Contrary to the opinion of those who know him well, Tony Stephens hasn’t been a passionate Clemson football fan all his life.
He didn’t attend a single Clemson football game until he was 7 months old, and admits to being a casual fan at the time.
“I really didn’t become a regular until the next year,” Stephens said, referring to the 1952 season and his travels with his late father, former Donaldson Air Base employee Howard Stephens.
There has been nothing casual about his approach to Clemson football ever since. Stephens has attended most home games since age 5, and began collecting Clemson-related items by the time he could detect Clemson orange.
For six decades, some more storied than others, Stephens has been watching his beloved Tigers on autumn Saturdays while chasing Clemson football artifacts the rest of the year. Like a prospector in search of nuggets, he has roamed yard sales, flea markets and auctions in search of the anything that helps paint the picture of Clemson football. In more recent years, he’s become a frequent eBay visitor, where he can pan for Clemson gold from his orange-laced living room in Piedmont — which features a mural composed of Clemson ticket stubs.
Stephens, a Belton native, is a faithful weekly member of both the Anderson and Greenville touchdown clubs. He often takes a few dozen scrapbooks along just in case a fellow Tiger fan might want to see a program from the South Carolina game of October 1919, when the school was officially known as the Clemson Agricultural College. Or the ’22 opener against Centre College, when the name of the visiting team from Kentucky was misspelled on the front of the game program. Or the September 1953 game against Boston College, which was played at Fenway Park.
“They also played a few times at Boston Braves Field,” Stephens said, offering detail of an unlikely series in an era when geography usually dictated schedules.
Amid the collections are a game program from the last game played at Riggs Field, in 1941 (a 34-6 Thanksgiving conquest of Furman (just 15 days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor) and of the first game played at Memorial Stadium in ’42, which the front of the cover simply describes as “the new stadium.” Presbyterian became the first of only three victims that year.
The Stephens collection also includes plenty of photos, including an aerial view of the stadium taken in its youth, when only 20,000 seats were in place. Another photo, taken shortly after a small expansion in 1958, includes plenty of 1950s vehicles on Williamson Street.
Of the 1,215 football games Clemson has played since the first kickoff in 1896, Stephens has the cover of the game program from more than 900 of them. He has all 54 of the clever cartoons by Phil Neel that graced the Clemson programs in the 1960s and every game since.
One scrapbook includes summaries of games played since 1976, even though some of the information isn’t pleasant.
“That’s a bad one,” he said, looking at the latest entry, which recounts the 43-42 loss to Pitt. “There are times when I’ve wanted to leave out a game, but I can’t. I want it to be complete.”
The collection, some of it from notes he accumulates during the season, has offered added pleasure since Stephens, 65, retired as a longtime corrections officer at the Perry Correctional Center in southern Greenville County.
“I’ve had so much fun putting things together. For a long time, the collection wasn’t so well organized. Now, it’s like putting together a puzzle.”
Stephens has watched the Tigers enjoy festive bowl-game triumphs and dozens of wins over rival South Carolina. But none ranks as his favorite Clemson game.
That distinction belongs to a regular-season game on Nov. 18, 1967, in his sophomore year in high school. The 4-4 Tigers were underdogs that day against a visiting North Carolina State team that was efficient (ranked 10th in the nation) and colorful (it wore white shoes in a black-shoe world).
To the surprise of Stephens and other faithful who arrived at Memorial Stadium that day, Clemson performed in orange shoes.
“When they came running down the hill in orange shoes, the crowd went crazy,” Stephens recalled.
A second-favorite game was played at Maryland late in the 1978 season, when Clemson claimed its first conference championship in 11 years with a 28-24 conquest.
There have been disappointments. His most deflated feeling as a fan came late in the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1988, when the Tigers fell 24-21 to Florida State in a game marked by a trick play near the end.
“The punt-rooskie game,” Stephens said. “It was a great game. We just lost at the end. Neither team left anything on the field.”
As Stephens learns more about Clemson’s football history, each momentoe takes on new meaning.
He points to a program from the 1908 season, when Clemson played Davidson at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds — a game played during a moratorium in the USC series.
“They brought in Davidson to play Clemson on a Wednesday (Oct. 28) and South Carolina on a Thursday (Oct. 29),” Stephens said. “The worst part is, Davidson won both games.”
Stephens appreciates the physical difficulty of that feat because he played football at J.L. Mann High in Greenville, where a knee injury in his junior year shortened his career there. He nonetheless earned a football scholarship at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he spent his only two years away from the Upstate.
It was an experience he didn’t particularly enjoy.
“It’s way over there above Memphis,” Stephens said with a negative nod, “On Saturdays, when we were playing, I’d be wondering how Clemson was doing. I didn’t get to see a single Clemson game for two seasons, but I’ve been making up for it ever since.”