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.

Gridiron Weight

Each year, I take the boys for an overnight trip for their birthday. Last year, Wyatt picked a train trek to DC. Two years in a row now, Seth has picked a weekend of Clemson football. Clemson (where the boys were born) and Baylor (where I grew up) are our two teams, but a visit to Grams, Pa and the Bears in Waco require a bit more time and financial commitment.

One of the great Clemson traditions is that after the game, fans flood the field as the team stays around for half an hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. My hunch is that after many futile efforts to hold back the tidal wave cresting over the stadium walls, the athletic department threw up their hands and decided instead to create a massive marketing coup – they welcomed the chaos. Saturday night, watching thousands of young kids with wide eyes walking the turf amid larger-than-life Tigers, it was obvious they were solidifying the fan base for decades to come. The throngs pressed around the national play-makers: quarterback (and Heisman contender) Tajh Boyd, Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, Vic “The Beast” Beasley and Sammy Watkins, the streak of lightning who causes a collective short-breath in the stadium every time he touches the pigskin.

However, I watched several players (an offensive guard, maybe a defensive reserve or two) slowly make their way down the sideline, toward the tunnel to the locker room. No one shoved a mic in their face. If anyone asked them for an autograph, it was only the hyper kid running frantically player to player never even pausing to look the player in the eye or the disappointed kid who couldn’t break through the surging pack to the stars. I don’t imagine there were many people in the stadium wearing jerseys sporting their numbers. None of the left-alone players looked bothered or annoyed that they received none of the glamor. They’d done their work, and it was time for a shower. I wasn’t interested in autographs, but I did find myself thinking, Hey, man, you’re a fellow who digs into the trenches. We should sit down over coffee (or, I don’t know, a 4lb roast maybe). I’d like to hear your story.

When the athletic staff attempted to lead Tajh through the massive throng so the poor fellow could call it a day, Tajh kept stopping as hats and footballs were shoved in his chest. He looked exhausted. Tajh was doing his best to be the people’s man, but that was a whole lot of people. I wondered if he’d like to play the part of the second-string O-lineman, quietly strolling to the exit.

I don’t know what to make of all this, of our hero culture. I’ve no interest in making swipes. We’re desperate for women and men to respect, to believe in – and if sports participate in that, I won’t knock it. I do know we get carried away. One of our fellow Clemson fans, a middle-aged woman sitting near us, yelled at the offense in the third quarter, just before Tajh called out the snap: “Come on, part the Red Sea and let Moses through.”

It’s obviously gameday hyperbole, but I do wonder what it does to a soul to have this kind of weight placed on them. On the drive home Saturday night, we stopped for dinner. Seth, obviously overcome by the heat and exertion of the day, said, “Dad, you could totally have played professional football.” I chuckled, and I corrected him. Lack of talent aside, I could never have born that pressure. I hope we do not crush the good that is in the heroes we say we love.

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All the Football Craziness

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned football here – or any sport topic for that matter. But a little bit of Winn-trivia: I’m a big college football fan. I’m Texan, what can I say? All this chatter about the demise of the Big XII brings back nightmarish memories of when the Southwest Conference crumbled. And if you know nothing of this dark day, simply let me say – those were days when giants walked the land.

The most probable endgame scenarios I’ve read leave Baylor and their Golden Wave Marching Band out in the cold. The one kid completely left behind. It’s a sad tale for the little university that could. Baylor is in Waco, Texas, my hometown. I spent many a Saturday at Floyd Casey Stadium hoping against hope for the Bears. I spent many a Saturday dejected and disappointed. Many.

Baylor is a Baptist university. It’s relatively small. It has a cuddly Bear for a mascot. The administration didn’t allow students to dance there until 1996. They’ve always had a couple strikes against them.

A few articles and favorite lines:

On whether Baylor’s Baptist affiliation will hurt them finding a new conference:

“The last time we checked, the Baptists still scored six points when the ball crossed the goal line,” said Lori Fogelman, a spokeswoman for Baylor.

//Yes, six points are the same. Only, no touchdown jigs that shake anything below the waist.//

“Pac-10 always has been allergic to Brigham Young, another church-based school,” one sports writer said. “A Baptist friend of mine says Baylor actually is quite liberal in Baptist eyes, but I don’t think that’s a concept Berkeley recognizes, liberal Baptist.”

//Yeah, probably not.//

And then a piece from Joe Posnanski on how the football conferences are built for ratings and dollars, end of story. Greed, says Posanski, birthed the Big XII and will end up killing it.

The conference was built for television sets. And Texas had the most television sets.

//All fine and good – so long as we all are clear that Texas has the most.//