Few Winthrop fans, maybe none, love the men’s basketball team like Veronica Erwin. With her prosthetic leg, Erwin limps to every home game, and has for more than a decade. She goes after work. She waves signs and says plainly “All the pain from my bone disease goes away during those Winthrop games.”
But with a home game looming Thursday in the Big South Tournament, Erwin was at work at a laundry Tuesday, close to tears. Then she was more than close. There was no money for a ticket.
The cavalry charged right in.
To be able to go to this tournament it is just pure joy. My blood runs Winthrop red.
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The hero’s name is Charlie Funderburke, a retired colonel and Vietnam War and Gulf War veteran who is himself 100 percent service disabled. A guy who grew up in an orphanage and spent 43 years in the military and knows what a gracious gesture means. Funderburke, 78, is a neighbor of Erwin’s from more than a decade ago, when Erwin lost her leg. Funderburke moved years ago, but the two remained close friends.
“No way was Veronica, I call her Ronnie, not getting a ticket,” Funderburke said. “She loves Winthrop. I love Winthrop even though I graduated from Clemson. I don’t tell anybody but I started night school at Winthrop when it was all girls. All the fans love Winthrop.”
For years Funderburke has purchased a package of season tickets for Winthrop games. He sits in the same seat. He gives away the other tickets to Erwin, and kids so they can go to the games. He does it because he believes in duty and what’s right. And with a tournament requiring money for more tickets, Funderburke did what was right again.
“In life you do all you can to make other people’s lives a little more special,” Funderburke said.
For Veronica Erwin, there was no joy like getting a ticket to see all her favorite players and coaches -- and her special favorite: Keon Johnson. Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer, Johnson is about 5 feet 5 inches tall. Maybe.
She wears a Winthrop sleeve on her arm just like Johnson.
“He’s the player with the biggest heart,” Erwin said. “I hope some day to have an autographed jersey of his.”
Erwin, originally from Long Island, New York -- her accent still is unmistakenly there -- has other jerseys, including one hand-delivered by Pat Kelsey, Winthrop’s coach. Kelsey and former Winthrop women’s coach Kevin Cook hand-delivered jerseys to Erwin in 2015 and hugged her and thanked her for her support. Kelsey told Erwin she would always be family. She framed the jerseys and hung them on her wall at home.
Erwin’s son is in the Army. He has been deployed before and is getting ready to go again to Iraq. Her disease has taken much of her mobility. Winthrop basketball is the joy in her life. She will climb the steps to her seat Thursday and the pain will go away for the two hours the team plays.
“To be able to go to this tournament, it is just pure joy,” Erwin said. “My blood runs Winthrop red.”
She will go Friday night if Winthrop wins Thursday. Funderburke bought that ticket, too.
She hugged Funderburke, whose tough military heart is made of the same gold that is Winthrop’s other color. That heart seemed to shine through his Clemson grandpa t-shirt, and into the world that always needs heroes.
Where Tuesday Veronica Erwin found one.