Once the signals are made, before the formation is set, Clemson will take to the air Monday and take a lead over Alabama at the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Simpsonville native Casey Manning, an Air Force captain and 2005 Clemson graduate from Mauldin High School, will be among four F-35A Lightning II fighter-jet pilots making a fly-by at the crescendo of the Phoenix Children’s Chorus performance of “God Bless America” during the pregame ESPN Gameday broadcast.
Maj. Matthew “Diesel” Mayer, another South Carolina native and a graduate of The Citadel, will be flying another jet and pulling for Clemson while Maj. Kala’e “Inch” Leong of Honolulu, Hawaii, and Capt. Daniel “Mental” Toftness of Amery, Wisconsin, have no personal rooting interest.
The way Manning sees it, that will give the Tigers an early 2-0 advantage. The pilot known as “Deuce” will be carrying a Clemson flag he plans to give Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and team.
Swinney sent him autographed photos and many thanks after Manning’s mother, Debby Cates, gave him an American flag that Manning flew while deployed in Afghanistan in 2009.
“I’m extremely honored to be doing this,” said Manning, whose 61st Fighter Squadron is based just a few miles west of University of Phoenix Stadium at Luke Air Force Base. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly an F-35 over the top of your alma mater in the national championship game.”
The four state-of-the-art, sharply sleek vessels are scheduled to be screaming at about 350 miles per hour about 15-feet apart in a fingertip formation about 1,000 feet above the crowd at 30 seconds after 5:39 p.m. Eastern.
"The efforts that it takes to launch one of these jets is a team effort much like a football game would be," Manning said. "Me flying the jet is the last piece to the puzzle. The rest comes from all the maintainers and all the support agencies on the ground to get these things airborne."
Since the roof on the stadium will be closed, the fly-by won't coincide with the performance of the national anthem, but Clemson graduate Chip Mathis plans to be among the thousands on hand in time to see it in-person.
The pharmacist from Charleston traveled west with his wife and sister on tamer flights overnight Saturday.
"It's going to be awesome," Mathis said. "This is once-in-a-lifetime for me, too. I’d rather Clemson win this game than win the Powerball."
While many of the orange faithful who’ve gathered in the Valley of the Sun hope and believe the Tigers will play for other national titles in the future, they’re cherishing this opportunity.
They're soaking in musical performances by stars such as John Mellencamp and Eric Church. Alumni such as Brian Dawkins, Sammy Watkins, Tajh Boyd and Dale Davis are making appearances. Parties have reunited friends separated by miles and years.
“We’re all flying high,” Mathis said. “What’s not to love? I’m not even going to buy a lottery ticket until after this game because I don’t want to waste any luck.”