Tremendous home games in front of some of the best crowds Death Valley has ever seen, unprecedented publicity as #1 for two whole months, and a united sense joy beheld by all who witnessed this postseason ease the sting of this loss, but do nothing to satiate the Clemson Family's hunger. The football team showed up in force all season, but even such inspired performances perhaps did not match the show of force from the always present Clemson fanbase this postseason.
I am not one who usually attends bowl games. The only three I attended before this season were the 2007 Peach Bowl, the 2010 Car Care Bowl, and the 2012 Orange Bowl. All underwhelming performances, all embarrassing losses. When I pulled Orange Bowl tickets through IPTAY, I told my dad, "well, it can't be worse than the last one." Obviously, it wasn't. It was a night I'll never forget, and I shared it with my father.
I entertained little hope for National Championship tickets; I missed the email from IPTAY, the secondary market was grossly overpriced, and flights were in such high demand that it was roughly $3,000 for a round trip which would take me to Vegas, not Phoenix. I was glad to have a new Orange Bowl memory, and content to watch the most important game in school history from home in Greenville.
...until I saw this tweet from the magnificent Spencer York.
So it turns out that I do have an extra ticket. Taco Bell Live Mas student section. It's free to a good home— Sir Altitude (@SpennyanddaJets) January 7, 2016
I knew I could never forgive myself if I didn't witness a national championship victory in person, and with a potentially free ticket I felt I could splurge on travel. Long story short, Spencer was gracious enough to offer me the ticket and I cashed in on almost every Delta frequent flyer mile available to secure the last seat on a flight out of Charlotte at 6 am on Sunday. During my 3:30 am venture along I-85 N, I passed more than a handful of cars sporting Clemson flags; on the bus from the airport parking lot to the terminal, I spotted more than a few Clemson rings on fingers which clutched various Clemson-themed, carry-on luggage; on the plane, almost every seat contained something orange. This wasn't a flight to Phoenix either, mind you, but Minneapolis.
Walking off a jetway before dawn in January in Minneapolis is an interesting experience, namely because you can see your own breath and feel bone-chilling, minus 10 degree cold while immersed in the illusion that you are indoors. I was not the only Southerner packed for a desert climate who made the walk; on the 10 minute hike to the connector which would take me to Phoenix, I was part of a caravan of Clemson fans en route to the gate. On the flight, I counted more than 70 Tiger fans to 1 Alabama fan.
Upon our arrival in Phoenix, one of the first comments I heard marveled at the number of Clemson fans already seen in the airport and throughout the city. I made my way through the airport to rent a car, and each attendant I spoke with mentioned the overwhelming amount of orange already encountered. I smiled, and mentioned we always travel well but this year was special.
With an 11 am local time arrival and all of Phoenix before me, I decided there was no reason to drive west towards my hotel in Avondale. So I parked downtown and ate lunch at a bar where I watched the Seahawks-Vikings came in Minneapolis; where I noticed the weather improved to a balmy minus 3 degrees. I took in the CFP Fan Central block party between the Convention Center and sports arenas where I met up with Bill Mooneyhan, who recently returned to Phoenix after a quick sight-seeing trip to Russia with his father.
Later, I walked into the Convention Center to find STS editor Ryan Kantor and his friends at the Fan Fest. There, I couldn't help but notice a large Clemson majority, roughly 70-30. Most of the Clemson memorabilia was sold out or at the very least, in greater demand than the Alabama gear. I smiled to myself again and settled for a souvenir game program.
After a quick meal and pep rally in the outdoor concert area I walked to the The Arizona Diamondbacks stadium, Chase Field, where the Arizona Clemson Club rented out the entire club level bar for a massive welcome party. It was wonderfully prepared, with each table appropriately decorated and covered with a spread of food. The walls were lined with TVs showing Clemson highlight videos and various Clemson decor. The line out the door was at least 500 deep 30 minutes before the door opened, and by the time I left (unfortunately early due to such an early wake-up call and the time change), the line out the door must've reached over 1,000 people.
Finally on my way to the hotel in Avondale, I realized the stadium was only 5 miles out of my way. I hopped off I-10 and turned onto Highway 101 towards Glendale. The tall, domed stadium is visible from miles away, and like a true desert mirage is much farther away than it appears to the eye. I drove around the stadium, searching for an entrance which wasn't barricaded so I could see the structure up close. I weaved through a few barricades and snapped a photo:
The morning of the game, I woke up and found the hotel breakfast packed with football fans. Again, it was roughly a 70-30 Clemson advantage. I sat next to an Alabama family, who had nothing but wonderful things to say about our coach, team, and their amazement that a smaller fanbase (let's face it, we aren't nearly as big as Alabama) outnumbered their own so greatly. Again, I smiled and said we always travel well, but this year was special. I mentioned I expected they would have more fans than Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl, who we outnumbered by at least a 75-25 margin at the game itself.
