One of the University of South Carolina’s all-time, most storied football moments almost wasn’t. In 1998, high school senior Erik Kimrey was committed to the Naval Academy football program when he decided to take a second look at the University of South Carolina. While he had a generous offer in hand from the Midshipmen, he’d been a Gamecock fan all his life. The reason he reconsidered? Head coach Brad Scott wanted him to walk on at South Carolina.
Erik and his high school sweetheart, Erica, whom he married in 2003, decided to weigh their options on paper to figure out the best way forward. It should have been a straightforward exercise.
“Honestly, the pros column for the Naval Academy far exceeded South Carolina’s. An immediate career, the money you can make once you get through your service time, how distinguished a graduate you could be coming from the Naval Academy, and so on,” he says. “Yet something drew me to South Carolina. I can’t tell you with any level of intelligence what it was, but it was just intuition and a gut feeling.” For Erica, the choice was far easier. She told Erik to throw away the list and go with his heart. “The rest is history, I guess,” he says.
Growing Up Kimrey
A native of Columbia’s Irmo area, Erik is the son of Bill, a 34-year head high school football coach, and Penny, an engineering major from USC. His father coached at Lower Richland High School, Dutch Fork High School, and other South Carolina high schools before retiring in 2017.
Erik says that he and brothers, Kevin and Kyle, were always playing football in the yard growing up. The Kimrey boys, however, showed up with more than a football. Thanks to all they’d learned on the sidelines of countless high school games, they came to neighborhood showdowns armed with lists of plays and hand signals. It was an attention to preparation that led Erik to a record setting senior year, when he was also named South Carolina’s Offensive Player of the Year.
But it wasn’t all pigskin and playmaking at Dutch Fork for Erik. As a high school sophomore, he met Erica Russell, a newcomer to the area who’d just moved from Knoxville with her family. There was just one slight point of contention.
“I remember talking to her in the commons and my first question was if she was a Tennessee fan, which she was. I thought that was a complication we’d just have to get through,” he says. “We began dating as juniors and have been together ever since.” When Erica went on to attend USC and when he played on the football team is when the full loyalty switch occurred. “Now she’s 1000 percent a Gamecock, through and through.”
While Erik did walk on to the South Carolina squad and became the school’s back-up quarterback, he made no bones about his on-the-field abilities. “I was a career backup but loved the game a lot. I knew if I could help guys that were a little bit more talented than me understand the game the way I did, we’d be a better team,” he says. “But, you know, I had my moment in the sun.”
That moment — six seconds of playing time on Sept. 23, 2000 — is known simply as “The Fade.” It’s an indelible part of Gamecock football history that hasn’t dulled in the two decades since it shook Williams-Brice Stadium to its core.
The Gamecocks were playing Mississippi State, a top 25 team, and driving toward the red zone when quarterback Phil Petty went down with an injury. Erik came off the bench to 4th and 10 pressure, on-the-field season stats of four completions and eight attempts, and a gut feeling that #18 was the play. Head coach Lou Holtz agreed. The Fade route down the sideline to star receiver Jermale Kelly led the Gamecocks to an upset victory that the downtrodden program desperately wanted. But, says Erik, most people don’t see The Fade for what it really is — a legendary catch.
“Jermale got jammed up, so I put a lot of air on the ball. It was coming from a really large trajectory. He couldn’t really see it until it came right on him. It bounced into his arm a little bit — he didn’t just catch it clean. He had to adjust at the last second to secure it. I always thought it was an impressive catch,” he says. “When Jermale was done playing, he was a career top 10 in South Carolina receiving history. He was a phenomenal football player.”
Breaking Coaching Records
Erik graduated from Carolina in 2002 with a degree in mathematics. He stayed on with the program for two years as an offensive graduate assistant on Holtz’s staff. At that time, Erik also realized he could not lose with Erica by his side. They married in January 2003 and are now parents to three children: Kaitlyn Dean, Karis, and Ty.
“Love is the steadfast commitment to the well-being of another, and no one has loved me better than she has,” says Erik. “When you grow up together and then also go through the things that people go through together, whether it be the death of her parents, the challenges of raising children, and all the other things that life brings you, I think when you share those struggles together, it cements that bond.”
