Zeb Noland stepped across the crosswalk on Bluff Road, glanced to his left through his Oakley Frogskin sunglasses and cracked a wry smile.
To Zeb’s left, amid the mass of garnet and black swarming the yellow ropes carving a path for the first official Gamecock Walk in almost two years, his father, Travis, mom, Julie, and younger brother, Abe, looked on as the Gamecocks entered Williams-Brice Stadium.
“I felt like that walk was forever and it was in slow motion just because it’s all so surreal to me,” Noland said Saturday. “And I never thought I was going to get to (play football) again.”
Joined by a handful of family friends and grandparents, the Nolands’ travel party couldn’t help but smile. In a matter of three weeks, Zeb has gone from graduate assistant coach to starting quarterback and national sensation.
He’s been interviewed on SEC Network by former Florida great Tim Tebow. ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt even included him in a segment on Tuesday night.
Saturday, Zeb added another layer to his growing legend that may well serve as a bar trivia answer around Columbia in the coming decades, tossing four first-half touchdowns in South Carolina’s 46-0 season opening win over Eastern Illinois.
“I thought overall Zeb did a nice job of of running the offense,” Gamecocks head coach Shane Beamer said. “(He) made some throws and and ad-libbed on some big plays there in the first half.”
Zeb and Travis are close. They talk every single day. Sometimes it’s once. Most days it’s multiple times.
But Travis’ attendance at Zeb’s games is rare. Travis estimates he only made it to four contests during Zeb’s time at North Dakota State and Iowa State. Such is life for a high school football coach who’s spent the better part of three decades in the game.
Now the head coach at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Georgia, Travis’ slate is loaded this time of year. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays include morning practices. Fridays, naturally, are reserved for games. Saturdays bring film breakdowns.
Friday, Zeb texted Travis a slew of question marks at 11:15 p.m. Zeb followed with another message: “Call me.”
“You should be in bed,” Travis told him.
“You better not not call me after your game,” Zeb retorted. “I want to hear about it.”
“Sometimes (the calls are) for five minutes or two minutes,” Travis told The State on Saturday. “And sometimes I’ve got to listen to every coverage, every play, every blitz. He walks me through the whole deal.”
Zeb’s family members hear from him regularly. Travis handles the football talk. Julie takes on the financial and “life” decisions. For Ben and Abe, it’s hunting and fishing — a topic that landed Abe digging through a storage locker at 8:30 a.m. Saturday to find Zeb’s shotgun and shells so he could dove hunt in the next few days.
Julie takes an elongated breath when asked whether she’s excited Zeb is playing again. Deep down she loves that her eldest son gets one more chance. Being the mom of a quarterback, though, has its drawbacks.
Since Zeb started playing around 9 years old, Julie has always needed one play. The first drop-back. The first throw. After it’s over, she can breathe easy.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Julie told The State. “I just keep praying over him.”
Zeb’s first throw Saturday night sailed just over Jalen Brooks’ hands deep downfield. Inches shorter and it would’ve been a score. Instead, it fell harmlessly to the turf.
Seated in section 21, row 16, Julie exhaled. So too did Zeb.
‘Going to enjoy the ride’
Flashing the poise and precision that helped him compete for a starting job at Iowa State and hold one down, for the most part, at North Dakota State, he finished Saturday 13 of 22 for 121 yards and four touchdowns.
Zeb conceded after the game that he wished he had another shot at a pass he tossed just over tight end E.J. Jenkins’ hands in the back right corner of the end zone. A handful of drops didn’t exactly help Zeb’s final stat line either.
“I know I missed him,” Zeb said of Jenkins. “I wish I would’ve waited a half second longer and got him and a touchdown.”
Saturday marked the culmination of a roundabout week of travel for the Noland clan.
Thursday, Julie and Abe hopped on a plane from Atlanta to St. Paul, Minnesota and then trekked 89 miles to Mankato, Minnesota. There they watched youngest son, Ben, a receiver at Division II Northern State, take on No. 2 Minnesota-Mankota in his first game of the year.
Following the Wolves’ 40-34 overtime loss, Abe and Julie hustled back to Watkinsville, reaching Oconee County by halftime to catch Travis and his Warriors smoke Clark Central 42-2.
Saturday morning, another two-and-a-half hour drive from Watkinsville to Columbia ensued.
“This is only my third time seeing him play,” Abe said, flashing an ear-to-ear grin.
Longtime Noland family friends Ed and Susan Carman and their son Forrest also made the trip.
During the Nolands’ time in Toccoa, Georgia, the Carmans lived one house down. Forrest grew up with Zeb, Abe and Ben, playing basketball in the driveway before Ed would drive the foursome to elementary school.
Ed, who spent 36 years in military service and 26 years flying Blackhawk helicopters as a Medevac for the United States Army, arrived back from a year-long tour in Iraq on Memorial Day weekend.
Living in a “metal box” during his most recent tour, he brought sweatshirts from Iowa State and Oconee County as a reminder of his dear friends back home.
Ed even caught a handful of Zeb’s games at North Dakota State this past spring over the satellite service he and his fellow service members shared.
“I was watching the games at whatever zero dark thirty time it was over there, like, ‘This pretty cool. Zeb’s on TV,’ ” Ed said. “I was supporting from 7,000 miles away.”
Heading toward the south end zone tunnel Saturday night after an on-field interview with ESPN’s Alex Chappell, Noland looked toward the scattered fans seated near the entrance to the South Carolina locker room and tossed his sweat-soaked wristbands as a souvenir.
Heading into fall camp, there was little Noland was expected to do that might make any of his belongings a prized possession. But in a matter of three weeks the former assistant coach has become a face for a football program in need of a facelift in Beamer’s first fall.
Noland wasn’t perfect Saturday, but he and his family are holding onto every moment.
“This go around,” Julie said, “we’re just going to enjoy the ride.”