Way Back Wednesday: 1983 Clemson Balloon Launch Edition

Back, when I wore a younger man’s clothes and lived in Heaven, 1983 Clemson. My life was a simpler and it was a great time to be alive. However, there was a dark shadow that hung over the campus that fall that would fester into anger, frustration and hopelessness and spread though the Clemson Student Body.

That previous spring the Clemson Tigers were placed on NCAA probation for alleged recruiting violations. This meant that the 1983 team would not be “available” for any championship nor could they accept any bowl invitations.

The mood on campus was like that of a death in the family. The student body was in shock, some felt betrayed, others were hurt and angry. In 1983 Clemson, Football, the Esso Club, Tiger Town Tavern and Mac’s Drive-in was about all most students had for entertainment.

The closer the season came, that shock and sadness turned apathy. “The Tiger” the student newspaper, along with WSBF, the student radio station, tried to fire up the masses but it had little effect.

I was a student government geek. It was my way to be a part of something bigger than myself. From that perch, we as the governing body for students, were looking for ways to bolster excitement for the upcoming 1983 football season.

It took one man’s vision, one completely outside the box idea, that would give hope to a suffering campus. It would become way more than just an event to re-focus and re-direct the melancholy. The idea would do more good than anyone could ever have imagined.

At one Sunday evening staff meeting, Mark Wilson, entered the room in his normal, relaxed laid back manner. You see, he was from Greer and he embodied all that was good in that small country suburb of Greenville. We were meeting to banter around ideas of things we might do. I cant remember, for the life of me, anyone’s suggestion but when Mark offered his, the room fell silent. He thought he was a mad man but dang, he had nailed it, brilliantly.

His suggestion was to create a monumental event to represent the Clemson Family’s “Rising Above” their despair. While exciting to hear, when the sheer logistics of launching hundreds of thousands of orange balloons were digested, it was daunting. Could such an event become real? Some doubted, not Mark. He and his “Greer Mafia” assured us it could and would be done. He was right.

Hard work, lots of planning involving every Fraternity, Sorority, Club and Group made this event, drawing ever closer, a reality.

On November 12, 1983, all Clemson Family members everywhere watched as a world record setting, 383,700 orange, helium filled balloons were launched as the Tigers ran down the hill. Proof that, while unable to be a champion that season, the Clemson Family was “Rising Above” the noise, the criticism, the shame and the frustration to unite. As those balloons rose overhead, it briefly blocked the bright sun. When they moved ever upward a “new” sun shone down on Death Valley. It was cathartic.

Oh yeah, on that day, Clemson won the game by a score of 52-27 to finish with a 7-0 record against ACC teams. After the game, it was learned that North Carolina had lost, meaning Maryland was the official ACC Champion. Still today, it’s most likely the most hollow ACC Championship ever.

Fast forward 38 years. While under completely different circumstances, for those on campus in 1983, there’s a sense, a familiar rumbling, frustration, splintering, apathy running rampant in the Clemson Family.

With the Tigers’ greatness feared to be slowly slipping away, one has to admit it’s been painful to watch. For me, having been personally involved, it’s both gratifying and very emotional to watch. I suspect, started by the vision of one man, if a rag-tag bunch of student government geeks in 1983, found the strength to dare the impossible, set a world record and helped the entire Clemson Family to “Rise Above,” then the current members of the Clemson Family can, at the very least, accept our situation, refocus our energies and remember, when you love and support your team, anything is possible and anything can happen.

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