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.

Tell Me it Isn’t So…

A note for all my Clemson com padres:

Come on, people, hold it together! We’re not even gone for a week and this happens?!? I mean, you can still smell the fumes on 123 from our behemoth Penske truck – and the whole shebang is already falling apart???

Next, you’re going to tell me that Ancheauxs took the Black Jack off the menu. Or Clemson is canceling football season in favor of lacrosse. Or Stuart Hayes bought a new Bible and carries it under his arm instead of in the back of his pants.

This truly is a tragic day. If I were there, I would mourn with you. I mourn in spirit.

In lieu of a eulogy, I will simply and fondly remember my favorite Astro memory: watching Nacho Liebre in those incredibly uncomfortable red seats, trying to peel my feet from that sticky floor and enjoying Nathan Elmore’s deep belly laughter throughout.

Here’s to you, Astro.

Last Sunday and a Letter

Today was such a strange mixture of joy and sadness. We said goodbye to our church community, DCF. The whole morning was full of tears and hope, gratitude and remembering. Seth summed up his emotions Friday when he told me, “Daddy, I don’t mind going. I just don’t want to leave.” That’s says it about right.

This morning was my last time to teach @ DCF. I didn’t want to dig in to a text, didn’t have it in me. So, I shared a pastoral letter for the church I love. If you are interested, you can read it here.

{More} Things I Love About My Church

DCF is a beautiful place, a beautiful community. Over the past 6.5 years, this place, these people, have worked their way deep into our hearts. It’s strange and surreal to think that this summer, we will part.

There is so much I love about our church. But I want to mention two simple things here.

The first is a practice that has become embedded into our way of life. Once a year, we transform our Sunday space into an art gallery. We invite artists of every sort to offer us their work. We have all the usual suspects: photography, ceramics, painting, pottery, sketching, mixed medias. Then we have artisan baked goods, original music and original poetry sprinkled in.

This year, we had a live pottery demonstration. Curt Hoffman had quite a crowd gathered around him most of the time. During one moment, I was enjoying Erik Pearson’s original guitar piece while watching Curt sculpt, and it was pure joy. There was another moment when I caught a first glimpse of Juli’s painting, and tears surprised me. I can’t even say for sure what captured me, but the art and the beauty spoke to me.

At DCF, we have The Gallery for one simple reason: because we believe our God is making his world beautiful again, restoring the brokenness and the ugliness. We are merely reflecting his creativity, his beauty-making.

Then, I do love the plain fact that my church is funky. I love that we have a bunch of free spirits who just do their own thing.

Our band put together a revival, dcf-style, on a recent Friday night. The evening was full of life and hope and truth. But my favorite part might have been the handbill Andy Heck created for the event.

If you can get past the star-eyed doll picture that, frankly, just looks creepy, you will find some pretty hilarious text: Come on Down. Join us for some ol fashioned sangin and bible thumpin. Bring a tamborine and pack a lunch, cause beatin on the devil may take all day.

Tuesday Strolls

Most every Tuesday morning, Nathan Elmore (my pastor-partner @ dcf) and I take a stroll on Clemson’s campus. We make sure everyone is getting to class on time, and we count how many orange t-shirts we see.

Since we are pastors, we also try to do Jesus-kinds of stuff on our walks. As we make our way across Bowman Field and weave our way among the bricked buildings of learning, we pause here and there to heal the sick, cast out demons and give alms to the poor. It’s our Tuesday routine.

Today was particularly beautiful. Crisp air. Bright Sunshine. There were a few more grimacing faces than usual – it’s finals week. But the conversation with Nathan was good, stimulating, genuine.

I am struck by how much I am going to miss these walks, this friend.

Coach, Asst.

That’s right. Watch out, umpires. I am now the official assistant coach of the Central-Clemson Rec League’s Fightin’ Tarheels.

Wyatt and Seth are playing their first year of t-ball, and they landed on the same team. At the first practice, I joined up with management.

I had thought most of my duties would be spent teaching the artful slide into home, demonstrating for aspiring pitchers the wizardry of the spit ball and tweaking that elusive perfect batting order (do we want to keep the clean up hitter in the 4 slot even though he can switch hit and we might could mess with the opposing pitcher’s psyche better elsewhere?).

However, to date, most of my coaching has included encouraging batters to actually face the pitcher, cajoling fielders to stand up and stop digging tunnels in the dirt, tying shoes and opening snacks. You gotta start somewhere.

I do plan to work a scene so I get tossed from a game. What kind of coach would I be if I didn’t have that under my belt?

However, I could more easily foresee a scenario where a small mob of parents toss me. In this league, before we place the ball on the tee, the coach actually pitches (it’s a soft underarm loft, from like 10 feet away) three balls for each batter to attempt to hit. In the first two games, between me and the head coach, we’ve beaned five players. It’s harder than you think pitching to tikes whose reflexes are…well, developing.