I want you to remember one thing when you run out on the field in Glendale, Arizona, on New Year’s Eve:
This is what we came to Clemson for.
I was at last year’s title game, which just so happens to be the same field you’ll be playing on Saturday. The atmosphere was electric. Alabama and Clemson battled back and forth and the momentum kept swinging from one side to the other. What amazed me was how many more Tigers fans were there than Crimson Tide fans, and I know how big Alabama’s fan base is. It hit you like, This is the national championship. We played to the very end and it came down to Bama making one more play than us. I was real proud of you guys for how you handled the whole season. You believed you could win the game, and everyone saw that. In the end, we just came up short.
After the game, I talked to Wayne Gallman, and I flipped into full “big brother” mode. Wayne is a running back too and we’ve built a relationship over the past few years. I told him, while it’s hard to know what to say in that moment, that he got so close and all the work he put in wasn’t for nothing. He should be proud.
Even though that was an agonizing moment, it also got me excited about what this year’s team can do. Because I already know what’s gonna happen next: You’re gonna go out there and fight for your family.
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When I was getting recruited, I didn’t know much about Clemson at all. I had been a Florida State fan when I was growing up. But then I was contacted by the Tigers’ wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator — Dabo Swinney — and visited the school during a regular nonfootball weekend. It was the only school I visited where I instantly said “You know, I could spend three to four years here.” I knew right then that this was the place for me. It felt like home.
Oddly enough, I’d never been to a college football game before I started playing at Clemson, so my first time I played at Memorial Stadium was my first college game. I’d heard about riding around on the bus before the game to see the fans and the tailgaters, as well as about Howard’s Rock and the experience of running down the hill. I got to take that all in, fresh, for the first time before my first game.
I’ve never been the same since. I see that Clemson paw everywhere I go now and people keep telling me, THIS IS YOUR YEAR! It’s amazing to see us finally getting the recognition that we deserve. It’s been a long time since we’ve had this type of success. To be able to do it year after year is special. This program is on the rise and the best is yet to come.
Mary Ann Chastain/AP Images
Even though some of our Clemson teams were really good — in particular, the 2009 team — it’s been crazy to watch Coach Swinney take our program to the next level. Something I’ve always admired is that Coach Swinney treats everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re the star player or a walk-on. He doesn’t play favorites. He’s going to discipline you just like he’s going to discipline everyone else.
As you well know, one of Coach Swinney’s big things is that you never should walk off the field, you should run. One day my senior year, the same season I was getting some Heisman attention, I had just come to football practice from track practice and my legs were busted. I was about seven yards from the sideline after we ran a play, so I walked off. Coach Swinney stopped the whole session and chewed me out. Everyone else was like, “Oh s***! If Coach is gonna do C.J. like that, he’s gonna do all of us like that!”
Coach Swinney and I have a father-son relationship. He and I text constantly, and he even made it up to my last game with the Jets, a Monday night game against the Colts. Funny enough, I was playing against another guy from the Clemson family, Dwayne Allen; anytime there’s another Clemson alum on the other team, I always try to swap jerseys with that guy. And if there’s a big enough group of us, we always try to get a group photo.
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Anyway, I saw Dwayne before kickoff and wished him a good game. And then he went out and scored three touchdowns. So when we were trading jerseys after the game, I told him, “I said have a good game, not a great one.” But even though I was on the opposing team, it still made my heart swell up to see a fellow Tiger have success.
That’s what Clemson will do to you.
This year, your offense has been on a tear since the Pitt game. You didn’t let that loss define your season, and you knew what it would take to get back into the position you’re in now. Last year, you knew you were good, but you might not have known how good. This year, you guys focused on the little things. You knew what it would take to get back to where you wanted to be, and you did it. This year’s team is even stronger, and I know DeShaun is ready to let it rip after his Heisman snub.
Now, I’m not much of a rah-rah guy, so when I speak people tend to listen. Before the night of the 2009 ACC championship game, I got up to speak. A lot of people on the team didn’t know I had been battling turf toe all year, and been playing through pain since the first week of the season. I opened my heart to them. I told them, “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got and if I do that, I’ll live with the results, no matter what they are.” I didn’t want to leave anything on the field. The only thing I asked from them was that they do the same. Even though we came up short (we lost to Georgia Tech 39–34) I know that everybody in my locker room gave me everything they had.
Now it’s my turn to speak again. So listen up.
Jacob Kupferman/CSM/AP Images
When you take the field against Ohio State, go play for one another. That’s what it’s all about. Play for the Clemson family, and give it all you’ got. Empty the tank. You’re not guaranteed to get to the title game. You don’t want to look back and say, Man, I wish I would have given a little more in the semifinal. Do everything you can. Rise to the occasion. Even if things start off wrong, stay the course like you did in the Florida State game this year, when you had that big comeback in the fourth quarter. Don’t get too up or too down. Just continue to believe and lay it all out on the line. If you put it all out there and don’t get the results that you wanted … as long as you can look yourself in the mirror, and you can live with the results — that’s all you can ask for.
You have a chance to go further than any Clemson team has gone since 1981. I’ll be on the sidelines cheering you on.
But I hope we can meet again a week or so later in Death Valley, after the final game in Tampa.
It’s going to be bananas.