Erik left the South Carolina program at the age of 24 to become head coach at Hammond School in 2004, a role he’d hold for 17 seasons. At Hammond, he guided the SkyHawks to 12 state titles, six of which were consecutive, and an impressive 194-20 overall record. He became the youngest and fastest high school coach to reach 100 victories in state history. A physical education teacher at the school, Erik parlayed his lifelong love of learning into creating and teaching a new elective at the school — a task made easy thanks to his love of exploring history and thought that awakened while he was a South Carolina student.
“I remember someone asked me a question about some of my foundational beliefs that I couldn’t answer. That sparked something inside of me,” he says. “Since then, I’ve read a lot about how the world works from a human interaction standpoint. I study the history of Western and Eastern thought, philosophy, and theology. I love to learn about different religions and what they teach about the human spirit. All that digging, soul searching, and researching manifested into a class I taught at Hammond for 10 years — a philosophy of religion class. I think that pursuit really shaped who I am and how I coach.”
Erik and Coach Shane Beamer knew each other from their involvement with the South Carolina program, where Shane served as an assistant coach from 2007-2011. They became more familiar when Shane was an assistant coach recruiting Hammond players for programs including the University of Georgia and the University of Oklahoma.
While it would later become known that the South Carolina head coaching job was in Shane’s sights, his ambition set Erik’s aspirations in motion. “Two years ago, he’d told me coaching at South Carolina was a dream, so I knew when the job came open, he was going to make a run at it. I told him it was funny he mentioned that because coaching for him at South Carolina would be my dream job. So we kept in touch.”
When Shane accepted the role, in between “a thousand texts and calls” he connected with Erik. “It took a few weeks for everything to get settled down, and it was nerve-wracking to be so close to something you’ve dreamed of for 10 years,” Erik says. Shane called two nights before Christmas. “I was on my back deck. I walked in and told Erica. We had a moment.” While the future gleamed, he was mindful that his path forward also meant saying goodbye to a school, students, faculty, and staff that had invested in his soul for 17 years.
Coaching at the school of your dreams is one thing, says Erik. Coaching for a man like Shane Beamer who wants to see South Carolina win because of who they are, not in spite of who they are, is on an entirely different level. “I was so tired of people making excuses about why we couldn’t get it done at South Carolina — for years! To have someone say, ‘We’re going to win because of who we are’ resonated with me because I always felt that could be the case. If you don’t believe, you don’t have a chance.”
Today, the program’s positive energy and focus on gratitude emanates from both the players and the coaching staff. “A lot of the coaches have shared that this is one of the best things that’s ever happened to them in their career, so there are a lot of guys on staff that are grateful to be there,” he says. “I think it shows in the way they interact with each other and with the team. I really, really hope that great days are ahead.”
Coaching the Long Game
Those youthful days calling plays in his Irmo front yard and roaming the sidelines of South Carolina high school football stadiums are more than a memory for Erik. They’re foundational to his coaching. “There’s something about the game of football that, when you are exposed to it when you’re young, crystallizes in your heart to a different level,” he says. “There’s an understanding, a deeper spiritual understanding, of the power of the game when you’ve watched your dad change the lives of so many people or you’ve seen the game itself bring people together. I think it’s something that the eye of a child has that maybe we are hardened to when we get older.”
His player’s heart gave him the courage to try other pursuits in addition to coaching. “Doing the ‘Fade In’ podcast led to a radio show. That was an invaluable experience, but it took some courage on my part to just put it out there and trust that whatever happens is going be for the best. Coaches, particularly, can get caught in the vacuum of our profession.”
But the human interaction with players is one place where Erik has not only studied the tape, he also puts his knowledge into play at every opportunity. “We have quotes on the wall of the training facility. I like to ask the guys what they mean to them, but I also try to find times and places to show it to them in the game,” he says. One of his favorites is: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday and no one else. “We have to do that because we’re all different,” he says. “We have different skill sets, and we have a different value that we bring to the team. Don’t compare yourself to the guy next to you. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday and how you can improve.”
Not a fan of catchy cliches or modern self-help books, Erik prefers a deeper wisdom he’s learned over 43 years of curiosity, questions, and learning. Simply winning games isn’t what it’s about for him, he says. He has a much longer game.
“We’re here to help them on the field, but more importantly, to help them for the rest of their lives.”