SAN JOSE, Calif. – It has not been the easiest road for Clemson this season, but through the adversity the Tigers prevailed and came out with an undefeated regular season for only fifth time in school history.
Wins against Pitt in the ACC Championship game and Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff Cotton Bowl semifinal led the them to a date with No. 1 Alabama in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday.
Just four games into the season Clemson was hit with a major team shakeup when former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who led the Tigers to their third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance last year, announced he was transferring after Trevor Lawrence was named the starter for the Tigers’ Sept. 29 game against Syracuse.
Less than a week later, the Tigers were hit with the devastating news that former teammate C.J. Fuller passed away on Oct. 3 due to complications related to a blood clot and deep vein thrombosis after he had knee surgery. He was 22 years old.
“Well, I think C.J. has been on our team’s mind since he passed,” said head coach Dabo Swinney at Sunday’s head coaches press conference at the San Jose Marriott. “It’s just a tragic situation, really tragic.”
The surgery was the result of an injury Fuller sustained while playing football at the J.B. Owens Sports Complex in Easley, S.C. this past August.
“You know, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with his parents, and in fact his birthday was Thanksgiving Day this year, and not long after the funeral,” Swinney said. “Just a really difficult thing for all of us. Any time you deal with death, and certainly as we get older, it’s something that we are much more aware of and experience a lot in our families and friends and so forth.”
Last January Fuller announced he was transferring, but he finished school at Clemson and graduated from the university in August of 2018. He appeared in 43 games for Clemson across the 2015-’17 seasons after redshirting during the 2014 season.
During his time as a Tiger, he had 147 career carries for 599 yards with four rushing touchdowns. He also caught 18 passes for 155 yards with two receiving touchdowns.
“For young people, that’s a tough thing to process,” Swinney said. “But he was a great young man, and I don’t have any doubt that these guys certainly remember him and will honor him with how they play.”
Despite the hurt Fuller’s former teammates felt, they have found ways throughout the rest of the season to honor and remember him.
Sophomore running back Travis Etienne spent his entire freshman year learning from Fuller. He says he will be dedicating the national championship game to Fuller and will always remember the lessons he taught the rookie running back.
“Just him being here last year and really helping me to become the person that I am, the guy that I am and the (running) back that I am,” Etienne said “Just him taking me in. It would be really great to go out there and win the game for him.”
So, when the Tigers run on the field at Levi’s Stadium on Monday night, they know Fuller will be with them in spirit.