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It’s not just a rock

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By Will Vandervort

As I was walking by the Hill one day a few years ago, I came across this couple peaking in as best they could through the gates at Clemson Memorial Stadium trying to get a glance at Howard’s Rock. I could tell they wanted to ask me something so I obliged.

“Can I help you,” I asked.

The lady said, “Yes! Would you at all mine taking a photo in front of Howard’s Rock so we can have something to prove we have seen it?”

I was a little surprised by the request because I had noticed their tags on the car were New York State tags. So when I was done taking the picture, I asked them why they were in Clemson, figuring they had a child at the school or something.

The lady replied, “Our neighbor went to Clemson and he always talks about this place. We have seen Howard’s Rock talked about on television, too, so when we saw the sign for Clemson on the Interstate we decided to take a little detour and come see it. We wanted to get a picture so we could show him we were actually here.”

I know several other people who work at Clemson that have encountered similar stories and request through the years. See Howard’s Rock isn’t just a piece of flint pulled out of the earth’s crust. It might have been that at first when it was created those many of thousands of years ago, but now it is a piece of college football history and what we all discovered happened to it on Wednesday is a travesty.

Not only did someone trespass when he or she walked into Death Valley on June 3 in the middle of the night, but they also smashed the protective case that covers Howard’s Rock and tried to remove it from its pedestal atop the Hill in the east side of the stadium.

When they discovered they could not get the rock off the pedestal, they decided to take a huge chunk of it instead.

And though the vandals might think this is funny prank to get back at Clemson in some way, what they failed to realize is their actions have not hurt just Clemson and its loyal fan base, but they have defaced one of the greatest traditions in college football.

The big piece of Howard’s Rock they took from it can never be replaced, just like the piece someone took prior to the 1992 South Carolina game was never replaced. It’s not like this was an old train caboose that can be repainted or a field that can be resodded. Howard’s Rock cannot be replaced just like the Trees at Toomer’s Corner can’t be.

The people who do these kinds of things do not respect the game of college football and what its traditions are all about. Howard’s Rock and Toomer’s Corner are not just things you can replace. There is a story behind them, a story that connects them with several generations.

These traditions and the countless other ones at other schools across the country are to be respected and revered, not vandalized or poisoned because someone thinks it is funny. How funny would it be if someone walked into your house and took that prized medal or trophy your father won way back when? Those things are priceless and cannot be replaced.

To give you an idea of what these vandals have done and what they almost stole from the college football world, here is an excerpt from the book—Clemson: Where The Tigers Play—I helped author with Sam Blackman and Chuck Kriese.

It was fortunate for Clemson that former IPTAY Executive Secretary Gene Willimon acted when he did. Otherwise Clemson might not have beaten Virginia, 40-35, on September 24, 1966, in the season opener for the Tigers.

It was Willimon’s idea to put a rock from Death Valley, CA on a pedestal on top of the hill during the summer of 1966. An alumnus, S.C. Jones, gave Howard the rock after a visit to Death Valley, CA.

Jones must have thought it to be an appropriate gift to Howard as the stadium has been called Death Valley by friend and foe alike for many years prior to 1966.

The rock sat in Howard’s office for several years when finally, while cleaning his office, he told Willimon to do something with it. Willimon had a brain storm and immediately came up with the idea of putting it on a pedestal overlooking the playing field where it still sits today, 47 years later.

Even though the players did not begin touching the rock for good luck until a year later, the rock must have brought the Tigers good fortune, or as Howard stated, “Mystical powers” in the win over Virginia.

The Tigers managed to win despite losing five fumbles and giving up 429 yards of total offense. It did not hurt the Tigers’ chances that running back Buddy Gore rushed for 117 yards in this game, and quarterback Jimmy Addison was 12 of 19 for 283 yards.

But with the help of Clemson fumbles, Virginia took a 35-18 lead with 3:06 left to go in the third quarter and all had seemed lost. Then Edgar McGee, Phil Rogers and Wayne Bell caught key passes to bring Clemson to a 35-33 deficit with about three minutes to play. 

Faced with a third down-and-short on their own 25-yard line, the Tigers were driving for the go-ahead score.

“We called a pass play that had resulted in several earlier completions to our split end Wayne Bell,” recalled Addison. “Wayne found an open spot between the linebackers, and the Virginia cornerback came from his deep position to cover the open receiver. 

“Jacky Jackson, who had run from his tailback position down the left sideline, made a beautiful catch behind that cornerback and outran the safety man to the end zone.”  

That gave the Tigers a 40-35 advantage with 3:49 left and proved to be the winning touchdown.

“I remember this play distinctly,” said Addison, who later would attend law school at the University of Virginia. “I thought I had overthrown Jackson, but he put it in second gear and ran underneath the pass.”

However the Cavaliers had one more chance and Davis marched Virginia down the field. With 1:49 left to go in the game, the Cavaliers had a second-and-10 situation on the Tigers’ 14-yard line. Davis’ pass was intercepted by Phil Marion and the Tigers proceeded to run out the clock.

It was a victory for the ages, and later on his weekly television show, Howard said the rock must have had mystical powers. Well, something was working. The Tigers did not lose a game at home that entire season and that got Howard to thinking, “Maybe I can use this to my advantage.”

So Howard started telling his players that his rock did have mystical powers and that he would allow them to touch his magical rock as long as they agreed to give him 110 percent on the football field that afternoon. If they did not, “Then keep your filthy hands off my rock!” he would say.

Since then, with the exception of 16 games from 1970-’73, Clemson players have touched Howard’s Rock for good luck prior to running down the Hill and into Death Valley on fall Saturday afternoons. It has become known as one of the game’s greatest traditions, a tradition ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger–then with CBS–called, “The most exciting 25 seconds in all of college football” prior to the Georgia game in 1985.

Musburger’s phrase stuck, and deservedly so. Maybe now, anyone who has plans to do any harm to Howard’s Rock in the future will understand that they are not just hurting Clemson, but the game of college football, too.

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