All it takes is one play…..
November 7, 2015. The undefeated and top ranked Clemson Tigers welcomed the 17th ranked Florida State Seminoles into town. With the Tigers sitting at 8-0, “playoff fever” had set in across most of the fan base. For one fan in particular, this game would change his entire perception of this football program, and in a big way.
After an injury plagued freshman season that ended with a torn ACL, Deshaun Watson had come back for his sophomore campaign with something to prove. He was playing at such a level, the fan bases excitement had reached a level not seen since the days of Danny Ford.
Along with that playoff fever, there were whispers amongst fans of that word “Heisman,” in regards to Watson. Some were even throwing around the words “national championship.”
There was at least one fan however, that just wouldn’t allow themselves to go there. This fan, who was as die hard as they come, was convinced all that talk was premature.
Living through the Tommy Bowden era after the heyday’s of the 80’s and early 90’s, this fan had become resigned to the fact that their beloved Clemson Tigers would never be anything more than mediocre. Watching the program from the day Ford left had gotten this fan to the point they were always expecting the worst case scenario, played out in a way that would cause them the most grief possible.
A Chic Fil A Bowl win over LSU after the 2012 season, and an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State following the 2013 season were not enough to change that. Nor was a thrashing of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl to end the 2014 season.
After being dealt one gut punch after another from their beloved Tigers for most of their life, this fan made the trek to Death Valley on that November day back in 2015 knowing there was another gut punch on the way. This was Clemson Football and they weren’t allowed to have nice things.
This fan was one of those people who griped about the missed field goal in a 41-10 win. Or the missed block that cost the team a shutout in a 38-3 win. And when the team lost, they were so emotionally invested, they wouldn’t sleep that night. Depending on who the loss came against, it might have taken days to get over, possibly even most of the week. More than 35 years of always expecting the worst can do that to a person apparently.
On that November day though, something would happen to change all that. FSU came into The Valley that day winners of three straight vs the unbeaten Tigers. Sitting at 7-1, it was a game that in all likelihood would decide the ACC Atlantic. The type of game this Tiger team had lost far more often than not over the years. Knowing that, this fan walked into Memorial Stadium that afternoon all but expecting the Tigers to come out on the losing end.
Three plays into the game, that feeling they had become all to familiar with had set in and with full force after Dalvin Cook took a handoff 75 yards for a touchdown. There was that feeling of, “Oh no, here we go again….”
Then, trailing 10-3 and with the offense driving down the field with under a minute left in the half, Deshaun Watson inexplicably spiked the ball on a 3rd down and 3 play from the FSU 8 yard line. It was a huge blunder that forced the Tigers into settling for a 25 yard FG, and settling for trimming the lead to 10-6. It was the type of play that had become synonymous with Tiger Football throughout the years, giving birth to a certain term we won’t mention here.
The Tigers would hit paydirt early in the third quarter to go up 13-10. Still, the uneasiness was present with this fan. They were still waiting for that gut punch that was sure to come. They just couldn’t help themselves.
FSU tied it up just a few minutes later on a field goal of their own. That’s how it remained the rest of that third quarter, as that fans anxiety level trended upwards a little further with each passing minute.
Once the fourth quarter got underway, the stadium was electric. The fan base was on pins and needles and ready to explode. All but one fan anyways. That one was waiting on something else entirely. Disaster.
Each time Watson let go of a pass, they waited for it to be picked off. Each time Watson handed the ball off, they kept waiting to see it fumbled away. Even after the Tigers kicked another FG to go up 16-13 with just over 7 minutes left, this fan was still waiting on that gut punch. It was coming, and they knew so. It was a matter of when, not if.
Over halfway through the 4th, the defense stopped Dalvin Cook on a 4th and 1 play to give Watson and the offense the ball. With just over 6 minutes to go and up by 3 points, for a split second the fan allowed themself to think about “what if?” It was only for a second though. As soon as the offense ran its first play after taking over on downs, this fan was back to waiting on that big turnover or some type of mistake that would cost the Tigers the game and the division, all in one shot.
Then it happened. Wayne Gallman took a handoff from Watson and raced 25 yards for the score, giving the Tigers a 23-13 lead with 2:35 left.
The place exploded. In that moment though, with everyone else around them cheering in excitement, this fan was in a world all to themselves.
Thirty plus years of frustration. It all lifted off of their shoulders in that one moment. It was a feeling they never thought they’d experience. A mixture of jubilation and relief. In their right eye, a small tear formed. A tear this fans daughter happened to see, something she still brings up to this day. That fan was me.
November 7, 2015. The last time I went into a game expecting Clemson to lose. The 90 minute wait getting out of the parking lot is still a haze in my mind. I knew that night this program had turned the corner. I didn’t think it, I knew it. A feeling that still can’t be put into words and a feeling I never thought I would have. A feeling I am so thankful my daughter was present to witness it. Even if at 13 years old she didn’t understand very much about this sport, only that her daddy loved it with every fiber of his being.
Somewhere around five hours later, we were home. I slept like a baby that night. I went to bed that night knowing this program was on the cusp of greatness. I was right. This program has won two national titles since then and I’ve not lost a second of sleep over another football game.
To Dabo Swinney, I say thank you. Without even knowing it, you’ve done something I never thought possible. I have now evolved into the eternal optimist, with all the credit going to this football program and everything that comes along with it.