. told fans Tuesday during a forum at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was to "see if (Holtz) could come talk to us and sort of get everybody fired up and give us all direction so we could go into Daytona and work hard."
Earnhardt had heard Holtz was "one of the best there is" at motivational speaking, and he was correct; Holtz came to DEI and "blew everybody away," Earnhardt said.
"He got us started on the right foot," he said. "We went on about our way and everything was fine."
The topic was raised during a question-and-answer session with fans because one of Earnhardt's supporters was a Clemson graduate who wondered how NASCAR's most popular driver became a Gamecocks fan.
Earnhardt said he started pulling for South Carolina in part because of Holtz, but his rooting interest later increased when Steve Spurrier became coach there.
During Spurrier's tenure at the University of Florida, Earnhardt said he received two or three autographed footballs in the mail from Spurrier despite never having requested one. Earnhardt figured Spurrier might have been a fan, and the feeling became mutual when Spurrier coached the driver's beloved Washington Redskins.
Earnhardt then followed Spurrier to South Carolina — though the driver also supports the University of North Carolina basketball team.
"I like the Carolina Tar Heels, too, but their football team is kind of hard to pull for," Earnhardt said. "They're as hard to pull for as the Redskins are sometimes."
It's a pretty touching story and, honestly, Earnhardt's reason for being a Gamecock fan is much better than most lifelong fans have to offer, including me.
Also, the idea of Steve Spurrier, a man known for not grinding all of the time, sending multiple signed footballs to Earnhardt, Jr. without being asked is a fascinating detail to add to our understanding of what makes Steve Spurrier tick.