Monday, January 11, 2016

Clemson Offers Incredibly Positive Live Experience, Long-Lasting Story

Every stop that I make on my College Football Tour has its own story to be told.  Is it a rivalry game?  Is the team unbeaten or challenging for a conference championship?  Does the destination feature an added element of a personal nature?  Those are the obvious arcs.  When I rolled into Death Valley on October 11, 2014, the Tigers were set to play a team in its first season as an ACC member; so no rivalry there.  A pair of early season losses put Clemson already out of the initial College Football Playoff race and, given how good the Florida State team was that beat them in September, it seemed highly unlikely that the Tigers would be able to win the ACC either; so, nothing substantial on the line for a visitor like me with no dog in the hunt.  I certainly had no personal tie to the school or any intangible connection to the place.

I assumed that the story I'd end up writing about was how I had witnessed the rise of one of the game's most dynamic quarterbacks of the decade.  Yet, freshman sensation, Deshaun Watson, broke his hand in the second quarter of the 23-17 Tiger victory over the Louisville Cardinals and, frankly, had done very little up to that point.

The plan, then, was to make the entertainment value of the game itself and my picture with Howard's Rock afterward the primary storyline of this blog entry.

Me and the famous "Howard's Rock"

However, during the 2015 season, a new narrative emerged reminiscent of my original out-of-state road trip to Ohio State in 2002.  The Buckeyes won the National Championship approximately two months after I traveled to Columbus in early November thirteen years ago.  Obviously, Clemson being the #1 team in the country the season after I went there was a little bit different, but the theme was quite similar.  Despite the Tigers knocking off both my favorite team (Notre Dame) and my alma mater (NC State) in October, I found myself rooting for Clemson by season's end because of how cool it would be to say that I saw the National Champions LIVE in their home stadium shortly before their title-winning season. 

Rewinding the clock a few years, the talk of going to a Clemson game began when my good friend, Dean, was doing a clinical rotation in that part of South Carolina during his final year of Pharmacy School.  He eventually found us good quality seats and off I headed at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to meet up with him and his friend, Samantha, in time for tailgating.  Samantha proved a very good person to be around that day.  She's a lifelong Clemson fan and had all the right connections for multiple tailgate sites.

The first place that we stopped was situated near the baseball stadium (convenient facilities when needed after a few pre-game cocktails).  While watching Georgia throttle Missouri on a very large TV, Dean and I caught up with each other and conversed with some of the local Clemson faithful.  The tailgate set-up belonged, I believe, to the father of one of Samantha's friends.  I was confused by this, though, because it looked to me as though her friend was sporting Louisville Cardinal-colored clothing.  Not wanting to stick my foot in my mouth, I observed the girl in the red dress surrounded by diehard Tiger fanatics.  A couple of beers later, the words "So how is it being a Louisville fan at this tailgate party?" just came out.  I was having too much fun by this point to be embarrassed, but I think she might've been.  She sheepishly acknowledged the rather red hue of her ensemble, but stressed that the dress was, in fact, orange.  Perhaps she was right, but I remember her dress being about as orange as the sun is blue. 

On the way to our second tailgate party, one of those moments occurred that stands out among the various trips that I've taken.  When you go to a college football game, there are certain constants - the roar of the crowd, the bands, the brews, the gridiron, etc. - and then there are the little things unique to each experience; the snow balls thrown by the Notre Dame students at the Notre Dame team in 2008, Garlow's cousin's Dazed and Confused impersonation in 2002, the worst I've ever had to urinate in my adult life in 2010, etc.  At Clemson, the classic song from the Rocky IV soundtrack, "No Easy Way Out," was randomly playing at the booth of an area sponsor, to which Dean and I - both long-time viewers of yearly Rocky marathons on TV - started singing along to the wide-eyed stares of Samantha (several years our junior and probably not as familiar with the various holiday replays of Stallone's greatest films).

I should've expected nothing less from a trip with Dean, who I'd have to say is one of my friends with whom I'm most likely create a lasting memory.  It's as if he attracts stuff like that; just a fun guy to be around.  A couple of other amusing memories from that trip are his joking insistence that Samantha's "Country Chic" lotion was actually called "Country Chick" and that the restaurant that we ate at for our post-game dinner, Papas and Beers, was called Buds and Suds.  It's the little things in life, ladies and gentlemen; my daughter is asking me right now what I've been laughing about for the last minute.

Dean and I at Memorial Stadium

The game at Memorial Stadium that afternoon - on a perfect early October day I might add - was one of the better ones I've attended.  Certainly nowhere near the Georgia-South Carolina game from 2013, but easily in sole possession of second place.  Clemson opened the scoring with a 70 yard punt return just over a minute into the first quarter, but then a defensive struggle began that lasted the rest of the game.  Future NFL draft picks Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley starred for the Tigers.  Louisville took the lead in the second quarter, 10-7, but Jarrett recovered a fumble in the end zone to put Clemson back on top before the half.  Without Watson, the Tiger offense could not throw the ball.  A memorably vocal fan kept yelling over my right shoulder "C'mon Cole" - as in Cole Stoudt, who tallied an 8.0 quarterback rating (out of 100).  However, they won the field position battle and kept kicking field goals.  Louisville battled back and recorded a 70 yard gain to near the Clemson goal line, giving the Cardinals a chance to score a game-winning touchdown on the final play.  I said to Dean, "This place is going to pop like a balloon if Louisville scores right here."  Alas, Clemson's defensive held.

One of the best crowds I've been a part of proceeded to rush the field, which highlighted a difference I felt between Clemson and some of the more renowned football programs that I've seen live: the Tiger fans are supporting an elite program, but they haven't reached a point where they've forgotten that this is all a blast no matter if your team is 14-0 or 10-3 or 8-5 (or below .500).  I know for a fact that I would not have seen Notre Dame fans rush the field beating an unranked team to improve to 4-2 on a season and I'm quite confident that I wouldn't have seen that in Columbus, Norman, Gainesville, or Athens either.  I've got a great picture in the sports memorabilia area in my house, accompanying the shot of me with Howard's Rock, of the Tiger fans pouring onto the field.

The win was part of a stretch after their 1-2 start in which the Tigers won nine out of their last ten games.  Watson became a superstar after returning from his hand injury, even playing through a torn ACL to beat South Carolina for the first time several years.

I sit here writing this just hours before the National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama.  Win or lose, the context of the memories forged by my trip to Death Valley in 2014 will be shaped by Clemson's run to the title in 2015.  Watson's injury when I was there became part of the story of his overcoming adversity en route to his unrivaled status as the nation's best quarterback and to his emergence as the leader of a team challenging for a National Championship.  Even my tour stops to Virginia Tech and South Carolina in 2011 have now been influenced by Clemson's 2015 season, as the Tigers were the opponent in both games; that season and every season since were important stepping stones in the program's rise to national prominence culminating in their title game appearance.  

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