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Bulldogs historic field
Cozy Zemp Stadium holds a special place in the hearts of football fans
Ammons BW
Billy Ammons watches his Camden High School (CHS) football Bulldogs during a game in 1983. Ammons also played for CHS as part of its 1964 state championship team, named to that years Parade magazine All-America team. As coach, he led the team to another AAA title in 1990. He retired in 1997. - photo by C-I file photo

 

Inside its cinder block walls and on its grass field, Zemp Stadium has played host to legendary teams, coaches and players, not to mention a myriad of bands and musicians, recreation department football championship games, championship soccer teams, high school graduations and to, at least, hundreds of thousands of fans.

The now 85-year-old facility -- the oldest stadium in South Carolina in which high school football is still being played -- has been a meeting place for people of all races, ages and income levels.

In one respect, Zemp Stadium played a role in helping usher in integration in Camden.

For years, the historic facility on South Broad Street in Camden was the home of the Jackson High School Tigers, an all-black school in Camden which played many of its home games on Wednesday nights since the Camden High junior varsity and varsity teams would play their home games there on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively. In 1970, Zemp was the site of the first-ever home game for the newly integrated Camden High School (CHS) Bulldogs.

Camden Military Academy’s football team also called Zemp Stadium home for several years before the school moved to an on-campus facility.

Just how many games does Zemp Stadium have left in it? That is a decision which the voters of Kershaw County will decide when they head to the polls on Nov. 4. Among the items to be voted on will be a Phase 2 Facilities Equalization Plan referendum. Included in the projects to be undertaken, should the measure pass, would be Camden High School’s football and soccer teams moving to a new stadium along Ehrenclou Drive, across the street from the CHS campus.

The field, which is part of the existing CHS Athletic Complex, is enclosed inside an eight-lane track and is used as a practice field as well as for CHS track and field meets. Grandstands on each side of the stands, with the ability to seat 5,000 fans, press boxes, concession stands, scoreboard, sound system, restroom facilities, locker rooms, 1,000-plus parking spaces, lighting, storage buildings and additional practice fields would be built and/or expanded in a project which is estimated to cost $4.6 million, per Kershaw County School District (KCSD) officials.

The evolution of Zemp Stadium

CHS’ 120-year football tradition traces its roots back to 1894 when L.T. Baker, who would go on to become the dean of the faculty at the University of South Carolina, coached an intramural team which was split into the “Athenians” and the “Spartans.”

A year later, Camden played a Columbia team known as the Gibbes Green Team in what was believed to have been the first football game the team, not yet known as the Bulldogs, would play in Columbia the week of the State Fair. The field, which CHS used for its home games, was the property behind the old Episcopal rectory on Lyttleton Street.

Starting in 1903, Camden played its home football games on a downtown field, along Broad Street, which is now known as Monument Square. The field was near the Camden Graded School (which later became Camden High) on Laurens Street. It was the first time Camden had played its game in a separate facility.

According to a story published by The Camden Chronicle on Nov. 20, 1942, and written by Frank H. Heath, Camden’s first home game was played on Thanksgiving Day. In 1899, on what was and still is the Camden Polo Field, a Christmas Day afternoon game was played between Camden and Lancaster high schools.

Camden’s home fields would move throughout the area. They were played on a hard clay, sandspur-infested field on West DeKalb Street. From there, the teams played on Polo Field No. 2 and, later, Polo Field No. 1 behind the old Kirkwood Hotel on Polo Lane in Camden; the Wateree Mills field; the baseball field and then “The Fair Grounds.”

The nomadic-like days of the Camden football team, which took on the name “Bull Dogs” in 1920, came to an end in 1929 when the team moved into what was then called Zemp Field -- officially dedicated with a ceremony on Nov. 7 of that year. The Bull Dogs, coached by the legendary John Villepigue, celebrated their first year in their permanent home by winning the state class B Lower State championship.

