I’ve attempted to start this post a few times and I’m struggling to find the right words. I’ve never met C.J. Fuller. I, like most of you, know C.J. Fuller as #27 for the Clemson Tigers, so I guess I’ll start with what I know about #27.
C.J. Fuller came to Clemson in the 2014 recruiting class after starring for Easley High School in both football and track. The 5’10, 200 pound athlete played defensive back and running back in high school, and it wasn’t certain which side of the ball he would end up on at Clemson. Some recruiting sites evaluated him as a running back, some evaluated him as defensive back. This debate was short lived, as the physically mature freshman quickly found a home at running back.
As a redshirt freshman in 2015, C.J. appeared in 12 games for the Tigers. He recorded 42 carries for 171 yards and a touchdown and had 4 receptions for 44 yards. He also served as one of the primary kick returners for the Tigers, returning 14 kicks for 237 yards.
C.J.’s lone touchdown as a freshman came against South Carolina at Williams Brice in a 37-32 Clemson victory that became uncomfortably tight in the 4th quarter.
The 2016 season found Fuller as the primary back up to Wayne Gallman. His 47 carries for 211 yards put him third on the team (behind Watson and Gallman) in both carries and yards, but he is better remembered for his 7 receptions for 62 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Towards the end of a sluggish offensive first half for the Tigers that saw Deshaun Watson uncharacteristically struggle, Fuller came up with one of the biggest plays of the season agaisnt Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
On 2nd and 7 from the Ohio State 30 yard line, Fuller ran a beautiful wheel route and Watson put the ball in perfect location. It was up to C.J. to make the contested catch over the Buckeye corner and he came down with one of the biggest catches of the season, putting the Tigers up 17-0. With the momentum firmly in hand after the Fuller catch, Clemson would go one to shut out the Buckeyes 31-0, and move on to face (and ultimately defeat) Alabama in the National Championship Game.
C.J. started the 2017 at the top of running back depth chart, but the junior back struggled with ball security early in the year and was eventually supplanted by younger players. On the season, he tallied 58 carries for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns, and had 7 receptions for 49 yards. Although it was undoubtedly a frustrating and disappointing season for Fuller, he once again managed to score a critical touchdown in a big game.
The Clemson offense was sputtering in the first half against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Hokies had just put together a 10 play drive that ended in a field goal to cut the Clemson lead to 10-3. Clemson immediately responded with their own 6 play, 75 yard drive that was capped off by a one yard C.J. Fuller run that included the annihilation of a Hokie linebacker. Clemson seized the momentum and didn’t look back, routing Virginia Tech 31-17.
Now comes the difficult part of this article. It’s easy to talk about #27 for Clemson. He was a good football player that made some clutch plays for the Tigers. In particular, his catch against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl brought every Clemson fan in America to their feet.
Talking about C.J. Fuller the man is more complicated, because honestly, I know very little about C.J. Fuller the man. I can confidently say that he was a dedicated and determined athlete because you don’t make it onto the Clemson football team without both of those attributes, but beyond that, I’ll defer to Coach Swinney.
“Our thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies are with C.J.’s family, I’ve known C.J. a long time and watched him grow up through the Easley rec leagues all the way through Easley High School. I’m proud of what he accomplished as a Clemson Tiger, most of all, his accomplishment of being a Clemson graduate. Our deepest condolences and the thoughts of our program are with his family this evening. May he rest in peace.”
On a personal level, seeing a young man like C.J. Fuller pass away in the prime of his young life reminds me that the helmets and jerseys I cheer for and boo every Saturday are occupied by actual young men and not football playing robots. These are young men with their own hopes and dreams, their own success and failures, and their own unique stories, and I think it’s important for everyone to recognize that.
I’m not much of a religious man, but tonight I’ll say a prayer for C.J. Fuller and his friends and family. I pray that C.J. has found his peace and I pray that over time his friends and family will be able to look back upon his life and remember the joy and happiness that C.J. brought into their lives during his short stay on this earth.
Rest easy C.J.