From Denver to Vegas to glory, Summit Daily sports editor takes long cut to see Clemson win it all
January 8, 2019
DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — The 7 a.m. sunrise outside the window at my gate is Clemson orange and regalia purple.
As a two-decade fan of the Clemson Tigers football team, that's the way I view it, at least.
Here I am stoked by the first chance in my life to see my beloved team in the championship game. It'll prove to be quite the Monday morning commute, but I'm ready for it.
According to the stats, it'll ultimately include 21,738 Fitbit steps, two airport economy parking shuttles, 1,509 as-the-crow-flies miles aboard two airplane flights, four Uber taxis and one $70 sports wager in Las Vegas — the first gamble of my 28-year life.
All that said, as I sit here at my DIA gate, I don't even have the most ambitious national championship game voyage of all the Clemson fans within a 6-foot radius of me.
Directly behind me, there is a man named Josh, who hails from Lexington, South Carolina. Sporting a Clemson hat, groggy-eyed Josh is receptive to my conversation starter. He soon confirms my notion that he too is flying on this same flight to Las Vegas en route to seeing our beloved Tigers play in round four of their burgeoning College Football Playoff rivalry versus the nation's No. 1 team, the empire of college football, Nick Saban's vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide.
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But Josh won't be joining me on my United flight from Vegas to San Jose which, less than half a day from now, will fly over what I hope to be one of my life's happiest of happy places: Section 405 Row 4, Seat 18 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
No, Josh will instead rent a car in Vegas to make the 529-mile drive between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, up through Bakersfield to the national championship game. According to my iPhone's Apple Maps, it'll take him eight hours and seven minutes in drive time. According to my brain's calculations, considering our touchdown time in Vegas of 9:01 a.m., if he takes 15 total minutes to stop for gas, he'll make it to the game right around the scheduled 5:18 p.m. PST kickoff for the game.
Just like my mindset in this moment, as Josh tips the brim of his Clemson hat down to the bridge of his nose to steal some more shut eye, I get the sense he wouldn't miss it for the world.
9 hours till kickoff
Typing away on my laptop's keyboard in flight between Denver and Vegas, this is as good of time as any to describe the origin story of my rather random Clemson fanhood. Clemson is the team I chose as a 9-year-old in New York. I settled on the Clemson paw and then-Tiger players named Woodrow "Woody" Dantzler, Keith Adams and Rod Gardner while perusing the pages of the Aug. 4, 2000, college football season preview edition of Sports Illustrated. You know, it's the one with Michael Vick on the cover dancing with a lightning bolt? OK, you don't know. But that's fine.
Though I've watched every Clemson football game since Vick trounced the Tigers in the 2001 Gator Bowl, as a lifelong New Yorker I've only had the fortune of seeing Clemson live in person five times in my life. The first was at the age of 16 in September 2007 at the Tigers' hallowed upstate South Carolina homefield, nicknamed "Death Valley." It's still one of the most surreal, otherworldly sporting experiences of my life, the greatest early birthday present a son could receive from his father. I then saw Clemson play three times in Syracuse, New York, and once in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
But this contest on this day, it's a whole 'nother ballgame. It's 'Bama-Clemson IV in the national championship game. And once two unrelated variables came to be, it was a game I decided I couldn't miss.
The first: Ticket prices for this game plummeted from north of $1,000 to get into Levi's Stadium down to almost $100. Due to the cross-country distance of the trip for many fans based in the southeast, the cost of airfare wasn't worth it. They posted their tickets at less than face value on digital marketplaces. As such, I was in luck, especially considering the mixed bags of flights I cobbled together to and from Denver and the Bay Area were borderline cheap.
The second: I won the Summit Daily's company Fantasy Football league thanks to my Clemson-inspired team, "The Fightin' Dabos" — named after Clemson head coach and former Alabama player Dabo Swinney.
Rationalizing the economics of the situation in my head, I pulled the Ticketmaster trigger for this ultimate sport's day of my life. Next stop: The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
6.5 HOURS TILL KICKOFF
The glass-protected rockstar suits worn by David Bowie and Mick Jagger serve as my "Welcome to Vegas" moment. Five minutes later, I place the maiden bet of my life: $70 on the +190 money line for Clemson to win straight up. With luck, I'll be $133 richer.
I walk the mile down Vegas' Paradise Road to McCarran International Airport before taking the economy parking shuttle to my United gate. After a two-hour flight delay, much to my dismay, I'm on pace to touch down in San Jose with just an hour-and-a-half of buffer time before kickoff. The race is on.
1.5 hours till kickoff
I race off the plane in San Jose, sprint through the airport and book an Uber with the $25 in Uber bucks gifted to me from my colleague and fellow sports super fan Susan Gilmore. Eight miles and 45 minutes of traffic later, I fumble with the Airbnb lock box and key before dropping my bag in this random room at a random house I rented. (Shout out, David and Myhoa!)