Zemp Field was part of the Kershaw County Fair Association complex which included two exhibit buildings and the football playing field itself. At the time, Zemp Field was 200-feet wide, 500-feet long and had a heavy carpet of wire grass, according to a story in the July 29, 1929, edition of The Camden Chronicle.

“Moveable bleachers will provide ample seating arrangements … Liberal parking areas, now being laid out, will this fall be more than likely to care for record-breaking crowds,” the story went on to say.

In 1935, the property which included Zemp Field was sold, presumably on the courthouse steps, to W.L. Blackmon. Three years later, on April 26, 1938, Blackmon sold the 8 1/4-acre parcel to Kershaw County for the sum of $3,000. In 1936, lights were added to Zemp as the Bulldogs played their first night game.

As for the gentleman for whom the field and later, the stadium was named, in his obituary, published in the March 27, 1940, edition of The Camden Chronicle, J. Blake Zemp had the following written about his love for Camden, CHS and the football program:

“It is through the efforts of Mr. Zemp that the present high school football stadium in Camden was constructed, and it was in recognition of his untiring efforts and interest in school athletics that the stadium was named ‘Zemp Field.’ Mr. Zemp has been a life-long associate of John M. Villepigue, businessman and high school football coach, and it was the untiring activities of these two men that made the football program so successful.”

By 1953, the field had a new electronic scoreboard installed and, five years later, the new stands were dedicated at what was still called Zemp Field. In 1957, there was a cry for covered stands at Zemp Field after some 1,800 of the 6,000 fans in attendance for that year’s AA state championship game victory over Lancaster were left to take in the game in the rain while others stayed dry thanks to having sat beneath a covered grandstand. At the time, a school official said a new aluminum roof would be constructed to cover the entire new structure.

On Sept. 11, 1958, the new grandstands were dedicated inside what was now called Zemp Stadium. On that ceremony, a bronze plaque was displayed at the entrance to the stadium by the Bulldog Club members. The plaque, which now sits inside a park located in the south corner of the stadium dedicated to the late Tim Outten, a former CHS athletic trainer, reads:

Zemp Stadium 1958

To the following Camden citizens who have so unselfishly contributed their time and talents to High School athletics this structure is gratefully dedicated: J.G. Richards Jr., J.B. Zemp, J.M. Villepigue, H.A. Small.”

Since then, a locker room with public restroom facilities has been built on what is now the home side of the field. Another similar locker room for visiting teams is across the field.

In 1994, the old concrete grandstand which once served as the opponents’ side of the stadium was torn down. In its place, a grandstand with rows of aluminum seats was erected complete with an air-conditioned press box sitting atop the stands. Additionally, in the middle of the grandstand was an area of gold-covered seats with backs on them which are still sold to season ticket holders who, by virtue of purchasing their seats, receive a reserved parking space in the field behind the home stands and in front of the Kershaw-Cornwallis House, owned by Historic Camden.

The changes were a joint effort between the Camden Bulldogs Club which, at the time, approached the school district with the proposal for the two sides to go into a unique partnership in order to renovate Zemp Stadium.

For their part, CHS and the Bulldog Club sought 10-year commitments from donors to help pay for what is now the home side of the stadium while selling reserved section seat licenses and reserved parking privileges in the open lot behind the stands which is still used for pre-game tailgating.

“The Bulldog Club started pushing the idea for improvements and the Bulldog Club made a significant effort (to the school district) that we’ll do this if you help us with the stadium,” then CHS football coach and athletic director Billy Ammons said. “It was something you hardly hear of; that a booster club would help try to pay for a stadium. That got a lot of people involved with the seat licensing and with donations. A lot of people invested in that because they wanted to see us get a better stadium and make improvements to Zemp.”

A special place

As he walked across the playing field at Zemp Stadium last fall as his Lower Richland High team was preparing to face the Bulldogs, Diamond Hornets head coach Darryl Page looked around at his surroundings and smiled.

