It’s cold out in downtown Clemson, and they’re still here.
The crowd numbers in the hundreds. There’s plenty of students, but also adults and kids. A cluster of kids huddle together under blankets after 10 p.m. on a school night, eyes raised to the projector screen.
Unlike a year before when the Tigers football team faced Alabama for the national title, this street is bustling, rather than only playing host to students bouncing from bar to bar.
The city blocked off the street, set up the pair of back to back screens and set in motion a block party of sorts. An outdoor community event in 30-degree weather as music blares during commercial breaks and people alternate between breaking out a few dance moves and huddling for warmth.
The cold and the game threatened to send folks scattering early, yet a late Clemson score brought some life. Folks stuck it out and stuck around, waiting to see if their Tigers could rally and turn the street into a different scene.
Ready for business
Anne Jenkins hopes she’s at work early Tuesday morning.
At 7 a.m., to be exact, for the manager at Tigertown Graphics in the heart of downtown Clemson. If all goes to plan, things will be set in motion just as the College Football Playoff National Championship ends, and business will be brisk in the morning.
“The presses at the print shop start rolling at midnight,” Jenkins said. “We will have the first of several designs of national championship shirts in the store starting at 7 a.m.”
The store already knows the designs for the shirts, whose fate rests on a Clemson victory against Alabama.
These folks went though this last year, watching their team get to the edge of a title before falling a few points short against the Tide.
Jenkins’ memory goes back farther, as she grew up nearby and remembers the scene when the Tigers claimed their last and only national title in 1981. Everything in Clemson seems to be about the tight-knit community that bleeds toward family, and she’s regaling the employees and a few onlookers with stories of that night.
“It was nuts,” Jenkins said.
Even after the disappointment of last year, Jenkins has hope, and it comes from being around town for a long time.
“Clemson’s a small town,” Jekins said. “It has that small-town feel, small-community feel. Everybody is so excited. So whether you’re filling up your gas tank or checking out at the grocery store or buying shirts here, everyone is saying ‘Go Tigers.’ “
Alisa Mims, manager at the Backstreets Pub and Grill, has been through this before.
She saw the bar packed, students almost shoulder to shoulder, every eye on a screen, living and dying with each play of the game.
“It was exciting, ’till the end,” Mims said with a laugh. “Kind of died really bad after that. It was great. People were glued to the TVs. They’d like wait until the commercials to go inside and get a drink, or go inside and order food.”
She said last year’s game ended not with a sudden rush to the exits, but with people lingering – deflated – but not about to leave before finishing their final drink.
The bar’s preparations mirrors a home game, making sure there’s enough ice, beer, liquor and food on hand, plus employees available.
Mims said she grew up in a Clemson household, with a father and sister who went, as did she. She still remembers radio stations blasting Queen’s “We are the Champions,” in 1981.
And even after going through the ups and downs of last season’s title game, she’s never really ready for one like this.
“Every Clemson game makes me nervous,” Mims said. “It’s kind of, it’s that thing, like a pit in my stomach going on. At the same time, I’m trying to do my job.”
The place to be
The Esso Club has its own sort of history and community.
The one-time gas station looks every bit of its claim to fame, being “Clemson’s oldest place to drink beer.”
The bar itself is made from planks taken from Clemson’s old stadium, with names of people involved with the place, including former Tigers coach Danny Ford, sealed under the lacquer.
Outside stands a 30-foot screen, ready for a packed house in a few hours, but employees will tell you, walking in means something else.
“Once you start coming in here on a regular basis, it turns into this huge family,” waitress Tobie Stevens said. “It turns into one of those things where everyone comes in, we know your name, we know what beer you want. As soon as you come in the door, we’ll have it ready for you.”
Last week, with the lead-up to the title game, she got to see a few regulars. ESPN set up shop there, which meant the familiar face of reporter Marty Smith, who darkens their door whenever he comes to down. Former Tigers Tajh Boyd and C.J. Spiller were also around, brought in by the network for insight.
Emotions were running high hours before the game, and one of Stevens’ coworkers had already cried twice before ducking home to change into bright orange overalls (don’t worry, she cried before last year’s title game, too).
Stevens was raised a South Carolina fan, but a friend brought her to the Tigers’ flock. She joked the team had been granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity twice, and admitted everyone was anxious before last year’s game.
“This year, it has a completely different feeling,” Stevens said. “There’s something in the air, where we can all just feel this is going to be a very special game.”