WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said it best: C.J. Fuller was smiling down on the Tigers during their 63-3 win over Wake Forest on Saturday.
Just a few days after the former Clemson running back passed away due to complications from a seizure, the Tigers honored his memory by rushing for 471 yards – the fourth most in school history – and scoring six rushing touchdowns while averaging 11.8 yards per carry against the Demon Deacons at BB&T Field.
“I know C.J. was smiling on us to see us rush the ball for 471 yards and a school-record 11.8 per carry, and three running backs 125 yards or more,” Swinney said. “I can’t help but think C.J. was smiling on that, to see his guys perform like that, especially in the run game.”
Fuller was heavy on the minds and in the hearts of Clemson’s players, especially the running backs, leading up to and during Saturday’s game after the 22-year-old suddenly passed away on Wednesday.
“We all had that sense of urgency to go out there and do what we can for him and run the ball in his memory because that’s what he was, a running back here,” running back Travis Etienne said. “We just wanted to go out here and honor him the right way.”
Etienne led Clemson with 167 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns, including a 70-yard score. Meanwhile, senior Adam Choice ran for 128 yards and a touchdown, while freshman Lyn-J Dixon had 163 yards rushing and two touchdown runs of 65 and 52 yards.
Etienne, Choice and Dixon became the first Clemson trio to each run for 100 yards in the same game since James Davis (143), C.J. Spiller (127) and Demerick Chancellor (113) did it against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 30, 2006 in a 51-0 victory at Death Valley.
Clemson’s backs said they ran for Fuller and deciated the game to him.
“C.J. was a fearless player. He played hard. He gave it everything he had, and we wanted to embody what he stood for today when we stepped on the field,” Choice said. “So, we took pride in our performance today a lot. Today, it just felt like we needed to do a little bit more for him, just to show that we appreciate him and what he taught us and what we gave us. It was a great way to honor him.”
Fuller’s passing was especially difficult for Choice to cope with, as the two entered Clemson together as part of the Tigers’ 2014 signing class.
After a week of grieving, Choice ran with emotion on Saturday as he recorded a career-high 128 yards rushing and a career long 64-yard run for a touchdown.
“I’ve been thinking about him since it happened,” Choice said. “It’s been a crazy week for me mentally, but with my brothers still here now, we push through it. We grieve together, we talked about it, we remember the good times, and at the end of the day we came out and I believe we honored him by the way we played.”
Choice said he fought tears this past week when members of Clemson’s team stood up and shared stories and memories of Fuller during a team meeting.
What Choice remembers most about Fuller is his fun-loving personality that made everyone around him laugh and smile.
“In the team meeting, I was actually sitting down holding back tears the entire time,” Choice said. “I was honestly just sitting there reminiscing with myself about all the good times we had. I can still hear his laugh in my head right now. It’s crazy to me. But like I said, I know he’s in a better place right now, and I’m just praying for his family. I know he had a great effect on a lot of people. He touched people in a positive way. So, his impact on us, he’ll live on through us in everything that we do.”
A day after beating Wake Forest by 60 points, Clemson’s largest margin of victory against an ACC opponent in school history, the Tigers will celebrate the life of Fuller on Sunday.
“I just want to continue to lift up the Fuller family,” Swinney said. “I look forward to being a part of that celebration tomorrow. Obviously a very sad situation to see a young person gone so young and so early. But the one certainty is we’re all going to have our day, and none of us know when that time is. I have peace in knowing that C.J. had a great relationship with the Lord. I know that, and I know that he is at peace.
“But those of us on this side of eternity, especially his family, his parents, I know they hurt. So, my prayers continue to be with his family, and again, look forward to being a part of the celebration tomorrow.”