On September 20, 2001, I witnessed one of the greatest speeches I've ever heard in my life.

I was the head coach at South Carolina, and our team was on the road to play Mississippi State University. It was a significant moment for both teams, because we were playing in the first major college football game following the September 11 attacks.

Our game was on a Thursday night, on national television, and before the game started the players from both teams held this American flag that covered the width of the football field. It was an incredibly powerful moment.

But even more powerful was what happened during our team chapel.

Adrian Despres, our team chaplain, stood in front of our players and put things in perspective for us.

Nine days ago, when the twin towers were burning, several brave policeman and fireman ran into a burning building to save people's lives. A lot of people are saved because of them. Can you imagine if you saved somebody's life, to go into a burning building? Think how great a feeling it would be to save somebody else.

Then he finished it with a powerful comparison.

You save a life for a couple of years, but you save a soul for eternity.

That speech was over 17 years ago, and I still haven't forgotten it. I've tried to show players what being a Christian is all about. In our playbook I would include little Bible phrases, like "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," or "If God be for us, who can be against us?"

I hope they served as little reminders to my players to have courage and strength, which we all needed when I got to South Carolina.

You see, the year before I arrived in Columbia in 1999, the Gamecocks had gone 1-10. And in my first year we somehow managed to take a step farther back, as we went 0-11. Even for a program that had only won a single bowl game in its history before I got there, this was still unacceptable.

But during those tough times we learned a lot about ourselves, and what God calls us to do in times of adversity. We had about 98 or 99 percent attendance during our team chapels, and even though we didn't know it, we were about to engineer the greatest turnaround in NCAA history.


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(Title photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)

Thomas Hager