When I was nine years old I fell in love with a football team that would consume most of my young life and gave birth to my career as a sportswriter.
In 1981 Clemson went on a magical run that most of us, who lived in South Carolina in those days, can still recall. By then, I was already a Clemson fan thanks to the influence of my parents. Though a Furman graduate, my mother bleed Orange and White and my step father was Clemson alum.
Like most of us do from the great state of South Carolina, I had to choose which colors I wanted to wear—Orange and White or Garnet and Black—at an early age. Of course, thanks to my unknowing influences, I choose the Orange and White.
I loved everything Clemson. I was obsessed. From the time I was seven years old until I went to high school, I wore something that had a Tiger Paw or said Clemson on it.
But the 1981 season was the year where my obsession for sports, and Clemson football in particular, took off. I have collected everything imaginable you can think of from that season. The biggest prize is an actual helmet given to me by Coach Danny Ford himself that was worn in the 1982 Orange Bowl Game.
I read and studied everything I could from that season. I remember the call from the great Jim Phillips when Perry Tuttle caught that touchdown pass from Homer Jordan in the Georgia game. I remember how all 82 points were scored in the win over Wake Forest. The North Carolina game – Wow! What a hard hitting game that was. I can still see Rod McSwain blocking that punt that turned the tide against South Carolina, and then of course the Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. What a great night.
After the 1981 season, I longed for a repeat. I became obsessed with it. Even as a teenager, I chose Clemson football over girls. I’m sure some of my ex-girlfriends right now are reading this and saying, “Yep!”
As I got into college and started working towards my chosen profession, the obsession finally began to wear off. I chose a different obsession, my work. I, like a lot of you out there, gave up on the notion that Clemson could ever again have a magical season like 1981.
In 2004, after growing up for nearly a decade in the newspaper profession, I was given the opportunity to cover Clemson athletics on a daily basis. Of course I jumped at it. Here I was a young man with his whole career in front of him and I was getting to cover my childhood team. I’ll be honest, it was something I dreamed about, but I never imagined I would get the opportunity to do it.
I also never imagined Clemson would ever again play for a National Championship. It just seemed too farfetched. I mean, Clemson was just an eight- to nine-win team, right?
But in 2011, when the Tigers finally got over the hump and won their first ACC Championship in 20 years, I could tell Dabo Swinney was building something special. The previous four years started to bring back hope. Once again, fans could picture Clemson playing for a national championship.
Why not? They were beating some of college football’s best teams – LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Why not Clemson?
As I came into the 2015 season I was still a little skeptical. I’ll be honest, I saw Clemson winning the ACC, but I did not foresee a national championship run. I figured the Tigers might go 10-2 or 11-1 at best.
Then the Notre Dame game came along. I watched as Clemson dominated the lines of scrimmage against what was considered to be one of the best front lines in all of college football. By the time the Miami game rolled around, and the Tigers drilled the Hurricanes, I was convinced. I knew then this team was going to make a run.
Sure, there were some moments of uneasiness like at NC State, Syracuse and South Carolina, but you could just tell there wasn’t a team out there that could just line up and beat Clemson, even if it did not play well.
You could tell this was a magical season. This was like 1981 all over again. Clemson was once again, the talk of the town and not just locally, but nationally as well. Every time you turned on SportsCenter or ESPNU, Clemson was or part of the conversation.
It seemed like Sports Illustrated was putting a new Clemson player on the cover every week.
When the Tigers took down Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Clemson fever had reached an all-time high. This Tigers had already achieved more than what the 1981 team had done. They became just the sixth team in the history of college football—the second in the ACC—to win 14 games in a season.
When I saw the nearly 40,000 Clemson fans make the cross-country trip to Arizona to watch their Tigers play Alabama in the National Championship Game, it brought me back to 1981, all over again. It was like I was nine years old again. I was witnessing something special and was just appreciative to be coming along for the ride.
Though it did not end the way we all had hoped it would, the 2015 football season will go down as perhaps even more special than the 1981 season. This year proved Clemson can compete for a national championship, again.
With Deshaun Watson returning at quarterback to lead an offense that ended the season with 11 straight games of 500-plus yards, plus the return of running back Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow, tight end Jordan Leggett and three of the five starting offensive linemen, the Tigers will be in position for a repeat run.
Yes, the defense will have some holes to fill. Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse all bolted for the NFL a year early, while linebacker B.J. Goodson ran out of eligibility. But Ben Boulware is back at linebacker and Clemson’s defensive tackles are as good and as deep as anybody in the country. There are athletes at defensive end and in the secondary ready to step up as well.
For 34 years Clemson waited and gave up hope that it might not ever see a national championship caliber team again. But this year’s team proved it can happen, and this time we will not have to wait 34 years to see it happen again.
If you haven’t already order your copy today of Guts & Glory – Tales of Clemson’s Historic 2015 Football Season to help you celebrate and remember this special season.