National Championship Game Was Memorable for Clemson Fan

Claudia Ottinger, Staff Photographer

I am part of a HUGE Clemson football family. My great grandfather and grandfather were Clemson graduates, so we have had the same seats for football games at Death Valley for generations. I grew up watching the Tigers play. I saw my first game in person when I was in first grade.

When we found out that Clemson was going back to the national championship game, my family just had to be there. We regretted not going out to Arizona for the national championship game last year, so my mom made sure that we were there this time around.

My mom booked our hotel super far in advance — in October. Just because it could happen. It was a miracle in a way — we were going back for the second year in a row and we were going back after Dawson Bourne predicted it.

He was close friends with my sister. They went to Moultrie and Wando together. Dawson was diagnosed with cancer when he was in the ninth grade, and he died in March 2015. He loved Clemson football and knew every statistic for every game. Before he passed away, he told his mom how Clemson would be number one pretty much all season in the fall of 2015, they were going to make it to the national championship but they weren’t going to win, but the next season — 2016 — they were going back to win it all.

So our family had this feeling it was all going to come true ever since North Carolina State missed the field goal that would have won their game in October. When Clemson did lose to Pittsburgh, the number three and four teams in the nation also lost, so the Tigers’ ranking didn’t change.

It seemed like fate.

Once we were in the championship game, the plans for Tampa became real. My family headed to Tampa early to take part in all the pre-game activities.

Tampa was booming with lots of festivities before the game. Tampa’s waterfront park was set up with free nightly concerts during the weekend. Saturday night we saw Rachel Platten and Flo Rida.  Sunday’s show included Gavin DeGraw, Lil Jon and Usher. It was really cool to see them all perform, with my favorite being Usher.

We also managed to squeeze in a quick outing to Busch Gardens while in town.  Decked out in our Clemson clothing, we represented and supported our team throughout the park.  While at Busch Gardens, we were able to meet Dabo Swinney’s sons. I recognized them close to the entrance and we had the chance to talk to them.

Then Monday came. Gameday. With our car decked out with four Clemson flags, two tiger paw magnets and a tiger tail wagging at the back, we headed towards the Raymond James Stadium.

My heart started pounding.  So many people were in orange. When we turned into the parking lot, it felt like home. It felt like a home game in Death Valley.

I couldn’t believe I was there.  I couldn’t believe that I was at the national championship football game with my family.

There were lots of fans from both Clemson and Alabama gear walking around.  My family and I walked around the parking lots taking it all in. A lot of people were wearing Deshaun Watson’s #4 jersey (including myself),  many had their faces painted with orange and purple. I even saw a pair of people wearing orange and purple morph suits with tutus, socks and Converse.

Outside of the stadium, they had a big tailgate area set up with ESPN live broadcasts, food trucks, fan tailgate tents, zip lining and a concert stage where different artists performed throughout the afternoon.  The main attraction was a concert by country artist Dierks Bentley.

About two hours before kickoff, we started to head towards the stadium to go through the tight security and find our seats — in the Clemson end zone. We had heard that security took forever last year in Phoenix, so we were anxious to get an early start. I looked to my right and there was a sea of orange, so many loyal Clemson fans had made the trek to Tampa. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of Alabama fans too, just a bit more orange.

The marching bands from both Clemson and Alabama entered the stadium performing their respective fight songs. Skydivers from the military dropped into the stadium bringing the Clemson, Alabama and American flags.  The national anthem was performed by Little Big Town. Then before I knew it, the coin was tossed and the game began.

We were on our feet, only sitting down in our seats when a timeout was called. Alabama came out strong and had a great first half.  I headed out to the concessions to grab some food at halftime, saying a silent prayer that my team would come back during the second half.  They usually do well during the second half, so I was hoping that trend would continue. Since Clemson had lost to Alabama in last year’s Championship game by five points, I knew Clemson really wanted this.

During the third quarter, Clemson started to play better and catch up. We were only one touchdown back. I was so excited. Maybe we could win. In my heart, I felt we had them. I felt we could do it. My mom and my sister were emotional — my sister was crying, my mom was whispering, “Dawson can’t be wrong” over and over again.

We scored. We took the lead. It was going our way.

I was super nervous because I was afraid that Clemson wouldn’t be able to hold on and win the national championship. I was afraid that Bama would win it again, just like last year in Phoenix.

I crossed my fingers and prayed. I just had that feeling.

A couple of minutes later, Bama scored again. My heart sank into my stomach.

This can’t be, I thought.  

We have to win.

The Alabama fans were going crazy, waving their pom poms in the air, shouting “Roll Tide Roll.” It made the touchdown seem like it was forever. I said another prayer.  

Two minutes left in the game. Clemson had the ball. I had confidence in Deshaun Watson, our quarterback, hoping he could pull the team together and get the job done.  My heart was pounding.  I had my fingers crossed.  

It was fourth down. Clemson was on the two yard line. There was silence in the end zone. My family and I were huddled and holding hands together.

Six seconds left.  

This was it.  Everyone was screaming. And then it happened.

Watson hit wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in the Clemson end zone. It was almost like it was happening in slow motion, just a few yards away from our seats.

Clemson had scored a touchdown with one second left on the clock.

We had done it.  

Clemson had won the national football championship, 35- 31.  

I was jumping up and down and screaming. Everyone was crying and cheering at the same time. My sister, a freshman at Clemson, was in tears. The players were dancing around on the stage where the trophy would be presented. Orange and purple confetti was spewing out all over the field. The Alabama fans seemed to disappear out of the stadium.             

Fans stayed for a long time after the game ended. We sang the alma mater, did the Clemson cheers with the band and watched the trophy get presented to the team. Everyone left the stadium with the song “We Are The Champions” blaring out of the speakers. It was one of the most exciting things that I have experienced in my life.

We did it. We won the national football championship.  I was in shock, but just so proud of my team.  It was unreal. My sister’s friend was right — it was truly a night to remember.