As a sports fan, I’m used to being on the outside looking in. Year in and year out — national titles, Super Bowls, World Series — I’ve watched someone else’s team win.
I’ve longed for the day when my team might actually end the season on the top of the mountain. I thought it would never happen. I even owned that this must be good for my soul — God’s merciful providence to keep me from being too elated by some silly game, distracted from the real battle going on in the world. Enjoying sports was a nice hobby and pastime in its place, and the consistent inability of any of my bad-weather teams to win championships was God’s way of keeping my fandom in proper perspective.
Slaying the Best
So today is the greatest day of my life as a sports fan. At least it’s supposed to be.
Early this morning, just after midnight, with less than five minutes left in the national championship game, Clemson took its first lead against the top-ranked Alabama team that commentators have called “historically good,” even “unbeatable.” Alabama was Goliath, the embodiment of the world’s strength and wisdom, teeming with five-star recruits and a roster full of high-school All-Americans.
After Clemson’s go-ahead score, Alabama came tearing down the field and retook the lead. I knew this feeling. I would be on the outside yet again. I made peace with it.
But Alabama had scored too quickly and left too much time on the clock. Clemson’s offense had a full two minutes to charge back and deliver the winning touchdown with just one second left on the clock. It was a 35–31 upset of the juggernaut some said couldn’t be beaten.
This was it. This is what I’ve longed for, in the world of sports, more than anything else, and for more than three decades now. Today is the day I dreamed for and assumed would never happen.
I was just a year old in 1981, too young to remember, when Clemson won its first national championship. My parents met at Clemson in the 70s, and my dad drove to Miami with my mom’s brothers for the 1981 title game. I grew up in a home with the 1981 Clemson memorabilia on display in the house. Clemson winning another national championship — and me being able to consciously enjoy it — has hung over my head more than anything else in sports.
In my formative years, my dad had season tickets for Clemson football, and some of my sweetest memories with him from childhood was making the hour-plus car trip, parking far, and sprint-walking into Death Valley just in time to see the Tigers run down the hill into the stadium before the game — what they call “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
“My blood runneth orange,” I’d say.
One Second Left
So, yes, today is the greatest day in my 36 years of being a sports fan. And yet I have to admit it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would.
“Today is the greatest day of my life as a sports fan, and I have to admit it doesn’t feel as good as I hoped.”
When Clemson’s quarterback rolled out to the right and found the tiny, giant-slayer of a wide receiver in the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown, I wanted to let loose and enjoy the moment — the moment I’d waited more than three decades for — with unrestrained celebration. I wanted to fall to my knees in the euphoria. I wanted to shed the tears of joy I long anticipated would come if Clemson ever won it all. I wanted to taste this victory to the full, to experience a lifetime of longing come to completion.
And yet one second still remained on the clock. One inkling of a chance that Alabama could piece together a circus play. But a few moments later, Clemson recovered the kickoff and took a knee. We had won.
But even when the clock read all zeroes, even as coach Dabo Swinney cradled the trophy and declared, “Only God could do this,” even when the players made emotional speeches, and the biggest names at ESPN talked fawningly about the team I love, even when every last “t” seemed crossed and every last “i” dotted, part of me still felt as if one second still remained.
More Than This
Being a lifelong fan, of the underdog team, from the tiny college town does feel really good today. But now that I’m on the inside of it, I can tell you it’s not as good as I hoped. Make no mistake, I’m enjoying it, but I’m also raising a monument here in writing these words — for myself and for any longing sports fan in Christ who desperately wants their team to win it all.
Our souls indeed were made to share in a climactic victory. I admit that I didn’t play a single snap last night. I’m not on the team. I don’t even live in South Carolina anymore. I didn’t see any Clemson games in person this year. Triumphs like these have layers of proximity and participation, and I’ll have to leave it to others to share about what it’s like at the epicenter. But we know that every championship MVP, if he’s honest, will discover deep down, in Tom Brady’s words, “There has to be more than this.”
“God buried an ache for victory deep in our souls.”
I can’t speak for the players and coaches. But for sports fans and armchair quarterbacks like me, take this, if you would, as my little effort to wave a flag for our being made for more. Here’s to resolving to be a better fan in the future, since now I’ve finally seen there’s emptiness on the inside, too. Not better in supporting the team, but better at taking both victory and defeat in stride, with feet fixed firmly in the victory of Christ, which any worthwhile win only faintly anticipates.
God did bury an ache for victory deep in our souls. It’s a longing that will be fully met one day, with no single tick left on the clock. We will win like no team has ever won, with no painful, unfulfilled sense of longing. We will celebrate a reality far better than we could have imagined for ourselves. We will finally be on the inside and find no single trace of hollowness this time.