Last year, Clemson’s season ended with tears as the Tigers walked off the field in Arizona heartbroken after a close loss to Alabama. This year’s season ended with tears, too, but of joy as Clemson celebrated its first national title since 1981.
Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of downtown Clemson on Saturday morning and an estimated crowd of 65,000 packed into Death Valley to hear Tigers players, coaches and administrators speak about winning the national title.
Senior linebacker Ben Boulware was the most emotional of the bunch. The Anderson native spoke of what it means to bring a national championship home.
“I grew up in this area. I’ve been a part of this my whole life. I’m one of y’all,” Boulware said while sobbing. “I’m so thankful for y’all. I’m so thankful for this community.”
The parade started at 9 a.m. with the Clemson band, cheerleaders, former players, coaches and current players winding their way down a packed College Avenue.
The parade route eventually ended at Death Valley, where Clemson players touched Howard’s Rock and ran down the hill one final time this season.
Clemson President Jim Clements and athletics director Dan Radakovich spoke before turning the microphone over to the players.
Deshaun Watson, Boulware, Jay Guillermo, Jordan Leggett, Carlos Watkins and Jadar Johnson had a chance to talk about their time at Clemson.
“These past three years have been probably the best experience of my life and I’ve enjoyed every single moment,” Watson said. “Thank you for all the support, the love and for making this university the best university in the country.”
Like Boulware, Watkins was emotional, particularly when talking about his position coach Dan Brooks. He stopped halfway through his speech to give Brooks, who is retiring, a hug.
“I just want to thank coach Brooks for just believing in me and giving me my chance at Clemson, and most of all for teaching me to become a man,” Watkins said.
Swinney closed the celebration with a more than 20 minute speech about what it took to get Clemson to this point. He told several stories, including one about his first meeting with the board of trustees at Clemson.
Swinney was told the board wanted Clemson to one day be like schools such as Florida, Georgia and Michigan that are strong academically and athletically. Swinney had other ideas.
“I said, ‘Sir, I do not want this to be disrespectful, but that is not my vision for Clemson at all. I want for all those other schools to want to be like Clemson,’ ” Swinney recalled.
He also discussed what he told his team right before it boarded the plane to go to Tampa to face Alabama for the national championship.
“I told them, ‘Boys, that 1981 team has been awfully lonely up there on that stadium for a long time. And this is the team that’s going to join them,’ ” Swinney said. “And the next thing I told them was, ‘Next Saturday we’re going to have a parade to celebrate and Death Valley is going to be packed to the house to celebrate the national champions.’ ”
Swinney was right as Clemson was buzzing like it is on game days all day Saturday.
“I had imagined how many people I thought there would be,” Guillermo said. “And it was triple that.”