When Terrence “Tanko” Rayford saw the referee signal a touchdown, his excitement boiled over. He couldn’t even wait to join his teammates in the celebration.
So, Rayford looked up, saw the referee with his arms raised and bearhugged him.
“When I looked up, all I saw was the ref’s hands up in the air, and all I could do was hug him,” Rayford said with a laugh. “He was the closest.”
Rayford’s lead blocking allowed Monoletto Rapley to score, bringing Abbeville into the state championship game with a 32-29 Upper State win against Chesnee in the final three seconds of the game.
That was in 1991, but the memories seem much more vivid this week, as the Panthers prepare to face Chesnee in the second round of the playoffs.
Rayford is now a junior varsity coach for Abbeville. Current offensive coordinator Tony Temple and defensive coordinator Ellis Belton also played on the 1991 state title team. Running backs coach Mark Smith was an assistant coach in 1991.
On the way to a state championship trophy came the incredible Upper State win against Chesnee, which is still fresh in the memory of any longtime Abbeville football fan.
It’s not only the exciting, last-second finish that makes the game special; the season was the beginning of the Panthers’ dynasty under coach Dennis Botts and signified the program’s comeback from a winless season two years earlier.
Smith, the elder statesman of the current Abbeville coaching staff, was an offensive assistant to Dennis Botts that night. He sat in the press box and assisted through the headset.
Even through a 33-year Hall of Fame career as Abbeville’s baseball coach and countless more games on the football sideline, Smith remembers that Friday night in late November 1991 down to the small details.
“Without a doubt one of the highlights of my career to be a part of that team and to be a part of that game,” Smith said.
Before the game started, Smith remembers the massive crowd on either side of the field. He also recalls looking into the crowd and greeting a friend, Jamie Nickles, who worked at Greenwood High as an assistant coach.
Someone in the Chesnee crowd held a sign reading, ‘Who is Abbeville?’
“When we left, they knew who we were,” Rayford said.
Smith recalls another sign that caught the eye and the ire of anyone in garnet and gold.
The 1991 film “Sleeping With The Enemy” was partly filmed in Abbeville and starred Julia Roberts. Roberts apparently disliked her time in Abbeville, and described the town as “horribly racist” and a “living hell” in a Rolling Stone interview after the movie’s release. Abbevillans responded to this comment with a full-page ad in Variety magazine with the text, “Pretty Woman? Pretty Low.”
“I remember Chesnee — they had all kinds of signs all over the place. There was a sign on their side that said, ‘We love Julia Roberts,’” Smith said.
Chesnee entered the game undefeated at 13-0. Abbeville was 12-1, having gone 10-2 the previous year. Smith said the Panthers were a “rags to riches” team around that time.
The Panthers went 0-11 in 1989, a year in which many players struggled academically and Dennis Botts coached his first year at Abbeville.
Running back Leomont Evans, who went on to play at Clemson and in the NFL, starred for Abbeville. Evans played his freshman year at Abbeville, then transferred to a school in Georgia. Evans returned for the 1991 season to play his senior year for the Panthers.
Evans and Rapley combined for seven touchdowns in the state championship game, a 50-28 win against Swansea. But before that could happen, they had to find a way past Chesnee.
Rapley fielded a punt to start Abbeville’s game-winning drive on the Chesnee 38-yard line with 1:05 left on the clock. Evans picked up 10 yards on a run, Rapley caught an 8-yard pass then quarterback Marcus Gambrell scampered 15 yards to the Eagles’ 3. 38 seconds remained.
Evans fumbled the ball on the next play. Fullback Kin Gambrell recovered and advanced the ball to the 2. Marcus Gambrell tossed an incomplete pass on the next play, stopping the clock with three seconds left.
Tanko Rayford stood on the sideline, and shouted to Botts to put him in the game. Botts called “Over Right, 16 Load,” a play that gave the appearance of running the ball behind the right tackle, but veered more to the outside. Evans left the game. Tanko and Rapley entered.
“When he (Botts) put me in, I told Monoletto, ‘Cous, get behind me, we going in,’” Rayford said.
Rapley scored on the final play. Botts couldn’t watch.
“I could not watch that last football play,” Botts told the Index-Journal in the game recap published Dec. 1, 1991. “I had my back to the play, watching the scoreboard. And the crowd reaction, of course, told me what happened.”
Evans played despite flu symptoms. Rapley hardly made it through the game, too. He was only able to play because he had a chiropractor pop his hip into place days before.
In addition to being the key win in a state championship run, the 1991 Upper State likely established the Panthers’ success that endures today.
That decade, Botts implemented the wishbone offense that Abbeville continues to excel under with Nickles at the helm. The “A-Bone” is the same system the Panthers still use in rec league and middle school teams, and Smith said some of the names of plays the Panthers used under Dennis Botts are unchanged today.
Nickles took over in 2004, the year after Botts tragically died. Nickles has won six state championships with the Panthers, and many of those state champions were sons, nephews or cousins of champions who played for Botts.
The memory of an incredible win 29 years ago is still strong with the Panthers’ coaching staff.
“It’s one of those weeks,” Rayford said. “Anytime Abbeville plays Chesnee, it seems like just yesterday and we’re going to play. Once it’s in you, it’s in you with Abbeville and Chesnee.”