COLUMBIA, S.C. - It was the kind of day little boys dream about while tossing the football around in the backyard.
Three Thomson boys - who are no longer little by any stretch of the imagination - got the chance Saturday to once again play on the same field and chase those dreams together.
Thomson football teams are historically known for their defense. Danny Verdun Wheeler and Jasper and Casper Brinkley showed an audience of 85,000 in Williams-Brice Stadium and millions watching on television why that is true.
Verdun Wheeler started at linebacker for the University of Georgia, facing off against his friends and former teammates, the Brinkley twins who started at linebacker and defensive end, respectively, for South Carolina.
The scoreboard may have read 18-0 in favor of Georgia at game's end, but the performances of all three made the night unmistakably Thomson's.
"It's great any time a couple of young athletes have a chance to play big time Division I football," Jasper Brinkley said following the game. "I'm just proud of that. It just feels good, you know, a few athletes from Thomson having a great chance to better their education. You can't ask for nothing better than that."
"It's just a blessing to see two guys of their caliber on a great defense," Verdun Wheeler said of the Brinkleys. "I almost got choked up, knowing I played on the same (Thomson) team with them."
As the players took the field in Columbia, their old coaches gathered 100 miles west, at the home of Thomson Defensive Coordinator John Barnett.
With three members of his 2002 state championship defensive squad facing off, Coach Barnett was in somewhat of a unique situation. He truly couldn't win or lose.
"It was certainly a first for me," he said. "...We really enjoyed it, obviously. I guess it shows what kind of program we try to give the citizens of McDuffie County, and that certainly gives us a sense of accomplishment."
Georgia Coach Mark Richt agreed with that assessment.
"It's a great tribute to (Thomson Coach Luther Welsh) and the great program he had built to have those kids come out like that," Coach Richt said.
Verdun Wheeler took it a step further. He hopes the accomplishments of former Thomson players such as himself and the Brinkleys will spur athletic achievement at his alma mater in the future.
"I think it says a lot. We're trying our best for Thomson to produce more athletes," he said. "I just think we've got a lot of athletes at Thomson, guys who've got to pattern themselves after somebody. Maybe they can look up to us and feel if we made it, they can do it too."
And those three have made it to the heights of Division I college football, something that - win or lose - is further preparing them for a future in the game.
"It was exciting. It was a great experience," Casper Brinkley said. "Even though we lost, you know, it was a good experience."
And starting in the perennially strong Southeastern Conference has brought the former Thomson standouts nothing but admiration for their efforts.
"I'm just so proud for them, so glad to see them on a D-1 program with everything that they've done and how hard they've worked to get to this point," Verdun Wheeler said of the Brinkleys.
"Oh they're great players," Coach Richt added about the Brinkley twins, whom he passed on signing because Georgia didn't have enough scholarships for both. "The thing of it is you can't get them all. ...I'm just glad to see them having a great career."
Coach Richt also had high praise for Verdun Wheeler.
"I'm kind of sad I never got to red-shirt him, because, you know, after this year, he's gone," he said. "...He's matured into a good man. I think he's really ready for life after football - hopefully after a few years in the NFL."
The trio certainly posted a strong performance on the field Saturday. Verdun Wheeler was credited with three solo tackles and three assists. One and 1/2 of those were for a loss of yardage.
Jasper Brinkley racked up four solo tackles while Casper Brinkley had three solos and one assist, one and 1/2 of which were for a loss.
"They played excellent. Those two guys will always play excellent," Verdun Wheeler said. "They were going to play a little harder tonight because they were playing us, but I mean they're great guys you know. We got brought up on great coaching at Thomson. ...Hopefully we'll get to see each other again at the next level."
Jasper Brinkley wasn't quite as high on the Gamecocks' play after Coach Steve Spurrier's post game locker room speech.
"It's real frustrating because we beat our own selves by several mistakes we made. That's why we've got to practice, so we can get better," he said. "(Coach Spurrier) was pretty ticked off, man. He tried to encourage us: 'Don't give up. Keep playing hard.'"
Most of Coach Spurrier's wrath fell on the Carolina offense which failed to score against Verdun Wheeler and the Georgia defense. He was a little more pleased with his defense, led by the Brinkleys.
"The defense struggled, held them to 18 though, so it wasn't a terrible game by the defense," Coach Spurrier said.
"I feel we played pretty good, but could have been better because we could have held them to zero," Casper Brinkley said. "We just left a lot of players out there on the field. We had a lot of little simple, minor mistakes."
The Bulldogs' defensive play was enough to get Verdun Wheeler hyped up for the rest of the season, though.
"That says a lot for your defense when you can hold a Steve Spurrier and his type of offense to zero." he said. "That's just such a momentum booster for us. Which it really defines our defense this year, defines our team. Pretty much just put the ball down; we're going to play hard and fast. We don't care who you are."
After the game, the trio shook hands, congratulated each other and took advantage of a brief moment to reminisce.
"I just told (Verdun Wheeler) 'Good game. Keep up the good work,' because I saw that he had a good game," Casper Brinkley said. "...When I was on the sidelines, I kept hearing them calling his name."
The shutout win did give Verdun Wheeler the right to razz his former teammates for a while. Though he chose not to harass his friends after the game, he said it would surely come later.
"I'll get on the phone and call them and do a little bragging," he said.
Danny Verdun Wheeler