Last night, Clemson played in the National Championship Football Game.
Growing up in Clemson, I can remember the last time we played in the National Championship game. It was 1981 and I was 12 years old. We were the Cinderella Story that year- the little unknown team from South Carolina that traveled to Miami and won it all. I still remember staying up to watch the game (fell asleep for a few minutes in the 3rd Quarter!). When the final seconds of the clock ticked away and the Championship was ours, my dad and I ran outside screaming our heads off and we could hear fireworks being shot off all around Clemson. It was the stuff of fairy tales and that night remains one of my fondest childhood memories.
Since I was a child, I’ve loved going to games. I still get teary eyed every time I stand in Death Valley, sing the Alma Mater, watch the band march to formation on the field playing Tiger Rag, watching the Young Buses pull around with the football team, waiting with the players as they rub Howard’s Rock for the cannon to shoot off giving them their cue to run down the Hill onto the field. It seriously is the most exciting few minutes of college football!
Since 2008, it’s been fun to watch a coach from Alabama take over Clemson’s football program and develop a team of national caliber. Over the last several seasons, it’s felt like 1981 all over again in Clemson.
Then the 2015 Football Season happened. 13-0 in the regular season. Emotional wins over Notre Dame, Florida State, South Carolina and North Carolina. A #1 ranking in the BCS polls 5 weeks in a row. Top seed in the College Football Playoffs. Defeating Oklahoma for the second year in a row. Making it to the Championship Game and having the opportunity to be the first team in history to be 15-0. This season has brought back all of the emotion and anticipation of that magical season I experienced as a twelve year old.
Despite the skepticism of sports commentators, the Clemson Tigers continued to Bring Their Own Guts and played with excellence and heart. Even when the odds were never in our favor according to Corso, we overcame them and showed the country that the ACC Team from South Carolina is a force to be reckoned with. We made it 14-0 and were heading to the National Championship team to face the Crimson Tide of Alabama.
My family has the unusual situation of being Die-Hard Clemson fans who just happen to live in Alabama. We are regularly asked if we pull for Auburn or Alabama (and up until this Fall, saying we pull for Clemson was a little like being Switzerland!). I have dear friends who are die-hard Alabama fans. My kids proudly their Clemson Orange at school in spite many of their friends cheering, “Roll Tide”. We display our Clemson flags, orange Christmas tree lights, Tiger Paw Car Magnets, and all things Clemson.
Yeah, we are that Clemson family living in Alabama.
Last night it all came down to 60 minutes in Glendale, Arizona. Clemson vs. Alabama. The Cinderella team from South Carolina taking on a football dynasty. Would the Tigers make football history and become the first team to become 15-0?
Our fans showed up en masse from the four corners of the earth to cheer on their Tigers. Kids and grown ups alike wore orange for days on end leading up to the game. Two Dollar Bills were collected to be spent around Arizona to show the economic impact the Tigers bring to town.
For Four Quarters, Clemson and Alabama duked it out. It was one of the most intense football games I’ve ever watched. Many people aged at least a year from the stress of watching it (myself included).
Yet, when the clocked ticked down to 0:00, Clemson’s Fairy Tale season came to an end and Alabama won itself another National Championship. Crimson Tide players and fans cheered and celebrated while the Tiger side felt the sting and agony of defeat. When you watch your team play their hearts out all season, a loss in the Championship Game is a hard and heartbreaking pill to swallow.
It’s an even harder pill when you’re a kid.
This morning was one of those heartbreaking times when I had to tell my kids that Clemson had lost. Despite it being one of the best games ever played, a loss is a loss.
In the midst of their sadness over their team’s loss, they had to go to school and face their Alabama fan friends and classmates. As a parent, I knew it would be one of those catalytic moments of how to teach your kids to lose gracefully and love your Alabama neighbors.
So what did this lesson look like in our family?
First, I continued to remind them that win or lose, they should be proud of their football team. They can walk into school today and hold their heads up high because they pull for a team that didn’t quit until the end and showed the country what a great football team they are. True fans stand behind their teams regardless of the number of wins and losses are next to their name. They were bleeding orange and purple before last night, and they are still bleeding orange and purple.
Second, they should go up to their Alabama fan friends, shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, “Congrats. Your team played a great game.” As hard as that can be for the losing side, the practice of congratulating the winning team shows humility and character.
As I was “coaching” my kids on how they should respond today, I also realized that the very act of congratulating their Alabama fan friends is also an act of loving their neighbors as themselves.
To loosely quote Tim Keller from his book The King’s Cross, “…loving our neighbors as ourselves means we want for them what we want for ourselves. When our opponents and rivals win, we should celebrate and be happy for them just as much as if we were the ones walking away with the victory.”
To put it in football terms, loving our neighbors as ourselves means we celebrate with our Alabama friends as they win their 16th National Title with as much fervor and joy as if it had been the Tigers taking home the National Championship Trophy.
This is a lesson not only for my kids, but for me as well.
I gotta admit, as a life-long, die hard Clemson fan living in Alabama, this is a hard pill from Jesus for me to swallow. Celebrating with my Alabama fan friends with the same amount of joy as I would as if it were my own team? Seriously? What?!? Can’t I just sit in the corner and mope and grumble and analyze every bad play and trash talk the Alabama program in my head in an effort to make myself feel better? Can’t I just continue to sit and rationalize how Clemson really did deserve to walk away with the trophy? Can’t I just lick my wounded pride and bemoan the fact that it really does hurt that we lost- especially to Alabama?
Loving my Alabama Neighbors means I have to put my wounded pride and my Clemson loyalty on the back burner and celebrate with them just as much as I would be celebrating a 15-0 Clemson Season.
For all of the Alabama fan friends out there and the University of Alabama Football Team ….Congratulations on winning another National Championship!!! Your team played well all season and I rejoice with you as you relish in another National Title. Coach Saban and his staff have developed an excellent program where men of character and athletic excellence are developed. You have much to celebrate. The Best is Yet to Come.
For all of my fellow Clemson fan friends and the Clemson University Football Team. Congratulations on making it to the National Championship Game. Win or lose, I’m proud to be a Clemson Tiger. We showed the world what Clemson Proud is and what it means to be All-In with the Clemson Family. Thank you, Dabo Swinney and the rest of the Clemson Coaching staff for your hard work and dedication to create a program that values developing men of character as much, if not more, than a winning team. The Best is Yet to Come.