My Uber driver Henrique is keeping the motor running on his Chevy Bolt outside. I hop back in and see, according to his phone's calculations, we'll be arriving 15 minutes before kickoff. I should be fine.
That is, until we see police have barricaded off the road a mile from the stadium. I hop out of Henrique's car and lightly jog toward the lights and sounds. Living at 9,000 feet makes me feel like Woody Dantzler in this moment, casually bobbing and weaving between fellow fans. By the time I scale the seven Fitbit floors to section 405, seat 18, row 4, I feel like I'm back at 9,000 feet. Breathing in deeply amid a sea of Clemson orange, I get teary-eyed as I take it all in during the National Anthem. I'm here. I made it!
The level of pandemonium experienced in section 405 when Clemson's A.J. Terell returned a pick-six interception minutes into the game was, frankly, hysterical. It also serves as an apropos moment to begin to chat with the family that blindly sold me my seat via Ticketmaster. Before I even knew Ryan Sanders' name, I hugged him, like, four times. What can I say other than, #GoTigers!
With the Tigers already leading 31-16 and the pep band playing, I introduce myself. Ryan soon informs me that the men sitting next to him, his brother Patrick and father David, sold me the ticket to my happy place. Over a second half of dominance for the Tigers, I get to know about the Sanders' family. How this trio from Atlanta with Death Valley season tickets were experiencing their first Clemson College Football Playoff national championship game together. I learn that Patrick, a Clemson marching band alum, now lives in Fort Collins, is a member of the Colorado Clemson Club and likes to ski up in Summit County from time to time. I take his phone number. I, for one more quarter, at least, feel like family.
When the clock ticks down on Clemson's 44-16 win, Patrick tears up just like I had at the beginning of the game. The Sanders welcome me arm in arm to sway and sing the Clemson fight song. A graduate of Syracuse University, I admittedly only know the final line: "That the Tiger's roar may echo o'er the mountain height." Boy, did I belt it out, though.
Our time taking celebratory photos together is only interrupted by the cloud of Clemson orange and regalia purple confetti pieces that flutter and engulf section 405. We pick the ticket-sized paper out of the air like toddlers trying to catch bubbles, stuffing them in our wallets as free mementos.
I say goodbye to the Sanders, welcoming Patrick up anytime to ski. They say if I ever make it out to Death Valley, I'm welcome at their tailgate. Done deal.
We Are The Champions
To cap the night, while the Clemson band plays Queen's "We Are The Champions," I head down to the corner where Clemson's players and coaches are celebrating with fans. I slither my way to the front row. There, I am able to tell defensive coordinator Brent Venables that “we” love him (What else do you say in that moment?), and I told Clemson quarterback great Tajh Boyd that he "started it all" (Again, I was in the moment).
About a half hour later, at 10:10 PST and more than 17 hours after I left my cousin Gus' house in Longmont to make this trip, I charge my on-life-support phone to have enough juice to Uber back to the random room at the random house. Once at 25 percent, I decide it's enough. While walking out, though, I stumble across the 49ers' statues and banners. The Jerry Rice one means a lot to me. He was my first favorite player, my first Christmas jersey as a kid. He also had just spoken to the Clemson team before the title game. Clemson dubs itself "Wide Receiver University" and, in my mind, has as good a candidate for the title of "Next Jerry Rice" as any in true freshman Justyn Ross, who starred in the College Football Playoff. How cool is that? How full circle is that?
There's also the statue of Dwight Clark's famous "The Catch" for the 49ers from 1982 that birthed their dynasty. Clark's a Clemson alum. How cool is that?
Then, after taking photos with the statue of the man who threw Clark that pass, Joe Montana, the last thing I do at the title game is check out the concession stand. How could I not? Before purchasing their last two souvenir programs — one for me and one for my dad — I am shocked to see who turns around, directly ahead of me in line. It's former NFL star C.J. Spiller, the once-upon-a-time star recruit who, in 2006, single-handedly altered the trajectory of a then-struggling Clemson program.
When he signed on the dotted line out of Lake Butler, Florida, to play for the assistant coach he forged a relationship with, then-36-year-old wide receivers coach Swinney, he was the first elite playmaker to choose the Tigers.
As C.J. stood at just about my height — somewhere between 5-9 and 5-10 — I couldn't have known it was him from behind. As such, within a split second, it seems, I recognize him while he turns, shout "CJ" and shake his hand.
To cap the night and the journey — here amid the 49ers' literal statues — I stumble into embracing arguably the most important player in Clemson's renaissance. Just a week earlier, considering the ticket prices, I would have never dreamt this experience possible. But, when it came time, I decided to make a play.
So, to quote the inspiration for my Fantasy Football team, Swinney: "You can't be afraid to play. Commit to play and you live with the results."
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