From the archives: Playing in the shadow of Death Valley

This story about Deshaun Watson’s quest to bring Clemson its first title in 35 years first appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Aug. 22, 2016, College Football Preview Issue.

ON THE FIRST day of spring practice at Clemson University, just seven weeks after the Tigers fell to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, wide receiver Kanyon Tuttle opened his locker and saw the jersey waiting for him.

“Hey, are practice jerseys the same as our real jersey numbers?” he asked defensive end Jaquarius Brice.

“Most likely,” Brice replied.

Tuttle is new to the Tigers, a walk-on transfer entering as a redshirt freshman. But he’s also a Clemson legacy. His father, Perry — Clemson’s first Sports Illustrated cover subject — made one of the Tigers’ most iconic catches, a leaping touchdown grab in the Orange Bowl victory that gave Clemson the 1981 national title. Tuttle wanted to be sure about the number.

Come fall, he’d be wearing 81.

Tuttle hadn’t requested the jersey. In fact, while at South Carolina State, where he spent one season, he’d flatly asked not to wear 22, his father’s number. But Dabo Swinney is not one to scoff at symbolic gestures. Before last season’s title game, Clemson players fortuitously voted No. 19 Charone Peake and No. 81 Stanton Seckinger as two of the captains. They stood side by side at midfield for the coin toss, just as Swinney had instructed. By the 
end of the game, Deshaun Watson had almost single-handedly upended Alabama, gaining 478 total yards in the most prolific offensive performance in national championship game history, but failed to deliver the win.

“Not winning all of the games? That would be short for what we can do as a team.” Deshaun Watson

Later that first week of spring practice, when Tuttle sat down to team dinner, Clemson’s coach offered him an explanation.

“You know why I gave you No. 81, right?” Swinney asked.

“I’m not sure,” Tuttle fibbed.

“I want you to have that jersey for ’81,” Swinney said. “We can win a national championship this year, and it will be special for you to wear that number if we do.”

Nearly 35 years have come and gone since Perry Tuttle caught that 13-yard touchdown pass from Homer Jordan to help take home the 1981 title, and the Tigers are still looking for their second championship. The icons of that era — Perry Tuttle and coach Danny Ford and captain Jeff Davis — remain frozen in time. Tuttle’s trips to the Esso Club, Clemson’s longtime meat-and-three joint, escalate into full-blown fan events. So it is in the upstate town of Clemson, South Carolina: It’s the summer of 2016 and forever 1981.

Nostalgia permeates this year’s roster. There is Kanyon Tuttle, but there are also Judah and J.D. Davis, and Cannon Smith and Jarvis Magwood. Their fathers, Jeff Davis, Bill Smith and Frank Magwood, were part of the pulse of the 1981 team. Even one of the current student trainers, Wyatt Craig, followed in his father’s 1981 footsteps.

Other connections feel just as vital. Davis now serves as an assistant athletic director of football player relations; he’s an everyday mentor and de facto counselor for the team’s student-athletes. Reggie Pleasant, who was Davis’ teammate on defense, is the team’s life coach.

“Man, the fiber of 1981 is interwoven into what’s happening right now,” Jeff Davis says.

Still, that connection is lost on some of today’s players. On the wall in the receivers’ position room hang photos of the 14 Clemson wideouts drafted by the NFL, Perry Tuttle included. During a meeting in the last week of spring practice, more than a month after Kanyon learned he’d be wearing 81, teammate Mike Williams turned to him: “Hold up, is that your dad?” Williams asked.

There’s a lot of history here these players didn’t witness. But there’s also a chance for them to make some of their own. This year, with its Heisman-favorite quarterback, 10 preseason All-ACC players and top-five hype, Clemson looks primed to finally cut that 1981 cord. There’s just one last hurdle.

“We have to win it,” J.D. Davis says.

DESHAUN WATSON FEELS deep-in-his-bones certain that he can lead the Tigers to 15 wins in 2016, a belief he relays with all the gusto of a librarian. This notion of a perfect season is not hyperbole for him. It’s simply another box to check before his time in Clemson is up.

Leaning against a railing in the cobwebbed bowels of Memorial Stadium, with Howard’s Rock and that vaunted hill visible in the distance, Watson feels far removed from the frenzy that envelops Death Valley on autumn Saturdays. He’s in Clemson orange, a paw print on his right chest, as he considers his upcoming junior season.

“Not winning all of the games?” he says. “That would be short for what we can do as a team.”

He smiles, almost reluctantly. It is a modest concession that 15 — 0, more wins than any other team in college football’s modern era, is borderline absurd. But Watson is a rare talent — his 86.7 Total QBR ranked fifth in the nation last year — and he has plenty of toys in running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. The ACC, save for one (albeit mammoth) stumbling block in Tallahassee, is mostly forgiving. Other than Nick Saban, no coach in college football boasts a hotter hand than Swinney.



Nick Saban calls Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson the most “significantly dominant player” Alabama has played against since Cam Newton.

If Clemson is to emerge from the haze of its 1981 legacy, Watson — whom Saban called the best player since Cam Newton — will light the way. He threw six touchdowns in his collegiate debut as a starter two years ago, defeating North Carolina 50-35 at home. He traveled to New York City last year as a Heisman Trophy finalist — Clemson’s first — en route to becoming the first player in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season. (He’d end the night in third place, behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.) He doesn’t so much run as he glides — a graceful, loping stride. Few can catch him in the pocket; he’s an escape artist with a deadly deep touch.

Watson is also deeply visual. He committed to Clemson early in 2012, on national signing day of his sophomore year in high school. When he went back to his home in Gainesville, Georgia, that February night, he sat in his bedroom with a spiral notebook and wrote down what he wanted to achieve by the end of his tenure at Clemson.

