Clemson: It’s All About Love

This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.

In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.

I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.

So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry.  I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic. 

After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.

We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.

About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.

Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.

That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.

25 responses to Clemson: It’s All About Love

  1. Melissa Collier January 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    So much more than fantastic, Winn Collier. Y’all are just the freaking best. You should be so proud that, because of you, your boys will do the same fantastic things for their boys (or girls) someday. Legacy.

  2. I’m sobbing. This is beautiful, Winn. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love that you tried. I brought my dad and I started to worry that I’d ruined our chance of actually seeing the game until we found a sweet and extremely hospitable couple from Rock Hill who created a genuine patch of Clemson at their tailgate in the HCC lot. In true Clemson spirit they welcomed a rag tag bunch of Clemson (and one Tide) ticketless to watch the game. This man walked to Best Buy and bought a sound bar before kickoff “so y’all can hear better.”!!! I’m welling up just thinking about it.

  4. tears. thank you for love . . . for Jesus, for my Miska, for two sweet boys, and yes for Clemson!

  5. God bless you and yours, Winn. I so enjoy your writing. My best memories with my Daddy-long since left for Heaven- involved Clemson football games. When I think of our journeys to Death Valley I think only of the love. Your boys will remember. This girl here sure does.

  6. Julie Schirripa January 12, 2017 at 9:29 am

    We did the same- parked in HCC and tailgated, hoping ticket prices would drop. As game time approached, we settled in to watch on a TV set up in the parking lot with a handful of fans- during the second quarter, their tv went out and we spent the rest of the game watching from inside the van on an iPad! But we were there in the shadow of the stadium- we could hear the roar of the crowd and see the fireworks when we scored. During that last drive we danced for joy and moaned with disappointment as the lead switched back and forth. But when those final orange fireworks flew we raced to the stadium gates to celebrate -catching purple and orange confetti as it rained down on us and the thousand others just like us! We may not have been inside but we were there and my kids will always remember exactly where they were the night the Tigers won!!

  7. ❤❤❤

  8. I was there, too, and after seeing your Instagram, spent much of our tailgate hoping against hope for the miracle of a ticket for you guys. (Oh, that Seth.) I was lucky enough to be in the stadium for the game and I sat right between my husband and my daughter, a recent Clemson grad herself. I loved beyond measure every second of that shared experience. There were many tears that night and your beautiful story brought them, again. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  9. Sweet!! Brought memories of watching football and yelling at the TV with my brother’s and my father who is passed away. Thanks

  10. Winn,

    I am not a Clemson fan by any means but I live and breathe with them everyday. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I love every word of this Winn. Ever word. I love that Wyatt reminded you of the truth – the clemson family, at the end of the day, just wants to be together to watch the game. Because we love each other. Period.

  12. I love the kind of Dad you are, Winn, and your sons are clearly following in the footsteps of the kind of man you are. What blessed young men.

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