It can be easily argued that Page’s team at Wilson High School, at which he coached before taking the LR post, suffered the most painful loss an opposing team ever suffered at the historic facility.

The visiting Tigers held a 17-13 lead over the unbeaten Bulldogs that night in a 2001 second round AAA Lower State semifinal playoff game with eight seconds left to play. After being flagged for being offsides on the kick, Wilson again kicked the ball, a hard chopper which landed in the hands of Camden’s Kelvin Grant, who zig-zagged his way 88 yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with no time showing on the clock setting off as raucous a post-game celebration as Zemp had ever seen. Within minutes of Grant’s electrifying run, former CHS assistant football coach Guy Eckenroth dubbed the game as, “The Miracle on South Broad.”

Camden would go on to win its next three games, including a 24-21 overtime thriller over Union at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, for the program’s seventh and most recent state championship.

Now, a little less than 12 years removed from that painful night, Page smiled as he talked about some of the great players who played in that game on this same playing field as well as others in the brief but spirited CHS-Wilson rivalry.

“Those were some great battles,” he said.

He then talked about his fondness for bringing a team to Zemp Stadium and how special a site it is. As he looked around the yard, he said, “This is like a cathedral. It’s like playing (baseball) at Fenway Park.”

In an era in which high school stadiums have mimicked college and professional franchises in seeing which can add the most bells and whistles, Zemp Stadium has remained true to its original design. It was a football stadium, pure and simple. While other teams play in stadiums in which the crowd is separated from the field by a track, fans attending games at Zemp can hear the coaches shout instructions to their players or, send plays into the huddle.

At times, some of the hometown fans who still sit in what was the home grandstand can make life uncomfortable for opposing teams who have been the subject of catcalls or, in most instances, playful teasing. At Zemp, there is no place to hide. And when the Bulldogs are winning, there are few home field advantages like it.

In anticipation for a meeting with unbeaten Eau Claire in the magical 1964 campaign, seats at Zemp started filling up early in the afternoon in anticipation of a record crowd which had people busting at the seams. In the 1990 AAA state championship season, elaborate tailgate parties outside the home side stands became the norm. And when Daniel High School came onto the field for warm-ups for that year’s AAA Upper State championship game, they were greeted by a roar from a crowd which had people standing on top of the north end concession stands, sitting atop the walls and were several rows deep in the end zone, one of which included Bulldog fans who threw dog bones onto the playing field after a CHS touchdown.

Part of both those historic games was Ammons, who in 1964 was the Bulldogs’ quarterback in a magical year state championship season during which he was named to the Parade magazine All-America team. In 1990, Ammons guided his alma mater to the AAA state title. Maybe, no one person in Camden is more synonymous with Zemp Stadium than Ammons, who retired as the Bulldogs’ head coach in 1997.

Ammons remembers sitting in Zemp’s concrete stands and watching the Bulldogs beat Lancaster in that steady downpour in 1957 for the AA state crown. At the time, Ammons was in junior high school. He had a much larger role in the 1964 Eau Claire and the 1990 Daniel games.

“I’ve been going (to Zemp) for a long time,” Ammons said with a smile in an interview Monday afternoon.

“The Eau Claire game and the Daniel game were very, very similar. I didn’t have the same perspective with the Eau Claire game as the Daniel game as far as being concerned about whether your team was ready or not. I guess I was a lot more uptight about that Daniel game than I was about that Eau Claire game.

“Just trying to get from the locker room to the field (for the Daniel game) was a chore that night because there were so many people there.”

Camden won both games. With Ammons under center, they beat the Shamrocks, 7-0, to keep the team’s scoreless streak intact. The Daniel game was not so much of a nail-biter as the Ammons-coached Dogs stopped the visiting Lions four times inside the CHS 25 and came away with the 27-7 victory.

