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September 21, 2010

USC Trying to Cope With Loss of McKinley

As the news, still a red-hot gash to the side, turned from disbelief into reality, South Carolina's Gamecocks gathered and began the process of trying to heal.

Coach Steve Spurrier and two of his players, only 15 hours or so after the shocking death of one of USC's all-time greatest and beloved players, spoke on Tuesday about what Kenny McKinley meant to the program. All faced a harsh truth -- having to deal with the tragedy and trying to keep it out of the forefronts of their minds once they arrive at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

Football doesn't matter at a time like this, yet it has to for the Gamecocks. They face the prospect of traveling with clouded minds to their first road game this weekend, knowing that their championship vision will take a severe hit with a loss to the Tigers.

"Our hearts are going to be heavy, but when we saw Kenny two weeks ago, he told us just to go out and have a good time and play hard," receiver Tori Gurley said. "We've just got to grab that by the horns and play as hard as we can. We know he's looking down on us and hopefully when we go into Jordan-Hare Stadium, we'll come out successful."

Gurley, one of the team's oldest players despite being just a redshirt sophomore, talked about his memories of McKinley and how his enthusiasm and encouragement picked up the younger players. After Gurley completed a harrowing journey to get to USC as a redshirt freshman, McKinley immediately took the youngster under his wing.

"The week before he broke the receiving record, he told me I was going to be the future of Carolina football," Gurley said. "And I think I had one of the worst practices ever on the scout team. It was something I embraced and he will be missed."

Coach Steve Spurrier was somber and struggling for words to describe one of his all-time favorites, still mystified at how McKinley was his usual self at the Georgia game 10 days ago but apparently was hiding a deeper problem. One of the first players to commit to Spurrier at USC when he was hired, Spurrier remembered McKinley as a player who gave everything he had to the game, the school and the program.

"We will remember Kenny for the good times, and, again, it is hard for us to comprehend how this all happened," Spurrier said. "So we will handle it the best way we can in the next day or two."

That will include the team meeting with the team's psychologist and team chaplain today, the two offering their services to anyone who needs it. Only gone from USC for two years, the great majority of USC's current roster knew McKinley. Some were especially close -- offensive lineman Terrence Campbell played with McKinley at South Cobb (Ga.) High School and cornerback C.C. Whitlock trained under McKinley's tutelage when he first reported to school -- and most knew McKinley at least by reputation.

"I met him when I came on my visit," sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. "He just seemed like a great guy. A lot of people on the team are upset, I'm upset. He loved this school, he told me we could win big here. I just think it's going to help the team out, as far as being closer."

Spurrier spoke of the team hopefully having the right attitude once Saturday rolled around, but understood how hard it might be to get over something of this magnitude. He will leave the counseling to the professionals and older players like Gurley, who volunteered his help in simply talking to his teammates and helping them to cope.

"Mentally, I've been pushed to the limit, but with my relationship with God, I feel like everything happens for a reason," Gurley said. "I'm here to help the guys out, as well as I have teammates that are going to support me. We're just a big family. As long as we continue to keep this attitude about the team, I feel like we're going to be OK."

"Whatever the attitude we are supposed to have going into Saturday night, I hope we can get there," Spurrier said. "I believe we can get there."

With the news still fresh, Spurrier said any memorials or tributes to McKinley will be decided on later. Funeral arrangements haven't been announced, so Spurrier couldn't say if the team was going to attend, and anything the team may do will be announced later.

"I will talk to the older players and see if there is something we want to do, as far as decal on the helmet or something of that nature," Spurrier said. "I will talk to the captains and our older players about that."

The Gamecocks were set to practice at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday. It may offer a temporary respite from mourning and grieving for one of their own, taken far too soon.

"Off the field, he was just a silly guy," Gurley said. "He loved to crack jokes and have a good time and he was a big brother to the younger guys.

"Before my grandmother passed, she always told me it's better to be on top of the ground than in the ground. Each day, I grab a piece of grass and I just smell it and I just thank God for having the opportunity to play football and go to school. It's something that we've really got to embrace and just play hard."

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