An onlooker wondered aloud, how a little fence made of string could hold back thousands of purple, white and orange-clad fans.
It held up until buses deposited Clemson’s national champion football team Tuesday at Memorial Stadium. Then the fans spilled toward their team looking like they were ready rush the field after a home game.
Some had been there since 10 in the morning. Sure it was the early afternoon on a work day. Sure there were more than a few kids who probably should have been in school. But it had been 35 years since this town welcomed home a national championship football team, so exceptions had to be made.
Moments after stepping off an ESPN set and before the fans broke through, Tigers senior linebacker and emotional leader Ben Boulware admitted he didn’t expect it to look like all this.
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“I knew we’d have some people here, but this is unreal,” Boulware said. “This could probably fill half that stadium up. The proof’s in the pudding. This is why we have the best fans in college football. I know last year when Alabama won it, they didn’t have fans show up at their stadium like this.”
For an Upstate guy, there was a lot emotion in that scene.
“This is uncommon,” Boulware said. “The numbers and the amount of people that are here to support us. It’s unreal. It’s such a satisfying feeling. You go over that hill and you see all of these people, you can’t help but tear up.”
Coming off Monday night’s dramatic victory against Alabama, there was a mixture of excitement and that slow dragging feeling after a long night.
It was apparent among the fans who lined the driveway on the west side of the stadium in Death Valley. Fans packed around the flimsy fence near the ESPN set and came to life whenever a camera pointed their way, but the volume turned up for good when they spotted the helicopter shadowing the caravan of buses.
Players stepped out, most jubilant, a few looking tired and some even pointing phones out the bus door to capture the moment.
“Just seeing all this orange, it’s just so great,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “I’ll remember this image forever.”
Some players ducked straight inside the stadium, but others mingled before the crowd surged. Boulware let a fan play with his beard. Quarterback Deshaun Watson bent down to embrace a little girl with a sign asking for hugs.
Boulware was emphatically called over by a fan in a Clemson hat and overalls, Brian Holcombe. The 51-year-old from nearby Six Mile said he’d been the first one there and had a position up in front to prove it.
A lifelong fan, he held a helmet signed by every offensive starter. He hoped to get the senior starters to sign it before they moved on, and get the rest of the national championship signatures the next season.
He said it was pretty sweet to imagine the orange flag with a Tiger paw flying above the State House dome in Columbia.
“It’s awesome, it’s awesome,” Holcombe said.