LSU junior defensive end Sam Montgomery acts the part of a Louisiana native.
His swagger, smile and charisma seem tailor-made for the spicy south Louisiana swampland.
This weekend, his real home comes to him, as No. 3 South Carolina — and several of Montgomery’s closest friends — visit the place the Greenwood, S.C., native chose to call home for college.
“It’s the biggest thing, seeing my old-time friends,” Montgomery said. “I love them to death. I feel like it will be the best game I ever play, because there’s going to be so much love and passion on the field.”
South Carolina pride, especially in the college football world, takes on a different meaning than in most states.
Sandwiched within the nation’s richest college football championship corridor and influenced by two traditional afterthoughts in the Gamecocks and Clemson, the state’s players grow up around a stigma of inevitability, Montgomery said.
“Everybody’s going to South Carolina or Clemson,” he said. “That’s the way it works, almost always.”
Not for Montgomery. When legendary South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier first visited Greenwood High School for a recruiting visit, Montgomery didn’t even recognize him.
“That story was passed around the state for the longest time,” Montgomery said, with a sheepish grin. “I asked [Greenwood football] coach [Shell] Dula who that guy was. When he told me, I just said, ‘Coach, I don’t watch ESPN.’ I found out later [Spurrier] won a Heisman.”
Montgomery may not have recognized Spurrier, but the home-state school almost landed him anyway.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound gentle giant can still vividly recall every detail of a recruiting trip he took with his friends and current Gamecock starters, D.J. Swearinger, Kelcy Quarles and Justice Cunningham, to the Columbia, S.C., campus.
“I remember the walk onto the field, the tunnel to the locker room and the weight room right off the side of the stadium,” Montgomery said. “Kelcy and DJ and I took pictures with the SC jerseys. You walk outside and the trains roll past campus. It’s a great program, a great place.”
But Montgomery felt the pull of the unknown. He didn’t want to settle for the familiar.
“I had to edge my own path,” he said. “I needed to take a risk and step out of my comfort zone, to see if I could survive in the Dirty South. I wanted to show that South Carolina guys can go around the world and play football.”
For LSU, the rest has been unscripted, unfiltered Sam Montgomery history.
Montgomery’s 2012 campaign has included 18 tackles — 6.5 for a loss — two sacks and a forced safety that was the difference in LSU’s 12-10 win at Auburn last month.
Saturday might as well be an entirely different season for “Sonic Sam.”
“The way he’s preparing, you can see the focus in it,” said junior linebacker Lamin Barrow. “This game means everything to him. He’ll try to die before he loses it.”
Quarles said Montgomery is “like a brother to me,” and Montgomery labeled Cunningham “practically my best friend in the world.”
Though the foe may involve familiar faces, Montgomery is in an admittedly unfamiliar position. Last week’s 14-6 loss at Florida was LSU’s first regular-season defeat when he was on the field.
Montgomery said the “whooping” brought him back to his roots.
“I haven’t been an underdog like this since I was at Greenwood High School,” he said. “Sometimes, you need to get rehumbled and reminded what it means to work hard for every success you get. I learned that in South Carolina.”
It’ll be as much a family reunion as a football game for Montgomery, who said his mother, sister and about “10 to 12” of his closest acquaintances will be in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
But there will be one person missing from that inner circle. Montgomery’s fellow Sonic aficionado and older brother, John Darrel Adams, was killed outside a Columbia night club in 2007.
Montgomery said their relationship was never about sports — “We played video games. We never watched football.”
Montgomery said Adams hasn’t been on his mind most of this week. But he’s part of those South Carolina memories, which will serve as Montgomery’s inspiration when he hits his black-and-garnet clad opponents.
“I never play for myself, so this game’s not about me,” Montgomery said. “It’s for South Carolina — they deserve that respect. And when you talk about the state, he’s a major part of that for me. I guess I’ll unleash that passion, too.”