Start as a freshman.

Two Heismans.

Undefeated season.

National championship.

Watson tore out the page and put it by his mirror. Every time he looked at himself, he also looked at the road ahead.

He put his past in ink too. Before his sophomore season at Clemson, Watson tattooed “815” on both arms as an homage to the government housing, 815 Harrison Square, that he called home until he was 11. His family moved out in 2006 with help from Habitat for Humanity, but that first home — “the grind,” he calls it — stays with him.

He’s forging ahead with an eye on the past, which makes him right at home in Clemson.

NOW THAT SWINNEY brings his “own guts” and Watson wears orange, it can be tough to remember that for nearly two full decades after Danny Ford stepped down in 1990, Clemson toiled in college football’s wasteland: irrelevance.

Ford was 33 when he led the Tigers to their national title (he remains the youngest coach to ever reach that mark), and he spent the next eight years basking in a blissful union with the program’s fan base. Hoo boy, did they love him. They loved that they saw themselves in the country-boy-turned-big-time. They loved the way he chewed his tobacco and visited his farm between practices. And they loved him because he won: After the national championship would come three more 10-win seasons, four more ACC titles and four more bowl victories. Ford transformed a small school from a small town in the ACC — that basketball conference — into a football heavyweight.

“His winning set the standard, and his personality set the standard too,” says Tommy Bowden, who coached at Clemson from 1999 to 2008. “That’s why I’m not there.”

Ford’s departure was darkened by accusations of NCAA infractions (the second such charge of his era — Clemson played on probation from 1982 to ’84 for recruiting violations) and bad blood with the administration. But no one matched his heights. After 1991, the Tigers yielded no 10-win seasons and no ACC titles, let alone a national one. And if you were a coach of Clemson football and your name was not Danny Ford? Well, Godspeed, because you were following a man whose resignation was met with a 6,000-strong candlelight vigil.

“For years, I thought he was God,” says a middle-aged man at Dyar’s Diner, a local institution just 4 miles from the Clemson campus. Ford, who’s just joined the after-church crowd lining up for lunch, playfully waves him off.

“Oh, just a real live person with all bad habits,” he jokes.

Ford comes to Dyar’s nearly every day, usually around noon. It’s about a five-minute drive from his farm, the land he secured as part of his second coaching contract in the early 1980s. He calls the waitresses honey, they call him Danny, and his regular table is located just beneath a 36-by-20 photograph of his younger self crouched on the Clemson sideline more than 30 years ago.

That enduring adoration is why Perry Tuttle loves Clemson too, calls it the best thing ever to happen to him, other than his wife, his children and his faith. But it’s complicated when you’re still seen as the 22-year-old in a tear-away jersey catching touchdown passes. It’s why he stopped wearing orange on his return trips to Pickens County. It’s why he signs every Jan. 11, 1982, issue of Sports Illustrated handed to him but won’t display one in his own home. Tuttle is writing a book he’s calling My Next Season, a self-help manifesto on how to get “unstuck,” he says.

“My lead title is Perry the Catch, or Perry Sports Illustrated … and I’m OK with that,” he says. “It just takes people a while to really hear you when you have something else to say.”

And that’s the real catch: There is no outrunning history for Tuttle, or for Ford, or for their team, until a new generation shows them the door.

HOLDING COURT IN the space between 1981 and now is Dabo Swinney.

“We need to enjoy this moment,” he says before the start of his annual media golf outing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The heat index is creeping toward triple digits, and he’s still a long-running pregame speech come to life. “This journey, this practice, this game, this bus ride, this meal … This is the best of times.”

The best of times at Clemson has always meant one coach and one team and one era. But he has a point. In 2015, Clemson claimed a No. 1 ranking for the first time since finishing there in 1981.

“There’s always been this longing for the ’80s, you know? Everything was, ‘Well, we haven’t done this since the ’80s. We haven’t done this since 1991. We haven’t done this …'” Swinney’s arms flail a little, punctuating each objection. “[But] when it gets to 2020, we’re gonna look back and we’re gonna see this was the best decade in Clemson football history.”

For now, the two eras circle each other but tread lightly around each other. Ford attends nearly every home game but keeps his distance from the football offices. He doesn’t want to get in the way. Watson admits he would “get a 50” if pop-quizzed on the 1981 team. Jeff Davis needles Watson that “Homer Jordan won his” and lets loose a belly laugh. But in Davis’ day-to-day work with Watson, and with the team, he’s here, in 2016, and expects them to be too. “I don’t want that when they see me coming, they see ’81.”

Swinney nods to the past with abandon but repeats his mantra that these are the good old days. He doesn’t want to recapture 1981; he wants to reimagine it. For all its nostalgic glow, that era reached the mountaintop, then dived headfirst off the other side. Swinney is after “uncommon consistency,” what he says distinguishes the Alabamas and Ohio States, so that when a down year inevitably comes, the question is not if Clemson will regain its footing but when.

Five straight seasons with 10-plus wins, two ACC titles and a national championship appearance make Swinney a believer that the Tigers have reached that point. There are signs he’s not alone.

“I don’t get nearly as many calls wanting to know why I don’t coach no more as I used to,” Ford says with a laugh, then winks. “They have semi-dribbled down to nothing.”

Ford will be back in Death Valley this season to watch the Tigers attempt another run at a title. Perry Tuttle will too. Maybe he’ll raise his arms in celebration for Kanyon and his teammates. Clemson honored the 1981 team’s 10th anniversary, its 20th, 25th and 30th, but there are no formal plans this season to commemorate the 35th.

The 2016 Tigers are focused on a celebration all their own.