By 11, I was on my way to the stadium. I found relatively cheap parking at West Gate, and took in the sights and sounds with Alston Meadows (@dameadsz) before we ate lunch and met with Spencer. West Gate is a shopping and entertainment center across from the stadium, flush with sports bars and countless memorabilia vendors. Some bars catered to a specific fanbase and were decorated in the appropriate colors. All of the Clemson-themed bars had hour long waits and lines out the door; the Alabama-themed venues were decidedly less popular. Clemson fans were present in force, and every vendor/waiter I spoke with marveled at our numbers.
Alston and I killed a few hours and a few drinks with Ryan and company at (Clemson Pawcast host) Nick Tully's tailgate, where we met the mythical Quacking Tiger and took advantage of a photo opportunity.
Your esteemed STS social media team @NotAlexCraft and @damedsz and less esteemed @QuackingTiger and @ryan_kantor pic.twitter.com/r9ORaQZcVL— Shakin The Southland (@STSouthland) January 11, 2016
By now it was time for the game, so I weaved my way towards the stadium through hordes of mostly Clemson fans to find Spencer. He claimed the student ticket at will-call, and I entered the gate with his ticket. We traded tickets in the concourse and I thanked him profusely (yet still inadequately) before I made my way towards section 143, with an adrenalized and overly goofy grin on my face brought forth only by game-time euphoria.
My seat was one section from the band, 16 rows from the field. The grandstand was rather shallow and the sightline less than ideal, but I didn't care one bit and nor did those around me; these were free student tickets courtesy of Taco Bell, and here I was two years removed from graduation. I surveyed the crowd and noticed the clear dividing line between fanbases, except there was far more orange in Bama sections than crimson in Clemson sections (if any).
The atmosphere throughout warmups was supercharged and dominated by Clemson fans. There were more Alabama fans in the stadium than it seemed there would be based on fan presence throughout Phoenix, but we still held at least a 55-45 advantage, perhaps 60-40.
Between the 3rd and 4th quarters, Clemson fans pulled out their phones to continue aburgeoning tradition The game was excellent throughout, and often times felt like "Death Valley West" when the momentum and noise were on our side. I noticed Kirk Herbstreit made a similar comment about our crowd advantage when I (painfully) reviewed the game. It was heart-wrenching and horribly disappointing to know Clemson earned the victory yet walked off the field defeated, due to a handful of coverage busts and swing plays on special teams.
When Alabama recovered the final onside kick, there wasn't a mad rush to beat traffic; there was a cadence count. When Alabama took a knee to end the game, there weren't dejected surrender cobras; there was a standing ovation for the players who slowly approached the band to sing the alma mater. Clemson fans stayed in their seats to thank the team for a wonderful season and a championship effort. Alabama fans took notice while they celebrated yet another trophy presentation.
While I walked towards the car, I witnessed only one instance of stupidity from Alabama fans. An obviously drunk and underage couple asked an 80+ year old Clemson fan how it felt to never beat Alabama in his lifetime. The man responded with an incredulous stare before a group of Alabama fans who cared about their school's reputation chastised the young drunk couple. This group overwhelmingly kind, with nothing but good things to say about our team who admittedly outplayed theirs and our fans who overwhelmingly out-supported theirs. They wanted no part of Clemson in Atlanta or Tampa next year, but felt we will likely meet there to fight over a championship again.
The next morning I sat at the terminal waiting for my flight from Phoenix. Far more Alabama gear was visible this time, but it still did not approach the amount of Clemson apparel. I listened to the various chatter about the game, and everyone on both sides was gracious both in victory and defeat. Coach Swinney had Bama's respect in the first place, but Clemson as a whole earned it Monday night and then some.
My way home took me through Los Angeles, where I would fly to Minneapolis again and finally Charlotte late Tuesday night before the 90 minute drive home to Greenville. I picked a seat at the terminal next to a family of Clemson fans who drove from Phoenix to LA before they would take the very same flights to Minneapolis and Charlotte. Extensive time in multiple airports leads to more than casual conversation, particularly among Clemson fans who found themselves on the wrong side of the country.
This was the wonderfully pleasant Leslie family from Rock Hill, who have two children currently enrolled at Clemson and were just tired and disappointed -- yet proud -- as I was. We traded stories and lamented the shortcomings on the field the night before, but marveled at the extensive reach and presence of the Clemson Family all the way in Southern California and the Midwest, since we were far from the only Clemson fans at either airport.
On the midnight drive back to Greenville, I thought of all I experienced on my two day trip through the Valley of the Sun. The classiest segment of every fanbase is the segment which travels, but in our case it is an overwhelmingly large and visible segment. Clemson University was so unbelievably well represented and everything about Clemson's presence properly reflected the image of the school, its alumni, and its dedicated network of fans across the country. Clemson came out a winner in every facet but the final score, and it was a championship effort from the team and fans alike; we brought Death Valley to the Valley of the Sun.