With a Saturday trip to Columbia, South Carolina booked months in advance with friends, a Thursday night tilt in Clemson was a fortuitous stroke of luck. On my short list for quite some time now, Clemson was one of the most highly regarded game day atmospheres that I had yet to experience. Sitting at #8 in the country with an 8-1 record, the 2013 vintage of the Tigers was looking formidable. Their only blemish came from a 51-14 shellacking at the hands of the undefeated Florida State Seminoles. While Thursday night games are decidedly second rate, especially in a top tier environment like Clemson, this ACC contest against Georgia Tech would allow me to sneak in an elusive Palmetto State doubleheader for the weekend.
Things start slowly on Thursday afternoon, when after landing I’m delayed at the Atlanta Hartsfield car rental center for a while where the girl informs me that they are out of midsize rentals. She offers a shiny new silver Dodge Caravan as a replacement, touting the extra cargo space and captains chairs up front. I promptly reject the lumbering suburban swagger wagon, and coax her toward a candy red Dodge Challenger as a replacement instead. For a moment, I imagine myself hammering down South Carolina county backroads, winding through pine forests and mashing the accelerator as the throaty Hemi V-8 growls under the hood. My dreams are quickly crushed when the girl chuckles dismissively at my counter offer, and I’m forced to wait twenty minutes for the next Toyota Corolla to come available.
From there, I beeline to Community Q BBQ in Decatur for a carnivorous lunch before heading out of Atlanta. I order up their two meat combo of pork ribs and brisket. Then, after spying a beef rib on the menu, a rare find outside of Texas, I promptly order one of these Jurassic sized offerings as well. Two full meals and $25 worth of damage later, I settle into a nearby booth to prep for the carnage ahead.
A few minutes later an older fellow in a greasy apron lugged a haul of two aluminum trays over to me, visibly straining under its weight.
“Okay I’ve got a beef rib platter, and a two meat combo platter here…..who’s tray is who’s?” the waiter inquires.
“Umm those are both mine” I reply, matter of factly.
The waiter chortles, and chidingly remarks “Son, I hope you’re not planning on going back to work today”. Little does he know that with the amount of BBQ and college football that I consume, this might as well be a career.
I was impressed with the BBQ scene in Atlanta on a previous visit earlier this year, and Community Q proves no exception to the inspired cue’ in the city. The massive beef rib was the star of the show. Perfectly rendered, with ribbons of unctuous fat glistening between the layers of beef, it’s impossibly savory and a prime example of a beef rib done right. The pork ribs were well smoked and had excellent texture as well, pulling cleanly from the bone with only a slight tug. Next time I’ll order them dry, however, as they had been bathed in an unsolicited sticky sauce with an overpowering celery kick to it. Brisket was the only protein that still needs tinkering. It was completely trimmed of fat, and the flat cut portion was sawdust. Fortunately, the sides compensated for the brisket. Community Q’s three cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack and parmesan) mac and cheese in particular, is worth the visit alone.
Belly full, I make the drowsy two hour drive northeast along Interstate 85 into Clemson. Arriving a few hours before the 7:00pm kickoff, the streets are already thick with gameday traffic, fans spill out of pubs and restaurants lining the streets in a torrent of orange. I find free parking along Perimeter Road skirting the edge of campus, and walk through the various pockets of tailgating scattered throughout the well manicured university grounds. A few purple and orange tents pop up in a choice lot, the entire area shaded by massive old oak trees, some of them at least 4 feet in diameter. While the lots are only about ¾ full, a symptom of the Thursday night game, there is ample tailgating space on the sprawling lawns and asphalt lots of the Clemson campus. During a big Saturday matchup, this place would be prime for tailgating.
I make a brief stop at the Esso Club, a landmark bar in Clemson that occupies an old Esso gas station. A live band wails away on an outdoor stage, and the bar is backed five deep waiting for a drink. After waiting 20 minutes against the overcrowded rail unable to get a drink, I give up and head towards campus to pick up my prearranged ticket.
As I walk, tickets are for sale everywhere. People thrust fistfuls of them in the air for sale, and scalpers ride up and down the street on bicycles proffering their wares. Fortunately, I had set up a student ticket earlier in the week through my friend Ann. Her little brother George, a senior at Clemson, would be unable to attend the game and offered me the unique opportunity to sit in the fraternity block student seating in the stadium. Like most southern schools, where fraternity life tends to be more prevalent and influential, each fraternity has their own reserved block within the student seating section. While I had witnessed the blazer clad chaos of fraternity seating at southern schools before, for the first time, I’d be smack dab in the middle of it.
