The moments of success are fleeting, few and far between. Like a firecracker, they're vibrant and bright in an instant and gone the next.
The 1984 season is the perfect example: The Gamecocks were 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country when a Navy team that went on to win three games upset the season fans had dreamed about, literally, for decades. There's not been a season to approach it since, especially since the school entered the ultra-demanding, super-competitive Southeastern Conference in 1991.
In the stadium's south end zone, there's an almost haunting painted reminder of the team's only conference title -- the 1969 ACC championship.
So, when Gamecocks fans get something -- or someone -- to hold on to, they hold on with all they've got. That's why 40,000 people showed up for a parade after the school's baseball team won the 2010 NCAA championship -- the school's first men's national title.
And that's why the death of Kenny McKinley deeply impacted -- and will continue to impact -- so many in this Southern college town and capital city.
Denver-area police found the 23-year-old Broncos receiver Monday afternoon, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The Broncos expressed shock and disbelief. And that's for a second-year pro whose young career had been greatly limited by knee injuries.
Imagine, then, his college teammates, many of whom are still on campus. Imagine, then, a community that has no professional teams -- just the university, and its historically middling football team.
As the school's all-time leader in catches and yards, McKinley, here from 2005-08, has his name painted on one of the Williams-Brice ramps. His jersey was set to be retired at some point down the road.
But there's more to this story, a lot more, than the 207 receptions and 2,781 yards -- marks that broke Sterling Sharpe's 20-plus-year-old records.
McKinley is remembered here for what he embodied, both on and off the field. That's his lasting legacy.
Forget the yards. This is about the man.
Friends and fans alike can't go more than a few words before remembering the trademark smile McKinley often wore.
That smile; that's his legacy. That's what will be stained on the memory banks of anyone who knew him or watched him.
Fighting back tears, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier couldn't forget it.
"He's one of my all-time favorites -- everything about him," Spurrier said, a minute after learning the news. "He had a wonderful smile. It's a sad day, a sad day."
Even though his short pro career was riddled by injuries, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels couldn't ignore it.
"Kenny had a promising future on the football field," McDaniels said, "but more importantly, he was a great teammate whose smile and personality could light up the room."
In four years at South Carolina, McKinley did more than that. He helped light up a program.
When he committed to Lou Holtz in 2004, he didn't know Holtz was on the way out. He didn't know a brawl with rival Clemson would embarrass the school, dragging the program to one of its lowest points.
McKinley was a high school quarterback from Georgia who had never before played receiver, but Spurrier honored the commitment with the intention of moving McKinley.
Spurrier and his son, receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., noticed that McKinley was a terrifically natural athlete and took coaching well.
McKinley also wasn't shy going over the middle -- something that even made vets shiver. As a result, he played as a freshman and played well. He was a complement to Sidney Rice, who broke out last season with the Minnesota Vikings and couldn't be covered in two seasons with the Gamecocks.
Rice and McKinley teamed up again in 2006. That season provided some of McKinley's best on-field moments, including a double-throwback touchdown toss to quarterback Syvelle Newton at Kentucky. And a Liberty Bowl score that ended with McKinley excitedly launching the ball into the stands. That form of expression, so long as it was after a touchdown, didn't even seem to bother Spurrier.
There's no harnessing passion, and McKinley, ever the success story, had plenty of it for the game. The following year, after Rice declared for the draft, McKinley was asked to be the team's No. 1 receiver.
Many wondered if the slot-type guy could transition to the outside, but McKinley made it look as easy as his move from quarterback. He caught 77 passes for 968 yards, completing an All-SEC season.
The NFL was there for McKinley, but he was frustrated that the Gamecocks -- once 6-1 and No. 6 in the country -- ended the season on a five-game losing streak. McKinley and linebacker Jasper Brinkley, another current Viking, came back and vowed to get the team righted as seniors.
The Gamecocks slipped again late in the year, but they reached a New Year's Day-level bowl, the Outback, for the first time since 2002 and only the fourth time in school history.
Heck, it was only the 14th bowl in the program's history, at that time. But that rocky terrain has been covered already.
It's all to illustrate the secure spot that McKinley already held in fans' hearts, long before his passing. There are few heroes worth being heroes here, and McKinley is one.
There's a certain level of disbelief when it comes to untimely deaths of young people. But then there's a whole different feeling with McKinley, because he was always so upbeat. To call it doubly surprising is underestimating it.
McKinley often visited sick children in the hospital, comforting some in their final days. He never missed a chance to encourage a teammate.
Back in town a couple of weeks ago for South Carolina's big win against Georgia, McKinley was giving out advice right and left. He was counseling linebacker Shaq Wilson about a girl, others about their futures.
McKinley, even in the midst of hidden pain, had others' happiness in mind. On the verge of taking his own life? Preposterous.
"I don't understand it," said senior kicker Spencer Lanning, one of the team's four captains. "If you'd have told me one of our guys would do something like that, he'd be the last guy you'd expect."
South Carolina moves forward with a heavy heart. The Gamecocks, currently ranked No. 12 in the country, have their biggest game of the year Saturday, at No. 17 Auburn.
At 3-0, and with the division looking vulnerable, some think this just might be "the" year for the team in the SEC. If it is, McKinley deserves credit for helping to lay the foundation.
Win or lose, you'd better believe the players will have McKinley on their minds and hearts. So will Gamecocks fans, no doubt reminiscing about McKinley around tailgates and televisions.
Just because McKinley is no longer alive doesn't mean this city and this school's love for him has died.
As a couple of Gamecocks suggested Monday evening, Kenny McKinley will be "Eleven Forever" in Columbia.