Why Are You So Damn Happy About A Football Game, Stu?
I was asked this by a very good friend of mine recently (I'll not name him/her). I understand the question; I really do. Sports isn't for everybody. I've certainly got my fair share of friends/acquaintances that could give two shits about sports entirely. If it doesn't tickle your pickle then it just doesn't. No harm, no foul.
I think it's safe to say, though, that the majority (if not the vast majority) of us do give two shits about sports. In fact, we're batshit crazy about it.
For some of us, though, it means infinitely more. A team can be tied into your identity in a way that seems very silly to some folks (especially those elitist pricks who think that being all snobby about it makes them better than you or I). For me that sport is college football and that team is the 2016 College Football Playoff National Champions, the Clemson Tigers.
I am a big NFL guy, too (HAIL TO THE REDSKINS!!), but I am an absolute college fanatic. I'm that guy who (when you watch an NFL game with me) can tell you where practically every player went to college. I can usually hit you with some career stats or defining moments. I love the game at the college level- it's wilder, it's sloppier, it's occasionally goofier.......but it has so much fucking heart!! It's the pageantry and the weird traditions and the sayings that only make sense to the faithful (and often sound dumb as fuck to an outsider). It's the level of hatred in the rivalries. It's the pure passion. But why is the college game so much more intense?
I'll tell you why- small towns and family roots.
I was born and raised in Clemson, South Carolina. Okay, technically I was born in Seneca at Oconee Memorial, but there is no hospital physically located in Clemson, which is a small town of 13,905 people. It's centerpiece is a public university which was founded in 1889 on Fort Hill Plantation, the home of famous South Carolinian politician John C. Calhoun. The area is rich in Civil War era history and famous for it's unparalleled natural scenic beauty.
My family (Newtons on my maternal side) have lived in this area since well before there was a Clemson University, Death Valley (THE REAL ONE!!), Howard's Rock, Littlejohn Coliseum, Kingsmore Stadium, etc., etc. We were here before the War of Northern Aggression (that's what most folks call The Civil War). My blood runs so damn orange it's kind of mind-blowing. I come from a family of rock masons who built much of the Upstate with their bare hands for generations. Our blood spreads across so many families in this area.
My mom worked for Clemson University when I was a child. She worked in various departments over the years, but she also worked in Athletic Admissions in the 1980's- the "good old days" of Clemson football. For Christ's sake, I have a baby picture with The Fridge! My late Aunt Linda dated Charlie Waters (a name older Dallas Cowboys fans should be familiar with) in high school. I grew up in Death Valley. Clemson football was, and is, one of the major cornerstones of my life. Again, the blood is very orange.
But, while the particulars of my story are different, it's essentially the same story of the rest of Tiger Nation (although we are definitely gaining some bandwagon converts in recent years to go with the haters). Our families have lived in this area, and in this very close-knit state, for generations. We've weathered the storms of decade after decade together. And our common bond (besides the churches we share) has been Clemson Football.....and a love of fried chicken.
No fellow Tiger fan is a stranger. We are family. That orange signifies that you are among friends. A lot of college fanbases say this, and it is true for them as well. That's, again, the beauty of college football in the South. But it's different in Clemson. That sounds vague, but if you are from the area (even if you are a damn Gamecock) then you know exactly what I mean.
So, it goes without saying that I have been flying high as a kite for the last 24 hours. I was 2 and a half years old when my beloved Tigers last reached the pinnacle of the sport and won the National Championship, beating the 'Bama of their day, Nebraska, 22-15 in the Orange Bowl. I don't exactly remember it.
I do remember the culture of expectation and excitement that followed Clemson throughout the dominant (and tumultuous) 1980's, though. As a kid my team was one of the elite, but they never again reached the mountaintop. They beat a lot of big names in the Danny Ford era. No one wanted to come to Tigertown and play in THE REAL DEATH VALLEY. We were always at the top of the heap.
I also remember the years of mediocrity in the days of Hatfield and West and even Bowden. I remember losing to Florida State EVERY DAMN YEAR!! I remember watching my team become that team who always had a winning season (6-6, 7-5, maybe 8-4 with the occasional 9-3) and then went and played in a second or third tier bowl game with mixed results (including some horrendous losses). I still can't talk about the 1996 Gator Bowl against Donovan McNabb and Syracuse. Just don't even go there. Seriously.
And I remember "The Streak" against South Carolina, losing 5 in a row to our in-state rivals. I remember The Orange Bowl Debacle, having West Virginia hang 70 on us in a HUGE bowl game. Those wounds close but never fully heal.
I remember CLEMSONING.
You've heard of Clemsoning, haven't you? The Urban Dictionary defines it as "The act of failing miserably on a grand athletic stage, or when the stakes are high."
That kind of stings, and it was a legit thing for a decade or two. You had to try and take that one on the chin like a champ without kicking the living shit out of someone. Why take it that seriously, you ask? Remember, this is my home and these are my people. My ancestral bloodline runs orange. My family is huge and we suffer together.
In the last 5 years a funny thing started happening- the word "Clemsoning" began to undergo a transformation of definition. Down went LSU. Down went Georgia. Down went Auburn....TWICE!! Down went Ohio State.....TWICE!! Down went Notre Dame. Down went Oklahoma.....TWICE!! Dabo Swinney's rep as a giant killer grew and grew.
The team that always fell on it's face went back to the National Championship for the first time in 34 years to play the Goliath of modern day college football, Alabama. It was the team of destiny. We were so sure. All the signs were there, we told ourselves. Final score? Alabama 45, Clemson 40. Goliath won after all. But, but............no one had wounded the giant like that in a decade. They won, but they did it in less than convincing fashion. They knew they were lucky. Dabo said after that game: "We ran out of time", & that's exactly what happened. All we needed was a little more time.
The goal for this year was simple: get back to the Natty and beat the Kings. People laughed. I have endured all kinds of "bless your heart" looks and sentiments, ranging from the consoling ("Y'all were so close") to the obvious ("Bama is unstoppable this year!") to the usual shit from trolls and assholes ("Better start drinking early 'cause this one is gonna hurt"). I never go anywhere without some orange on, and it makes me an easy target. That's by design- my colors are NEVER hidden in the closet (like some fans I know). Win, lose, or draw I will always be in my gear. Always.
And here I sit now.....I have a smile on my face that hasn't gone away yet. I couldn't wipe it off if I tried. I'm not trying to wipe it off, by the way. It feels so damn good.
When Watson threw that 2-yard pass to the undersized walk-on, white boy WR with a second left on the clock I felt something that I've never felt in 37 years of life as a die-hard Tiger. Do you know what that was? Peace. It was peace and a sense of confirmation. The saying in the Upstate of South Carolina is "There's something in these hills". I come from a special place, a place of Southern hospitality and indomitable spirit. We'll treat you right and make you feel welcome in Clemson before we kick that ass.
I've known all of my life that Clemson has the greatest fans in all of college football. I've known all my life that we are ELITE (even when we weren't playing that way). I've always been immeasurably proud of where I'm from and who I am. In short, I've always known that Clemson belonged in the same conversation as the "bluebloods" of the sport. Now the rest of the world knows it, too.
So, as the confetti came down and the Kings gave up their crown I cried like a little bitch. My wife cried like a little bitch. My daughter? Ditto. My Mom? Ditto. We hugged and danced and drank and cried and hugged some more. It was the best night of my life only behind the birth of my baby girl and my wedding day.
Do you understand why I am so happy about a football game now?