With kickoff looming, I follow the orange paw prints lining Williamson Road towards the hulking brick façade of Clemson Memorial Stadium. After entering, I head towards the East side of the stadium to get a glimpse of Howards Rock – the iconic symbol of Clemson Football. The rock, a chunk of white flint, was picked up in Death Valley, California by alumnus S.C. Jones in the early 1960’s. Jones then presented the rock to head coach Frank Howard, as a tribute to Clemson Memorial Stadium, which had earned the moniker “Death Valley” from opposing foes. After serving as a doorstop in Howard’s office for several years, the rock was then mounted on a pedestal and placed atop the hill of the players entrance to the stadium in 1966. For nearly 50 years, Clemson players have a tradition of rubbing “Howards Rock” as they strut into the stadium during their traditional run down “The Hill”.
As the night air starts to fill with fervor and electricity, “Death Valley” as it’s dubbed, roars to life. In what has been described by some as the “most exciting 25 seconds in College Football,” the Clemson player entrance on to the field is one of the most revered in the sport. Team buses are unloaded at the open East end of the stadium along Williamson Road. Massive black iron entrance gates are then thrust open like the gates of Mordor, as the players gather atop The Hill. Locking arms, they bounce and sway as tension builds. Adrenaline courses through the crowd, and what starts as a boisterous chorus of cheers and whistles, reaches its zenith as deafening din. After a few moments, fireworks boom above the cacophony, while thousands of orange balloons are released into the smoky grey sky. Clemson players streak down The Hill, leaping and high fiving fans as they energetically bound onto the field. It’s a magnificent entrance.
Watch a full behind the scenes video of the Clemson entrance here:
From there, I find my designated seat on the cold aluminum benches of the Clemson student section. While I have an assigned number on my ticket, like most student sections the entire area is generally open seating, although fraternities have their own reserved blocks. As the contest kicks off, I’m soon swarmed by frat boys pressing into the rows, a few of them with neatly dressed dates in tow. While there is no uniform for Clemson fraternities, swoop haircuts, navy sport coats, croakies and khakis may as well be the defacto outfit. Rubber bottomed LL Bean boots also appear to be the footwear choice dujour on this brisk November evening.
The unruly bunch surreptitiously pours flasks of liquor into cups of soda, and swap pulls of cheap bourbon from well concealed plastic water bottles. Half football game and half social event, the entire student section is one giant, shifting, social organism – constantly in a state of flux. Students shuffle between rows, moving about, chatting with different friends and sending gawky fraternity pledges out for concession runs. Occasionally, the entire rowdy horde erupts in fits of celebration at a Clemson score, drinks are flung into the air while the flimsy aluminum bleachers fold and flex under the collective weight of bodies jumping up and down. I’ve sat in dozens of the best student sections across the country; Clemson can hold their own with any of them. It’s a raucous affair.
On the field, the game is never really a contest. Sporting an 8-1 record, Clemson has been dominant nearly the entire season and they make easy work of the ACC middling Yellow Jackets. Heisman contending Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd erupts for 340 yards of passing, and sprints for the first down marker on several key third down conversions. He fires four touchdown passes on the night, two of them to speedy standout receiver Sammy Watkins. The grinding Georgia Tech option offense is stymied in the red zone. While they still pile up nearly 440 yards of total offense, the Yellow Jackets never put enough points on the board to keep the frigid crowd in their seats in the 4th quarter, and hordes of purple denizens head for the exits. The Tech defense surrenders over 550 yards to the Clemson blitzkrieg, and the Tigers run away with a lopsided 55-31 victory.
In the end, Clemson is without question one of the premier destinations in the ACC conference, and the small college town is delightfully accessible. Given its fervent fanbase and geographical location in the heart of the south, the football atmosphere at Clemson is easily on par with some of the finer venues in the SEC. While “Death Valley” never quite filled up on my visit, and the Thursday night atmosphere was decidedly subdued compared to a big Saturday afternoon there, those are the realities of weekday games against mid tier opponents that I have learned to expect at this point. That being said, my short time in Clemson was a brief window into one of the great venues in the sport, and I can’t wait to come back for an entire weekend to soak in the full Orange and Purple experience. With Notre Dame beginning ACC play in the coming year, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of cohorts willing to make the journey with me when the Irish come into town….
Special thanks to my friend Ann and her brother George for coordinating the ticket hookup, and hopefully one of these days we can all meet up back in Clemson for an afternoon of tailgating and big time football…
Full clickthrough gallery below:
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