One of the great trips of my life was to Miami, Florida, with my friend Fuzzy Thompson, to watch Clemson play in and win the National Football Championship on January 1, 1982.
I’ve traveled to a lot of “away” games to watch the Clemson Tigers play. Victories “on the road” are always fun. But, for me, no sporting event ever came close to competing with the 1982 Orange Bowl. I don’t know what the opposite of the “perfect storm” is, but that’s what we experienced.
Every component of the sojourn fell together perfectly, as had the entire season. A team has to be very good and very lucky to win a National Championship. The ball literally has to bounce the right way. To climb into the Top Twenty and then into the Top Ten requires events to happen over which your school has no control. Other teams have to lose. During the 1981 season, it all came together for the Clemson Tigers. The year before, our record was 6-5 under still-new head coach Danny Ford. Losing even to Duke, Clemson had been 2-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Nobody predicted a turn toward excellence for the next season. When Clemson squeaked by Tulane, 13-5, in their second game in the fall of 1981, it looked like another mediocre season.
A victory over number four-ranked Georgia made people notice and Clemson vaulted to number 13 in the nation. The rest, as folks say, is history, well-documented and beautiful memories for Tiger fans.
When our bowl destination was announced, the Orange Bowl in Miami, my buddy Fuzzy and I decided to go. We bought a “package” that included bus tickets, two nights at a motel in Ft. Lauderdale, and game tickets. We got plenty of $2 bills from the bank since these are the signatures of Clemson fans at a bowl game.
Not planning very shrewdly, decades before cell phones, we did not think of connecting with other friends until we arrived in south Florida. We did not know where any of our buddies were staying. One of our fraternity brothers was an aide to Senator Strom Thurmond, so we called the Senator’s office in Washington, and found out which hotel was hosting the official delegation. We called that hotel and asked for our friend and were connected. We made plans to get to his hotel after the Orange Bowl Parade, which is a Huge Deal in its own right.
Our tour bus took us to the Orange Bowl Parade where we bought two tickets from scalpers to watch the procession of decorated floats. We sat next to a Nebraska assistant coach and his family, some of the nicest folks you would ever want to meet.
Just as happened with our football team, the pieces were falling together miraculously.
We found the hotel, the Four Seasons, if I remember correctly, and we found our friend and his wife: John and Lynne Steer. He managed to get us into the “official” Clemson party, attended by every important person in the pantheon of Clemson dignitaries, the University President and the Deans, Senators Thurmond and Hollings, the Governor, all living former Governors. Lots of food, open bar, dancing. Fuzzy, a confirmed bachelor and a disco king of the 1970s, was the star of the dance floor.
When the doors finally closed, it was too late and there was no ride to get us back to our Ft. Lauderdale motel, so we just crashed with John and Lynne. It was the largest hotel room I had ever seen.
The next morning, after breakfast, we wandered to the area where the Clemson cheerleaders and pep band were holding a pep rally. A skywriting airplane even spelled out, “Go Tigers.”
We were having the time of our lives and game-time was still about eight hours away.
John had his car in Miami, so he took us back to our motel in Ft. Lauderdale where we shaved, showered and prepared for the game. We were on the tour bus when it left for the Orange Bowl. Leave the driving to them!
Our seats were in the end zone and we were rowdy. I remember halfway through the game, when the Clemson fans had not been seated for a single play, a Miami native hollered, “Down in front.” He had to be kidding. He may have been watching a football game but we were immersed in a major life experience.
And so it was. We won the game 22-15 and every play was important. The victory was one of the most exhilarating events of my life. Pure, unfettered joy.
While not as important as our wedding or the birth of our daughters or our grandson, the impact of this Orange Bowl win resulting in a national football championship, turned out to be a watershed event in my life. I know that “in the great scheme of things” a sports contest should not be that important, especially to those of us who did not even play in the game.
Still, something indescribable occasionally happens that has weight beyond its rational importance. Something cathartic transpires. We are touched in the very depths of our soul. I won’t try to defend it. I guess that’s why people say, “You had to be there.” I was there, along with my friend Fuzzy. If I were in church, I’d be singing, “Glory! Hallelujah!”