Welcome to Run it Back, a new series in which I’ll be taking a look back at the most compelling moments in Clemson running back history.
It was 2009 and streamers were whipping through the late December air, catching on cameras and slipping over upraised orange helmets. C.J. Spiller stood on a small stage at the 10-yard line of LP Field. The scattered partisans in the stands chanted his name. This night in Nashville was to be his last in a Clemson uniform.
The streamers did not communicate the lack of ceremony. The name of the game did it, though: The Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. It was one of those titles that was too long to mean anything, the kind that just screamed of a game shoved into the middle of the bowl slate and told to sit, kindly, as the greater, later bowls shone in all their glory. This wasn’t the kind of bowl game in which the greats said their goodbyes. It was an occasion meant for mediocrity.
Standing on the stage, surrounded by his teammates and coaches, Spiller looked anything but mediocre. In his last game as a Tiger, he had transcended the circumstances, as was his habit. With the effects of turf toe lingering, he had willed Clemson to a 21-13 win over the Kentucky Wildcats, bringing the Tigers to a 9-5 record on the year. He had racked up 172 all-purpose yards at about 70 percent capacity. In the process, he had moved to second all-time on the FBS all-purpose yardage list. He had carried the Tigers, just as he had all season. And now, up on stage, he was preparing to receive the bowl’s MVP trophy. It was a night of accomplishment. It was a night worth going out on, in spite of the venue.
Spiller was a Clemson man until the end. He spoke of the program constantly, and spread the gospel of young Dabo Swinney, the man who had recruited him back when he was the hottest thing to come out of Lakeland, Florida and Swinney was just some assistant coach from some school in some seldom traveled corner of South Carolina. Once Spiller put on that Clemson hat for the first time, that little corner of the world became something like a refuge.
The school, and the town, meant something to Spiller, and he meant something to them, too. He still does. Walk into any given bar or diner in the area and search the walls. You’ll likely find a framed picture of the man in his iconic no. 28 jersey, in full, suspended stride. A figure of his stature doesn’t just fade into history in a place like Clemson; if the school were to put up statues of players, his likeness would be among the first. His jersey is retired, although you wouldn’t know it from all the no. 28 jerseys in sight on game days. And he’s a shoo-in for an eventual spot in Ring of Honor, the highest award a Clemson athlete can achieve. Mr. Spiller is still a popular man.
Eventually, Spiller had to leave the stage. The locker room waited, and then, months later, the NFL. The NFL wasn’t as kind to Spiller. He put together a few good seasons, but eventually injuries and a lack of opportunity caught up to him. Since 2015, he has bounced around the league. These days he’s a free agent.
He hasn’t lost his luster, though. In Clemson, he’s still an icon. In Clemson, he’s the guy who stood onstage on a chilly night in Nashville and still looked like a hero.