Special to the Greenville News; photos by Leigh Clement and Eddie Burch
GREER — Like most things in a small Southern town, it began with prayer.
In this case, it started at a meeting of the Greer First Presbyterian Church prayer group. It was 1988, and the Greer High School football team was making a name for itself regionally.
One of the team’s star players, Nelson Welch, and its coach, Stuart Holcombe, were both members of the church.
So the ladies of the group decided to take action.
The prayer group was led by Jean Smith, the late wife of Senator Verne Smith and the woman whose name adorns the local library.
Smith asked prayer group member Sarah McIntyre to write letters of scripture, prayer and encouragement to let the football players and coaches know their congregation was thinking of them.
Each week that year, McIntyre wrote a note to Welch and Holcombe. Thirty years later, she is still writing to the Yellow Jackets football team.
Smith didn’t ask her to go to the games, but McIntyre, a lifelong South Carolinian, had children who were attending Greer at that time, so she decided to give it a shot. By the middle of the season, McIntyre was attending every single Yellow Jackets game.
“She became a fanatic after that,” said Wayne McIntyre, Sarah’s husband.
Chad Hannon, a member of the team in 1988, said Sarah McIntyre does the best thing a fan can do: She shows up.
“She was always that person you could count on for moral support and the positive energy to play well,” Hannon said.
A social media presence
McIntyre has found other ways of getting her messages to the players. Known as @jacketbacker1 on Twitter and Facebook, McIntyre supports the team virtually, as well as in person.
“I’ve never tweeted something, posted something or been tagged in something that Sarah McIntyre has not liked,” said Noah Hannon, Chad’s son and a 2017 graduate of Greer High.
Noah Hannon also said McIntyre intentionally uses “bee” in place of “be” to replicate the sound of a yellow jacket.
When Noah Hannon was a starting offensive lineman at Greer, he never read or received one of McIntyre’s letters, but her messages on social media conveyed the same themes as her notes: support, prayer, encouragement. Her loyalty is well-known, and often praised.
“Sarah [McIntyre] got an invitation to my graduation party,” Noah Hannon said.
She even brought him a gift. Stories like this are not a rarity.
“If I can do anything to brighten someone’s day, that’s what I’m going to do,” McIntyre said.
Among mentions of Greer High football on her Facebook timeline are indications of her two other passions: God and Donald Trump. A minefield of memes mocking Christine Blasey Ford and the Honduran migrant caravan are posted along with quotes from Billy Graham and calls to “love thy neighbor.”
McIntyre draws the line when it comes to Greer High School’s opponents, however. Her football content is all support, sometimes even for the Yellow Jackets’ long-time rival, Blue Ridge.
The decades-long rivalry means something to McIntyre, but it didn’t stop her from cheering for Blue Ridge wide receiver Colby Johnson this season. She used to care for the rival player and his brother in the day-care at which she worked for a number of years.
She promised to keep mum on her secret support.
“I’ll put my hand on the Quran or something,” she said. “I have my ways.”
McIntyre can’t keep quiet for long, though. Her inherently supportive nature won out, and a day later she posted this on Facebook:
“Well, this is the week! Greer vs Blue Ridge! The Annual Whomping won’t be quite as sweet this time. One of the Blue Ridge seniors was my baby at day care!”
A family affair
McIntyre grew up in Greer and attended Greer High in the 1960s. She never went to football games as a student, but “even in high school, those football players were after me,” she said.
She lives in the same house since she married Wayne in 1973. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all live within a few miles of her. McIntyre believes in “the continuity of Greer,” a continuity that means she’s watched dozens of fathers, sons, uncles and cousins play for the same team.
McIntyre has come to think of the team as her own. When Travis Perry, Greer High’s athletic director and assistant football coach, was diagnosed with cancer in May, McIntyre was there. During a recent stint in the hospital, Perry received e-notes, Facebook messages and texts from McIntyre every single day.
“He’s a part of my family, and I needed to do what was right by him,” she said.
McIntyre said her loyalty is not to the game, but to the players and coaches. In fact, after 30 years of watching from the sidelines, there is one thing she has yet to pick up on.
“She knows nothing about the game,” Wayne said.
During the games, Sarah and her husband sit together in the same spot they’ve occupied for more than 20 years. Wayne watches the game, analyzing plays and tackles. Sarah is watching her “football sons.” She came to use the moniker after former Yellow Jacket Devon Dawson broke his leg during a game.
“One time, one of the big ole guys got hurt,” McIntyre explained. “I went running down there – he’s a black guy – and I stood on the sidelines and yelled, ‘How’s Devon, what’s the matter with him?’ ”
The medics answered, “We can’t tell you, you’re not kin,” to which McIntyre replied, “I’m his mother. Tell me what happened.”
McIntyre’s loyalty is rooted in her belief that the program is more than just football. It’s a community.
“I have gotten way yonder more, I think, than anything I’ve done for anybody,” she said.
McIntyre roots for the Jackets with a peculiar laser focus. She’s not looking at the scoreboard but at the boys behind the masks. It’s something she will continue to do as long as she is able.
And you’ll know where to find her: eight rows up on the 50-yard line, cowbell in hand, watching the players, not the game.