I have a theory. It isn't a complex theory nor is it astounding. But it is a lasting one. It's the idea that you never forget your last trip from Clemson as a student.
Sometimes it is taken alone, a car packed with books, clothes, and trinkets accumulated after four years at Clemson. Other times it is with family, the whole group caravanning back home, where that whole real world awaits.
But it's the biggest change—the one that comes when you return. No longer is it a return to college and a normal life. Instead, any trip back is for a specific purpose. A meeting of old friends, of rehashing the same terrible stories, and of course, football.
Move out of the area, and the trip back changes even more. Instead of seven or eight Saturdays a year, you are lucky to get one. Every trip is savored, even as campus changes into something almost unrecognizable from your four years there. New buildings arrive, old buildings disappear. That great restaurant downtown is replaced by something equally great or reprehensibly corporate. Now it becomes about those cherished memories-- the sign for Clemson in Easley or the tiger paws on the road as you meander down 123.
For me, my favorite memory is that first view of campus. Head east from Seneca, SC at sunrise on Highway 123 and you get a sight few outsiders ever see. The yellow sun hangs low behind the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains creating an orange sky beckoning onward. Quickly you pick up speed as the highway rolls down a slight hill past Paw's Diner and Hart's Cove. A stoplight appears suddenly if you aren't ready for it, and veering right you suddenly see a watery green glimpse between the trees, just peeking out between the pines and oaks.
Then the road straightens, and the potentially toxic but always gorgeous sight of Lake Hartwell fills the left side of your drive. But you almost never see this. Instead, your eyes are drawn up and to the left. Up toward the end of the orange sky in front of you, up to where a concrete grey monument meets that orange sky. There is the sight of Death Valley, framed in oranges and yellows. If you're lucky, the stadium lights will be on, casting Clemson Memorial Stadium in a slight blue hue.
It is these little things I think of now as another season approaches. Yes, there are questions about the team. Will Deshaun Watson actually stay healthy? Can our defense not become a slapstick comedy on the field? But as important as wins and losses still are, the worry doesn't bother me as much. Instead, it is about introducing the campus to someone special, enjoying dinner at the Smoking Pig again, and grabbing that Meat and Three down at TD's.
So yes, even though I will still pay that $300 per ticket to see Clemson-Notre Dame, I'm doing it just as much for the game as I am for everything else. I want to see the Tigers run down the hill, sing my alma mater twice, and shout to "Tiger Rag". (Get that Woohoo nonsense out of here). I want to tailgate with some old friends, catch up on life, and maybe even eat a few Chipwiches if someone leaves them out. Oh, and a beer or two won't hurt.
Of course I say this, and then for three hours I'll be cheering, swearing, and standing in disbelief. It always happens, sometimes more strongly than others, but the reaction will be there. Even as frustrating as it may be to spend $250 per ticket to watch your team get destroyed after the first play from scrimmage (yes, I was at that game in 2013), I still leave without regrets. It may have been expensive; it may have sucked to lose; but it was always worth the trip back to Clemson. Anyone got some BBQ?