Among the thousands who were in Zemp Stadium that night was Johnny “Johnnyboy” Kornegay Jr., and his 3-year-old son, Johnny, who sat on top of his father’s shoulders searching for a seat. In the end, the pair climbed onto the top of the press box and took the game in along with the coaches from the two sides, one of which was Kornegay’s friend and former Bulldog and Wofford College teammate, Scott Jordan, who was on the headphones to his brother and then-CHS defensive coordinator Jeff Jordan.

The Kornegays have a unique tie to Camden and Zemp Stadium. In 1952, John Dunbar Kornegay represented Camden in the Shrine Bowl. In 1978, his son was selected to play in the Shrine Bowl. And in 2002, the little boy who watched the 1990 team from atop his dad’s shoulders was a sophomore long snapper for Camden’s AAA Lower State champions. He would letter at linebacker for three seasons as a Bulldog.

“Everybody was jam-packed in there,” Kornegay Jr. said of the Daniel game -- his favorite memory of Zemp Stadium, “and up the steps I go with Johnny on my shoulders. They had somebody on top of the press box who was working security and asked what I was doing there. I told him that I was there with Scott and they let me go up there.

“The first person I ran into when I got up there was Kurt Fields, who I went to school with at Wofford and was one of Daniel’s coaches. It was good to see Kurt and was even better after we had whooped up on them.”

Ammons and Kornegay went through many other games which they had either played and/or coached in or, took in from the Zemp Stadium stands. Ammons talked about the electrical atmosphere which could be felt on the fields in big games.

“Those playoff games in 1990 and the Eau Claire game were special,” Ammons said. “And, going back to those Lugoff-Elgin games, those first of the year games, even though it was so hot the crowd was there and the excitement was there. Summerville was here one year (in 1980) and the visitors’ sideline wasn’t big enough for that 100-man roster that they ran out there.

“Some of the Hartsville-Camden games … that 1990 season with that catch Bobby (Engram) made in the end zone on that one-handed grab; that was a special game.”

Like Ammons, Kornegay was raised on Camden football. He went through a long list of his schoolboy heroes, who wore the gold and black, many before he was born. He had heard the stories from his father. He also looked forward to, while playing football in the recreation department, that one time a season when youth teams received the opportunity to play a game at Zemp.

“I heard about the Cox brothers,” he said of four brothers -- Jimmy (who played at South Carolina), Carol (Clemson), Dickie (Georgia) and High “Shot” Cox, who played at North Carolina in the 1940s --- and all played in the Shrine Bowl.

“I saw the ’64 team, but was too young to remember them. But (’64 teams standouts) Buster (Beckham) and Billy (Ammons) coached me in high school. It was cool. Pat Partin had played there; Randy Bright, Randy Black, Tony Boykin, Jimmy Neal … a lot of kids who were older than us had played there and I just wanted to do that, too.

“My dad had played there and I had grown up hearing about the ’64 team. It was just a privilege to be on a Camden team and to play at Zemp.”

Not all of Kornegay’s stories dealt with his playing football. He said the proximity between the players and the fans allowed him to have some good-natured fun while attending the games when he was growing up.

“In 1970,” he said with a laugh, “Phillip Partin was on the team and his brother, Roddie, and I used to go to the games and throw ice at Phillip. I think Tony Boykin, Mike Crowe, Jon Chardukian and a couple other guys were on that team.”

With fans being a scant few feet away from the action, there is much more than just a couple of kids fooling around throwing ice cubes at their friends’ older brother. You can hear the fans, whether they are for you, against you or, in some cases, just trying to give you some friendly advice.

Ammons chuckled as he talked about his not always being able to block out the cries from the crowd.

“I think the closeness to the field and where the fans sit makes Zemp special,” he said. “I don’t think people really like these stadiums that are behind the track, where you are so far away. I really like the fact that you are right on top of the action.

“I remember Skeeball (Williams) yelling at me one time in the ’64 season. You have to block that out but it also adds to the excitement. You’re so close to the fans and the excitement that they generate.”

