SIMPSONVILLE — Eleven-year old Andrew Pepper was selected Hillcrest’s Ultimate Fan during halftime of this past Friday night’s game against Easley.
“It was awesome,” Pepper said. “I go to the games because I like to show the Hillcrest Rams that they have someone supporting them and cheering for them.”
“This is a kid in our community who is connecting with Hillcrest athletics in a unique way,” Hillcrest athletic director Tommy Bell said. “We want to support him and recognize him because we are very honored that Hillcrest football means this much to him.”
Hillcrest football means so much to Andrew that he goes to every game — on his bicycle.
In February 2013, Andrew was in a car wreck. His father, David Pepper, said his son didn’t have any debilitating injuries, but he had pain in his legs and shoulders. He began therapy and then was referred to Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville.
“Shriners told us he had a lot of pain with his feet from a pre-existing condition,” David Pepper said. “The condition caused his feet to bruise easily and makes running painful. I decided that bicycling and swimming were low-impact activities that he can do to develop core strength and strengthen his legs. Also, they are activities we can do together.”
The Peppers began their biking by riding around the block and then to a nearby gas station and back.
“Next, I told him that his mother would take him to Dollywood in the summer of 2014 if he rode 1,000 miles during a 10-week period,” David Pepper said. “He did that, too.”
Then on a late August night in 2014, Andrew and his father were on their nightly bike ride when something piqued Andrew’s interest.
“We were riding around the Walmart parking lot” on Grandview Drive, said David Pepper. “He kept hearing an announcer over the loudspeakers saying, ‘There’s another Hillcrest first down. There’s a Hillcrest touchdown.’ He made me promise to take him to the game the following week.”
The following Friday, Andrew and his father pedaled to the stadium and were in attendance as the Rams defeated Wade Hampton 71-8.
“He became a huge fan,” David Pepper said. “We went to as many games as we could, including the state championship game in Columbia.
“He told me that he wanted to go to all of the football games this year, so we decided we would ride to as many games as we could. That developed into riding to every game.”
Including a 50-mile journey to Greenwood High School for the Rams’ game on Sept. 25.
“We always have to figure out alternate routes to the game for safety purposes,” David Pepper said. “For Greenwood, we drove different routes three or four different ways before the game to find the safest route. We left at 6 a.m. on Thursday and spent the night in Greenwood. We rode to the stadium the following day. My wife drives to most of the games, and we ride home with her. We ride our bikes back home when Hillcrest is playing at home.”
Rams coach Greg Porter noticed Andrew and David with their bikes at the Greenwood game. Porter learned Andrew’s story and offered an extra incentive.
“He told Andrew that if he rode his bike to the Laurens game that he could ride back on the bus with the team,” David Pepper said. “That’s all he had to say. Andrew was pumped.”
They made the 23-mile trip on Oct. 16.
“The best part of the season was getting to ride back with the players from Laurens,” Andrew said. “They were really nice. They are like my best friends.”
“When I’m playing in the yard, I pretend I’m quarterback Collin Sneed and my friend Dallas Shirley, whose brother Tyler Shirley plays for the Rams, is always Alec Morton,” Andrew said. “And when we are wide receivers, I am Quentin Martin and he is Brian Spurgeon.”
Last year, Andrew asked all of the players to autograph his orange safety vest, and when he got a new vest this year, he got the autographs again. Andrew also has a bracelet given to him by Sneed, a towel from J.D. Ballenger and a poster of Martin on his bedroom wall. David said Andrew recognizes and points out players — and even their parents — when the Peppers are out and about in Simpsonville.
“I just want the players to know how much he looks up to them,” David Pepper said. “They have been great influences upon him.”
The Rams say that Andrew has also made an impression on them.
“To know that you have a fan like that is amazing,” Martin said. “It shows the support that your community has for you. It means a lot, and you don’t want to let those people down.”
“We feed off his energy,” Ballenger said, “and that makes us play a little bit harder.”
On Friday night, Andrew and his father will take another bike ride — the 15-mile journey to Woodmont High School for the Rams’ regular-season finale. As much as he enjoys the biking, Andrew said that he is looking forward to the bus ride back home with his favorite players.