Every time South Carolina plays Mississippi State, Jermale Kelly experiences a spike in popularity. He receives an influx of text messages, emails and phone calls without fail.
Kelly played receiver for the Gamecocks from 1997 to 2000, logging over 2,100 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career. He set a record for touchdown receptions as a freshman with 10. And he averaged more than 14 yards per catch throughout his four seasons in Columbia.
But more than two decades years later, he’s not best-known for those accomplishments. He is remembered for “The Fade.”
On Sept. 23, 2000, Erik Kimrey relieved an injured Phil Petty at quarterback on fourth down late in the fourth quarter against No. 25 Mississippi State. Kimrey threw a single pass: a 25-yard touchdown on a fade route to Kelly for the win. South Carolina defeated MSU 23-19 at Williams-Brice Stadium — and the play was forever dubbed “The Fade.”
Kelly is now living in the Greenville area. He still ranks in the top 10 in the Gamecocks’ record books in multiple receiving categories. He was a superstar at Berea High School and was named the state’s first Mr. Football award recipient, and he was ranked the No. 6 receiver nationally when he signed to play for USC.
The current South Carolina Gamecocks (1-2, 0-1 SEC) play Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1) in Columbia on Saturday, which marks the 23rd anniversary of “The Fade.” While Kelly is unable to attend the game in person, he will be watching from home and remembering fondly the play that cemented him into USC lore.
Question: What have you been up to lately? How’s life been?
Kelly: “It’s been great. Recently got married two years ago in 2021. Found the love of my life. I’ve been working for this company called Corporate Connection. I’m a marketing director. And basically what we do is we set up temporary housing for people relocating to the area and also rent out furniture for people relocating up in the Greenville area. And also coaching football at J.L. Mann High School. We’re actually having a good year so far, and hopefully it continues. And just looking forward to more and better things.”
Q: Looking back at “The Fade,” what do you remember about the series of events leading up to and proceeding the play?
Kelly: “It was fourth down. I remember seeing Phil (Petty) go down with an ankle injury, and thinking to myself, ‘Oh, what are we gonna do now?’
“I came to the sideline, and I remember coach (Lou) Holtz asking me, ‘Jermale, what do you think you can beat ‘em on?’ And my honest answer was, ‘Anything, just just throw the ball.’ And I remember Erik Kimrey coming up and basically saying, ‘I can throw the fade,’ or ‘Throw the fade.’
“I remember just breaking the huddle and coming out. And all of a sudden the play started. And of course, the gentleman that was on me, playing me at the time, kind of got me jammed off the line. But I eventually got around to him, and I’d seen the ball in the air. I saw Erik just throw the ball, and I came down with the ball. And the rest was history.”
Q: What was your reaction, Kimrey’s reaction and the reaction on the sideline to you making the play?
Kelly: “I remember catching the pass and just running to the sidelines. Of course, the stadium went absolutely crazy. It was so loud at that point.
“And I remember going to the sideline, and I remember seeing Erik running towards me. But then he turned around and was going to celebrate with someone else, and then he ran back. Basically, he didn’t know what to do at that point. He was just so excited. I was excited for him.
“But once we got to the side, of course, everybody was cheering and congratulating us both. Honestly, I don’t remember talking to Erik after that play during the game, but in the locker room, of course. We were all celebrating at that time. But it was, just finish the game so we could win the game. Because we were still playing the game at that point. I know it was a few minutes to go in the game.”
Q: Was that play one you liked to run in practice and were successful at, or was it more so something Kimrey was comfortable throwing and had faith in you to catch?
Kelly: “Every practice we work on certain material, plays, just to execute it and make those plays as best as possible. And it was just something we executed.
“Erik, he was a great quarterback. Unfortunately he didn’t get a lot of time. But he knew the game, and he knew what he could throw best, and it just happened. Being a receiver, that’s our job, to go out there and catch the ball. So anything that’s in the air we definitely try to come down with it.
“But it was just something that was executed. It was a great play, great called play, and it happened.”
Q: Does that touchdown catch stand out as one of your favorites or all-timers from your college career?
Kelly: “Well, that’s not my all-time. I’ve definitely had several. But it was definitely exciting because we were down at the time and came back to win that game. So that definitely stood out. And I’m pretty sure it was a great move for Erik, because he’s known in history for that play.
“But throughout my career, there were several. I remember catching a one-handed touchdown at Ole Miss from Anthony Wright. When Anthony Wright was there my freshman year, I caught 10 touchdown passes, which tied a record there at South Carolina. Of course, it’s broken now.
“There’s been several, but that one (‘The Fade’) was definitely an exciting one.”
Q: Is that a clip you still watch around the time South Carolina and Mississippi State play?
Kelly: “It’s funny that you say that. It’s all the time.
“Any time we play Mississippi State, I get a phone call from someone to talk about that game. I had a pretty decent game that game. I had several catches. I was over 100 yards in that game (123). But it (‘The Fade’) was something that I always look back on and see it all the time. I still have people come and tell me now that they play it back on one of these sports channels, replay old games and stuff. And that’s just one of the games they play all the time. I mean, I get emails, text messages, phone calls, it’s funny to me.”
Q: On that note, how has “The Fade” impacted your life outside the semi-annual flood of messages?
Kelly: “Yeah, and it’s funny because even as a freshman tying a freshman touchdown record, people remember me only from ‘The Fade.’ And I guess I have to thank Erik Kimrey for that, because that’s the only time I really get mentioned. But it’s fine. I enjoyed my career there at South Carolina and continue to cheer for ‘em. Always gonna cheer for ‘em. I bleed garnet.”
Q: Do you and Kimrey speak often? Or more so whenever Mississippi State finds its way onto South Carolina’s schedule?
Kelly: “We always keep in touch. All the players keep in touch. Not so often, but we do keep in touch. I hear from Kimrey whether he’s coaching, he’s out of football clinic or whatever the case may be.
“It’s a family bond. You’ve got people from all over the place. And to play there for four years, and meet new people, you become like brothers. And that’s the way it should be. And that’s what we continue to make it. We’re still a family.
“We’ve got some guys who just committed, Mazeo Bennett Jr. that’s down here at Greenville High School and offensive lineman Blake Franks. I saw them the other night when we played them. It’s just welcoming them to the Gamecock family It’s a brotherhood.”
Q: Are there any current Gamecocks receivers who standout to you as especially skilled?
Kelly: “Honestly, they’re all spectacular to me. Right now I just wish that we continue to keep getting better. And it will. (Shane) Beamer definitely has a great coaching staff down there. And, of course, Spencer Rattler being the quarterback, you’ve got an outstanding quarterback. They all shine. I wish them all the best of luck. And if they ever need any advice, just please don’t hesitate to give me a call.”
About the game: USC vs. Mississippi State
Who: South Carolina (1-2, 0-1 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network
Stream: via the ESPN app