“Back when we played,” Kornegay said of the interaction between CHS players and fans, “we were not allowed to look up in the stands, but you could pick voices out. Your friends would let you know if you made a good play and, of course, they would let you know if you didn’t.”

While the fans and players being so close to one another makes for a cozy atmosphere, it has provided Camden teams with a home field advantage. But for visiting squads, it also served as a challenge in trying to overcome the host team and the homes side crowd, which would sometimes spill over onto the over side of the field and into the north end zone on many a Friday night.

“I think being at home at Zemp was a good advantage for us. But I think it would also fire some teams up when you are closer to the action and with all the noise,” Ammons said of what was, at times, a double-edge sword. “If it helped get your players ready to play, you would play better and, that’s what it did.

“I’ve had a lot of coaches tell me that they enjoyed coming to Camden and they enjoyed playing there because the way the stadium is set up. They would talk about the scoreboard and how it has the state championship years listed. They liked that and thought it was a neat thing. They also liked that we, typically, had good crowds particularly when we were on a roll and playing real well.”

More than one visiting coach has told their players how special it was to play a high school game at Zemp Stadium as opposed to some of the more modern, more sterile, cookie-cutter stadiums which dot the high school landscape. And if you were a Bulldog player, there was no better place to be on an autumn Friday evening.

The only thing better than playing at Zemp, Kornegay said, was watching his son play for the Bulldogs.

“It was way more fun watching Johnny play than I ever dreamed about it being and, I thought it was fun when I played,” Kornegay said before adding with a laugh, “It hurt less watching him play. It was kind of cool knowing that he was a third-generation kid who was playing there.”

That fact that his father and grandfather had both played on the same field that he was playing on as a high schooler was not lost on John Kornegay III who continues to attend games at Zemp, oftentimes with his father.

“I did think about that when I played,” he said as he stepped out of his office at the family’s funeral home. “When you think about Camden football, you think about tradition. That’s something that Coach (Jimmy) Neal always instilled in us.

“When you can associate that tradition with one location and that tradition goes back to as long as football has been played in that same location, it ties everything together. It’s just a special place.”

When he went to play football at Wofford for Terrier Coach Buddy Sasser, Johnny Kornegay Jr. said his being from Camden and having played at Zemp Stadium was not lost on himself or Sasser and his staff.

“Coach Sasser had played for Booger (Lindsay) Pierce at Conway and Booger coached daddy at Camden,” he said, breaking into a story. “When Buddy Sasser put in that offense that everybody’s running now, the Wing-T or the Wingbone, when he was at Wofford, he got me in practice one day and said, ‘Watch a couple of these plays and tell me if any of it looks familiar to you.’

“I sat back there and watched it and said, ‘Not really. It’s nothing that I’ve ever run but it looks like what my daddy said Mr. Villepigue ran in the single-wing. Back then, they still had the quarterback under center. Now, they are in the shotgun. That’s (legendary CHS coach) Mr. (John) Villepigue’s offense, as far as I’m concerned.

“A lot of what football is today came out of Zemp Stadium with what Mr. Villepigue and Red Lynch were running.”

Like an old broken-in baseball glove, Zemp Stadium feels right to those who have played inside its all and on its green grass or, who have taken in a game inside a facility which rekindles a time when a home football game on a Friday night was the center of the universe for small towns across the south.

Through its trials and tribulations, coats of paint applied to its walls and renovations, Zemp Stadium has kept its charm, not to mention a warm place in the heart of many a football fan in Camden and, beyond.

“I know, right now, people think about stadiums like they have over there in Blythewood. Those are Taj Mahal stadiums,” Ammons said. “I don’t know that our district would ever be able to afford a stadium like that. Would I rather be in Zemp, like we are, instead of those stadiums like those Blythewood schools have? I’m not sure but I’m not sure that we can build a stadium like that.

“People who aren’t from here and who are coming up now don’t have these Zemp Stadium memories. But you can’t deny the fact that those people who are from here have a fondness for it.”