Carlton Thompson may be known in Columbia as the University of South Carolina's biggest fan, but many wouldn't recognize his name. Instead, they know him as Gamecock Jesus.
The nickname derives from his appearance — free-flowing hair and a full beard — and his habit of dancing when the university pep band played "Jesus Christ Superstar Fanfare" at games more than 20 years ago. At the time, band members started referring to him as Gamecock Jesus, and the name stuck.
"Some people think I'm absolutely crazy, I mean, like a fanatic or maniac," Thompson said.
For more than half a century, Thompson’s untamed spirit has delighted fans, many of whom have come to love him.
The 65-year-old West Columbia resident regularly anchors the front row of the student section at Colonial Life Arena for men’s and women’s basketball games. In addition, Thompson is married and has two adult children. He is also a University of South Carolina graduate and retired from nursing a couple years ago after 44 years in the field.
Thompson dons a garnet-colored shirt, ragged jeans and yellow crocs, wrapping his long hair in a white South Carolina bandanna.
Gamecock Jesus has a repertoire of antics, from tossing his University of South Carolina flag into the air when the Gamecocks score, to grabbing a handrail and jumping up and down on the bleachers when the Gamecocks are on defense, to leading thousands of fans in cheers.
This is where his persona has become famous, as thousands of fans see him in the arena and on television for each game.
Thompson believes if he motivates other fans around him, he's doing his job.
"You know, we can't score points, but the crowd can really play defense, and that's my whole thing.” Thompson said.
Thompson began attending South Carolina athletic events in 1968 when his brother, a freshman at the university, invited him to attend a men's basketball game and stay on campus for a weekend.
"It really just got me hooked," Thompson said.
He can also be found at volleyball and baseball games.
South Carolina's No. 1 fan became a full-blown national news story when the men's basketball team qualified for the Final Four in March 2017, according to Eddy Caster, one of Thompson's close friends and a longtime Gamecock fan.
Thompson planned to watch the game in Columbia, but Caster received a phone call from a man who wanted to start a GoFundMe campaign for Gamecock Jesus to follow the team to Phoenix for the big game.
Thompson said before leaving for the game, there was fanfare not only around the team, but himself as well.
"So many people were calling me, wanting to talk with me, so I said, '3 p.m. outside the Colonial Life Center [sic], I'm going to have a press conference.'”
Nine media outlets came to Gamecock Jesus' media outing, and stories ran about him in both the Washington Post and USA Today.
Caster said that Thompson treats friends, family and colleagues with the same passion in his personal life. Caster likes to joke about his friend's popularity at times, but the truth is, people do like Gamecock Jesus. Caster said it often takes Thompson 15 to 20 minutes to get from the concourse to the front lobby because dozens of fans stop him for his autograph or picture.
"I think [Thompson] is the ultimate role model of what a fan should be," Christopher Young, USC alumnus and regular attendee at men's basketball games, said.
Thompson has touched the lives of many, including Steve Pettis, a 60-year old who lives in a group home in Columbia.
"He's a real, real, real nice person, you know," Pettis, who has been attending games with him for 10 years, said.
Caster said Thompson would reach out to a lot of friends that are handicapped, have special needs or live in a group home. Thompson didn't just limit himself to his own patients.
"That might be a side of him that not everybody knows or everybody sees,” Caster said.