I’ll never forget it: all of that celebration. The game-clock striking double zeros, and everyone rushing the field. The confetti streaming down from above. The Gatorade showers, and the group hugs, and the student section singing the fight song at the top of their lungs. All the championship hats and championship shirts. The interviews. The trophy presentations. Even those little custom newspapers with the headlines that read, NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. I remember all of it. There are so many details that I’ll remember, and come back to, and keep etched into my brain from that night. But there is one specific memory that sticks with me more than any other:
Sorry — what night did you think I was talking about?
I’m talking, of course, about January 11, 2016 — when Alabama outexecuted us, outlasted us, and just straight-up beat us for the national championship, 45–40. Five points separated us from the first 15–0 season in college football history. Five freakin’ points. I remember hearing afterward about what a great game it had been. How it had been a “classic,” and how it had “put us on the map.” Cool story — but try telling that to the guys in our locker room.
We were devastated after last year’s title game. Devastated. I remember sitting by my locker after the game … just sitting there … crying for what had to be over an hour. Partly because it hurt to lose, but partly because, well — I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how we could execute so well, for 14 straight games … and then, in our last game, make such crucial mistakes. I didn’t know how we could let down our fans, who had waited 34 years for that moment … and would now have to wait even longer. And I didn’t know how we could blow it for our seniors, who had done so much for all of us … and were now going to have to graduate without national championship rings. I had so many questions, and no answers. And so I cried.
But as much as the loss itself hurt, in a lot of ways I think we were also devastated by how we lost — and by the fact that we had played a classic. If we had gone out to Glendale, and lined up against Bama, and given it our best … and then gotten our butts kicked? Yeah, it still would have stung. But I think we would have eventually gotten over it. Because then, at least, we would have known for sure that the better team had won. We could have come back home, and enjoyed our spring semesters, and convinced ourselves that, in the end: It just wasn’t meant to be.
But, man, five points.
All season long, we had thought that it was meant to be — had believed that we were destined to go undefeated, destined be the first team in college football history to finish 15–0, destined to bring that national championship trophy home with us to Clemson. And I don’t think losing 45–40 did anything to convince us otherwise. If anything, playing the game only made us more convinced that it had been meant to be … and that we’d let it slip away. We had gone toe to toe with the dominant program of this era, and proven to the world — to ourselves — that we were a championship team in every way.
Well, every way but the one that mattered.
Now … you might be asking yourself: Why is the guy whose team just won the national title a week ago writing about the national title his team didn’t win a year ago? And the simple answer is that, to this team, and here at Clemson, those two stories aren’t separate. They’re connected. They’re one and the same.
You have to understand the attitude that we had going into this season. Our motto was, Finish. What does finish mean? Nothing fancy. It means that when you’re in the weight room and it’s time to do 5 × 10 on bench — you do 5 × 10 on bench. Not 4 × 10, and then 1 × 9 on the last set. 5 × 10. It means that when you’re in the film room and the coach says to watch an hour of film — you watch an hour of film. Not 45 minutes of film and some change. An hour. And it means that when all of your hard work has payed off, and you get an opportunity to be the last team in the country standing, you take it. You don’t have a really good season, a nice flashy record, and almost take it. You take it. Finish means finish.
A lot of teams, when they suffer a heartbreaking loss, or any other kind of adversity, their instinct is to hit the reset button. Wipe the slate clean. You hear all the time about how great athletes have to have “short memories” — and maybe that’s true. But for us, for this team, that just wasn’t the way. We wanted to remember how we felt on that field in Glendale. And reverse it. We wanted to take exactly what we started in January 2016. And finish it. For us, last season wasn’t “last season.” It wasn’t something to be entered into the record books and then left to collect dust. For us, last season was a living breathing idea — part of the foundation on which we were going to build this season’s success.
We didn’t want our memories to be short. We wanted them to be long.
And so, when Coach Swinney put up a banner in our practice facility that read, 2016 NATIONAL FINALISTS, I’m sure a lot of people from outside the program didn’t understand what the point was. Why would they celebrate coming in second place? What is this — Little League? But we understood. We understood how that banner got there, and what it represented. We understood why we felt pissed off, every time we saw it. And as the season wore on, I think we began to understand how lucky we were to have it. No team in college football this year, not in the entire country, was as motivated as we were. Every single practice we’d look up at that banner — and remember how close we had come, all over again.
And all season long we used that memory to our advantage. Against an Auburn team that was all we could handle on opening weekend. Against a Louisville team that was favored and ranked third in the country. Against a Florida State team that would go on to beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl. After a loss to Pitt that put our entire season on the ropes. Against a Virginia Tech team that wanted an ACC Championship almost as badly as we did. Against an Ohio State team that hadn’t been shut out since 1993. And against an Alabama team that — well, you may have heard a thing or two about them. Every turning point for us, this season, was just another opportunity to remember how we felt at the endpoint of last season.
Which is why, when Jalen Hurts ran in for six to put Bama ahead with a little over two minutes to play — nobody on our sideline panicked. I remember having two distinct thoughts running through my head after he scored. My first thought: We didn’t lay a finger on him. I hated giving up the touchdown — and I hated how easy we had made it for them. But then I looked up at the clock, and I had my second thought:
They scored way too fast.
I knew we had a great two-minute drill that we’d practiced to perfection. I knew that, in Deshaun, we had the best player in the country. And more than anything else, I knew we had the memory of what it had felt like to come up just short.
As crazy as this might be to say, we couldn’t have been more confident. I’m telling you: Before that final drive, our sideline was totally relaxed. All we’d wanted, all year, was a chance to get to this point again. Just a chance. And once we got it, I think we knew — we knew — that there was no way we were going to let it slip away again.
And we didn’t.
After the game, I made a postgame speech that got some attention. I talked about how this championship wasn’t just for us — but how it was also for those who had come before us. How it was for Tajh, and for Stephone, and for Grady, and Sammy, and Nuk — and for all of the other great players who had left their mark at Clemson over the years. I talked about how those players built the foundation, built the walls, built the house — and how all we did, by winning this year, was simply nail down the roof.
But after thinking about it some more — I’d actually like to take that back.
Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that Clemson football doesn’t need a roof.
And that’s because a roof is what you put on a house when it’s finished. And even with six straight seasons of 10-plus wins … even with back-to-back title game appearances … and even as the 2017 national champions, who won with the motto, Finish.…
We are not finished yet.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this accomplishment — as special as it is, and as good as it feels — is not the end. That there is no end. That there will always be higher goals to shoot for, and better football to play. And that there will always be a next level for this program — if there is a team willing to build it.
So, just like the 2016 runner-up team was a part of our foundation … and just like the 1981 championship team was a part of our foundation … and just like every team that has ever put on that Tigers uniform, whether they won four games or fourteen, was a part of our foundation: We are now a part of that same foundation, for every Clemson team to come.
And if I can leave just one message for those teams before I graduate, it’s this: Never stop building. Every workout you take part in, every practice you show up for, every loss you learn from and every win you grind out — you’re a part of something now. And it’s on you now to put down your own layer of foundation before you leave.
A house with no roof … yeah, O.K., I admit it. That’s a weird-ass house. But maybe that was always the wrong analogy. Maybe this — this city, this school, this program, this team — was never really a house to begin with. Because a house: That’s just bricks and cement. That, you can finish. And this: This is Clemson.
This is home.