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Best players in Clemson history: Tight ends

When he was on a local radio show, former Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen made a special request on air. Allen, who is very up to speed on Clemson’s rich football tradition and appreciative of those who came before him, spoke about some of the former players he had the privilege of knowing. At that point, however, there was one guy he had not had the pleasure of meeting.

That guy is former Clemson All-American Bennie Cunningham, the only tight end to make the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2003, as well as the only tight end named to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 75th Anniversary team in 2007.

When it comes to tight ends at Clemson, Cunningham set the standard, both on and off the field. Besides being a two-time All-American at Clemson, he helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls in the late 1970s, plus he and his family are known for being some of the best educators in the state of South Carolina.

“That’s the one guy, if I could choose who to meet, that’s the guy I want to meet,” Allen said at the time.

Allen got his wish. After learning of his request through a mutual friend, the two-time Super Bowl Champion agreed to meet Allen after a practice one night. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney invited Cunningham to stay for the team meal afterwards, which allowed him and Allen to talk more.

“He and I are so much alike,” Allen said. “In talking with him, and getting to know each other, we really realized how much alike we are. His past experiences and then what I have experienced, we are a lot alike.”

The two are even more alike when it comes to career paths. Like Cunningham has, Allen gives back to the community. He wants to guide young people in the hopes they will make better decisions in life as a way of saying “thank you” to those who did the same for him.

After his playing days were through in Pittsburgh, Cunningham came back to the Clemson area where he coached high school football for a little while, and recently retired as a Career Guidance Counselor at West-Oak High School in Westminster, S.C.

Allen, who now plays for the New England Patriots, hopes to do the same kinds of things when his football career is over.

“He gave me a little insight and a little bit of wisdom,” Allen said.

Like Cunningham did, Allen plays the game the right way. In 2011 he had the best year ever recorded by a Clemson tight end at the time. He shattered both Cunningham’s and McMakin’s game and season records for a tight end by hauling in 50 passes for 598 yards, including eight that went for touchdowns.

Allen was a Consensus All-American in 2011, including being named a First-Team All-America by the Associated Press. He is the only tight end in Clemson history to win the coveted John Mackey Award, which is given each year to the nation’s best tight end. A two-time first team All-ACC, Allen had 93 receptions for 1,079 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career. His 93 receptions at the time were tied for the most by a Clemson tight end.

Honorable Mentions

Bennie Cunningham (1973-’75):  Cunningham was a Consensus All-American in 1974 and was a First-Team All-American again in 1975. The two-time First-Team All-ACC selection caught 64 passes for 1,044 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career. His best year came in 1974 when hauled in 24 passes for 391 yards and seven touchdowns. He became the first two-time First-Team All-American selection in Clemson history. He was inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame in 1984 and the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993. He was ranked as Clemson’s No. 15 player of all-time by a panel of historians in 1999 and was the only tight end named on the ACC’s 50th Anniversary team in 2002. He was also named as a member of Clemson’s All-Centennial team in 1996. Cunningham is still the only Clemson tight end to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft when he went No. 28 overall to the Steelers in 1976.

Jordan Leggett (2013-’16): When it comes to pure numbers, no Clemson tight end has put up the numbers Leggett did, especially in his last two years at Clemson. A self-proclaimed lazy player early in his career, Leggett turned the corner in 2015 and went on the best two-year run by any Clemson tight end in history. In 2015, he hauled in 40 passes for 525 yards and tied Allen’s record for eight touchdowns in a season. He was a Second-Team All-American and earned First-Team All-ACC honors as well, while finishing as a finalist for the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. Leggett had even a better year in 2016 as he shattered Allen’s single-season receiving yards record for a tight end with 736. He also tallied seven touchdowns and averaged 16.0 yards on 46 catches. Leggett finished his career with a record 112 receptions for a record 1,598 yards and another record 18 touchdowns. Leggett was again a finalist for the Mackey Award in 2016 and joined Cunningham as the only two 2-time All-Americans at the tight end position.

Jim Riggs (1983-’86): Jim Riggs may not have been an All-American, but to Clemson fans he is considered one of the all-time greats at his position. Riggs was a two-time All-ACC selection, including first team honors in 1986 when helped guide the Tigers to an ACC Championship. Riggs was always known as a guy that could be counted on in big games as he made big plays in wins over Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and South Carolina. Riggs went on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL and played in Super Bowl XXIII, still one of the greatest Super Bowls in NFL History.

Michael Palmer (2006-’09): Palmer was a first team All-ACC selection in 2009 when he had 43 receptions for 507 yards and four touchdowns. Both of those numbers ranked second on the squad. He played a key role as both a player and a leader on a team that advanced to the ACC Championship Game, the Tigers first appearance in the title game. He also played a major role in the development of Allen. Palmer played in the NFL for five years with the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

John McMakin (1969-’71): McMakin was the first versatile tight end the Tigers ever had. He was an All-ACC first-team selection when Clemson teams were not very good in late 1960s and early ’70s. He finished his career at the time as Clemson’s career record holder for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 11 as well as the all-time leader in receptions (93) and career yards (1,255). Up until last year when Leggett broke them, McMakin still held the record for receptions and yards in a career by a tight end. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers for three years in the NFL where he played on the Steelers’ first Super Bowl team in 1974. McMakin also threw a key block on the 1972 “Immaculate Reception” play against Oakland that helped Franco Harris lift the Steelers to their first ever playoff win in the divisional round. He finished his career with the Detroit Lions in 1975 and the Seattle Seahawks in 1976.

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