I’ve always wanted to attend a championship parade.
Ideally, said parade would be celebrating a championship for a team I pull for (I’m looking forward to the parade, one of these years, the first week of November on Peachtree Street in Atlanta), but just in general I’ve wanted to be a part of something as jubilant and festive as tens of thousands of fans celebrating their team accomplishing the ultimate goal.
Where else, besides being at a championship game itself, can you be a part of a group of so many people from so many backgrounds, all celebrating the same thing?
Monday night, Clemson University’s football team won the national championship, winning a thrilling 35-31 game over Alabama with a last-second touchdown.
I am not a Clemson fan (I pull for two teams, who happen to be a rival and an annual ACC Atlantic Division foe) but by the time I went to bed Monday night I had realized there would be a championship parade 30 minutes from my doorstep, and immediately considered going. By Friday night, a friend with similar rooting interests but an equally similar perspective agreed to join me.
Championship parades have always been fun to watch on TV, especially when the team celebrating has not won a championship in many years. In the past year, Cleveland ended a 52-year city-wide championship drought (Cavaliers), and the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year curse, and both parades were enormous events in those respective Midwestern cities.
The Chicago parade, with an estimated 5 million in attendance, was actually the seventh-largest gathering in human history (the largest in American history), trailing only religious pilgrimages and funerals of world leaders.
While Clemson didn’t have quite as big a crowd, I thought going in that it may be as chaotic, with the reasoning that tens of thousands of people in the small town of Clemson was equitable to 5 million in a place as big as Chicago.
An estimated 30,000 lined the route, which led from downtown Clemson to Memorial Stadium, and about 65,000 attended the championship pep rally in the stadium after the parade.
Like many patrons, we were part of both crowds, positioning ourselves near the gates of Memorial Stadium to watch the parade, then entering after the parade passed.
The energy built as the parade neared (the marching band was first, so we could hear it coming), and continued as the parade progressed through the band, cheerleaders, 1981 championship team and other former players, as well as school president Jim Clements and athletic director Dan Radakovich.
Coach Dabo Swinney and his family rode on the back of a convertible, and the coach seemed to be taking it all in. As the parade slowed to a stop in front of us, he even took out his phone to take a picture of the assembled crowd. Some fans even ran out into the street to shake the coach’s hand.
The first players in the parade were quarterback Deshaun Watson and linebacker Ben Boulware, the offensive and defensive MVP of the championship game, standing in the back of an orange Jeep.
Other fan favorites followed, including tight end Jordan Leggett, center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and safety Jadar Johnson, followed by the rest of the team (including wide reciever Hunter Renfrow, who caught Monday’s game-winning touchdown), on the backs of flatbed trucks, sorted by class.
After a hike to the upper deck, we watched the championship pep rally, which featured the presentation of the two national championship trophies (College Football Playoff and Coaches’ Poll) and speeches by Clements, Radakovich, several players including Watson and Boulware, culminating with Swinney.
Now, before my Gamecock friends (and, for that matter, Demon Deacon friends) disown me, I kept a poker face through the entirety of the event. I didn’t chant “C-L-E-M-S-O-N” while the band played Tiger Rag, and didn’t cheer during the pep rally. An occasional, light applause was reserved for individuals that I have a tremendous respect for, like Ben Boulware, Deshaun Watson, and coach Dabo Swinney, especially on mentions of academic success and strong character for them and the team.
I went simply to take it all in, and experience the jubilation of a team’s championship. I would imagine the atmosphere was more electric in Clemson on Monday night, as the championship victory was fresh, but on this day the fans got to show their gratitude, up close, towards their football heroes after the program’s first championship in 35 years.
I look forward to, hopefully, being one of those fans at a future parade in another location (Atlanta, Columbia, Winston-Salem, etc.), but on this day, as more of an observer than a participant, I simply took it all in.
And, with so many people exhibiting such jubilation, it was one of the coolest sports-related events I’ve ever been a part of.