I have had some great sports moments, professional and personal, in a life that has featured stick and ball games front and center.
The day before I turned 33, I covered a Redskins/Vikings Monday Night Football game with Tom Cruise a few doors down at FedEx Field. I once drove through the dark streets of Lynchburg, Virginia, with champagne dripping from my hair post-Myrtle Beach Pelicans Carolina League championship clubhouse celebration. My sodden skirt lay beside me in the passenger seat, and I wondered how I would explain my situation to any curious police officers as I searched for my hotel.
I have seen my Dodgers win several times in person, with my Philly fanatic husband wearing the script blue letters across his chest, with a friend on a sweltering D.C. night, and with my parents in the cushy green chairs at the Clevelander at Marlins Park. I have eaten bacon on a stick by the bricks at Camden Yards as the sun set.
On a frigid night in Pennsylvania, I watched the best college football game I have ever seen, with the basketball coach my mother and I think is hot standing behind me. When I owned a house by the edge of the James River, it often filled on Sundays with friends, and football spilled into the back yard.
I have met people who have pushed through tragedy to step back onto the field or the court and keep playing. I have cheered and cried and felt every imaginable emotion within the confines of chalk lines and hash marks.
Yesterday may have been the greatest day yet.
I have an odd relationship with money – I don’t seem to like to keep it around. So while my head planned all the responsible things I should do with my Christmas bonus (yes, outside the world of newspapers, such things exist), my heart turned traitor to logic. A day after Clemson beat North Carolina to win the ACC football championship and secure a spot in the Orange Bowl national semifinal, I found myself online, processing the shock of 300-level tickets in triple digits.
My daddy graduated from Clemson when it was still Clemson A&M. He told me about the on-campus ice cream parlor boasting products produced by home-grown cows and the livestock judging team he was a member of. My first football memories are of Tiger Rag and Howard’s Rock, Danny Ford and a game against Nebraska in 1981 that mattered an awful lot.
I grew up to become a South Carolina Gamecock, much to my daddy’s chagrin. But Clemson didn’t have a journalism school, and my 18-year-old self had had enough of the country, beautiful though it was.
Since then, my blood has run a mixture of garnet and orange, a forbidden combination in my home state. When Clemson plays anyone else, I pull for the Tigers.
The last bowl game my family attended was in 1996. Two years into my sports writing career, I was covering Clemson’s Gator Bowl appearance against Syracuse. My father and my brother came with me and my parking pass. (They bought their own tickets.)
It didn’t go well for Clemson fans. A Syracuse quarterback named Donovan McNabb and a wide receiver named Marvin Harrison romped to a 41-0 victory. The Tigers’ MVP was the punter.
Daddy swore he’d never go to another bowl game, and for nearly 20 years, he’d been true to his word. With Clemson ranked No. 1 and a chance to play for the national title on the line, I thought a good time had come to break that vow.
The tickets, and then the plane flight, were purchased in stealth. On Christmas Day, I FaceTimed my parents as Mama handed Daddy a bowl containing a few oranges. His furrowed brow eventually smoothed into a sleepy, 7 a.m. smile.
As game time approached, excitement and anxiety mounted. What if all this money and effort were spent, and Clemson didn’t win? What if another 41-0 debacle detonated in my face? It would be good to see Daddy either way – he and Mama don’t make it to Florida very often – and I was sure the Orange Bowl would be a memorable experience, but we’re not real big on moral victories in my sports family.
I was more nervous driving to the stadium than I had ever been to cover any game.
Those nerves faded once we parked on our square of grass and broiled for a beer under the South Florida sun with our friendly, tattooed neighbors.
We headed to Fan Fest, where we posed for pictures with the Orange Bowl and Heisman trophies and clapped to the Clemson band during a pep rally. I watched the sweat roll down a trumpet player’s face as Daddy and other graduates raised their hands at the end of the alma mater.
Inside the stadium, we ate a criminally overpriced hamburger and then climbed, climbed, climbed to our seats. More pictures – Daddy was getting tired of posing – and Army parachuters dropped from the sky with the flags of each team. The Clemson flag landed first.
The stomach-clenching first half was full of stupid penalties and missed scoring chances and saw Clemson trailing by a point. Things took an orange-tinted turn in the second half, as the Tigers finally took a crucial two-score lead, and a late interception cemented the win.
I screamed and clapped and spelled C-L-E-M-S-O … N! until my throat and my arm hurt. I laughed with the Georgia college boys sitting next to us, on the second leg of a four-bowl odyssey. They mixed the contents of their flask into their soft drinks and asked me who the halftime entertainer, John Fogerty, was. I high-fived with the family of four a row below us – two cute boys and a father whose face registered genuine horror when he heard me say I went to South Carolina.
As the final minutes ticked away, Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson began taking knees, and even Daddy relaxed. Tiger Rag filled the stadium, fans danced, and the Tiger players ran onto the field as I took surreptitious photos of Daddy’s joyful face.
We sat in the car – once we found it – for a while, me drinking my last Diet Coke, Daddy polishing off his final bit of Jack. We watched on my phone as Alabama began what would be its demolishing of Michigan State, setting up a game that will be Clemson’s biggest challenge this season.
But that sizeable worry was for another night. On this night, my head ached, my throat was scratchy, and my feet were sore.
I was happy.