As the final seconds ticked away, faces grew long. Clemson fans gave each other that kind of pat on the back to say, “We came close,” or simply just turned and held one another. Then, having seen a chance at a national title slip away, headed for the exits.
The party was over.
Fans streamed onto the main road in downtown Clemson. Some were mad, some tearful, some in a daze. Their ranks never swelled, as most seemed ready to get home. A few took solace in the relief of food, but the street, empty throughout the College Football Playoff championship game suddenly filled with cars and taxis to clear the people away.
It was a far cry from the buzz and excitement only a few hours prior.
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Six hours before kickoff, across the street from Clemson’s campus, emotions were running high.
Kelly Grady, a senior and waitress at the town’s famed Esso Club, was in the midst of a shift that started at 9 a.m. and seemed destined to stretch until at least 2 in the morning. The prospect of a packed bar for that long was far the biggest thing on her mind.
“I’ve been dreaming about it for weeks,” Grady said of the title game. “I think I’ve cried four times already today, very nervous, but very happy.”
Game day in Clemson was a sleepy affair early, but the energy built as the day went on. At the start of the afternoon, a few people wandered Clemson’s downtown, but just about all of them wore some kind of Clemson clothes.
A few hours later, the lines were building outside the smattering of local bars. A few people talked about students having classes canceled, professors just letting them go prepare. But others who had to make lectures started filtering off campus, and soon enough, the hum and anticipation were apparent.
Outside the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, an old car with Alabama Crimson coloring sat spray painted with the word “Bama” in white, and in the midst of a bludgeoning. The fraternity members had brought it over early in the morning and charged five dollars to take a swing with a sledgehammer, all proceeds going to charity, of course.
The sight of Clemson senior Maddie O’Birne standing atop the car’s hood, swinging down through what was left of the windshield with a crowd of 15 to 20 looking on seemed to say Clemson’s fans were going to get the most of the final day of the college football season.
“The person who rented me the UHaul, he’s closing half an hour early today so he can come bring his kids and hit the truck a little bit, which I think is pretty cool,” said fraternity member Jack Johnston.
The fraternity members were destined to move to a bar they’d rented out downtown, and nearby, Matt Tulbentci, manger at the bar TD’s of Clemson, was gearing up for the rush.
Closing in on 6 p.m., nearly every seat and booth was full. But this was only the start.
“We should be just wall-to-wall in here,” Tulbentci said. “People have been calling all day. I’ve probably had 400 phone calls since this morning, what time do we open? How late are we staying open? About 7 o’clock, this place should be, as many people as I can get in here, they’re going to be in here.”
He wasn’t too worried about fans getting out of hand. The fire marshal came by during the week, and local police promised 80 extra officers.
Tulbentci just hoped fans stayed in his bar after the final whistle. He planned to be there until 4 a.m. anyway.
Across the street at the Tiger Sports Shop, the game could have been a start to a new shift. With championship memorabilia already on hand, manager Bobby Carroll and his staff planned to reconvene during the second half. If Clemson had a chance, they’d rally into action, ready to outfit the masses sure to flood Tiger Boulevard.
Hours before kickoff, the emotion he fell back on was hope.
“We’re going to hopefully have some items to offer (Monday night),” Carroll said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”
It went well enough to probably pull his staff back out, but in the end, looking at the faces of fans wandering in the chilly aftermath, it didn’t go well enough.