CLEMSON — Corporal Derrick Cannon, who has experienced a world most 24-year-olds can’t even fathom, wasn’t shy to show his inner 4-year-old.
“This is awesome. That’s why I’m taking pictures,” Cannon admitted with a boyish grin.
It was an unforgettable day for the lifelong Clemson fan, touring the Tigers’ football complex and walking amongst his boyhood heroes.
Despite Cannon’s reverence, people like sophomore offensive lineman Eric MacLain and assistant strength and conditioning director Larry Greenlee are no dummies.
They know firsthand who the real heroes are.
Cannon was one of 42 Marines enjoying a sunny Thursday at Clemson for a Wounded Warriors visit, exclusively guided through the Scroll of Honor, Memorial Stadium and the athletic facilities.
The group passed through the football weight room, mostly evacuated since players are excused from campus in between summer school sessions.
But after Greenlee shared a few words and showed a brief video, three players took a break from lifting to say hello — defensive tackle Josh Watson and cornerback Dante Stewart along with MacLain, the son of an Air Force officer who eagerly expressed his gratitude to Clemson’s guests of honor.
“The things that they go through,” MacLain said, “it’s not every day you’ve got people that are saving your country and giving you your freedom over here (at Clemson.)”
The Wounded Warriors Project’s mission statement is “to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.” The project, founded post-9/11, has aided more than 33,000 alumni, according to its website, and Clemson has hosted Wounded Warriors each of the past few summers.
While a few Marines wore clothing supporting the likes of LSU and rival South Carolina, one active duty soldier couldn’t contain his excitement for his favorite team.
“I’ve never done this before, that was the first time I’ve gotten to rub (Howard’s) Rock,” Cannon said.
“So this honestly gives me goosebumps, walking to the locker room, seeing where all the players get to sit. This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Cannon graduated from nearby Pickens High School, wrestling varsity his whole high school career — a scrappy 145-pounder his senior year in 2007. He was deployed last fall to Afghanistan, stationed there eight months before returning last month.
Cannon’s been to one Clemson home game in his life, as a teenager — a 30-7 romp over Ball State on Sept. 21, 2002.
“I really like the locker room. It’s kind of like the backstage pass,” Cannon said. “You get to see where everybody gets together, where they put on their jerseys, where C.J. Spiller (played).”
The morning’s opening activity was particularly touching for Cannon and his fellow combatants, stepping through Clemson University Memorial Park across the street from the football stadium. The Scroll of Honor remembers the hundreds of Clemson graduates killed in battle.
“With Clemson and its military background and tradition, it makes a perfect fit for the puzzle to bring these guys here and see some of the honorary monuments we have around campus as well,” Greenlee said.
The Wounded Warriors were given a Scroll of Honor history lesson by tour guide Sandy Edge, a 1972 Clemson graduate and retired Air Force colonel who’s now director of the school’s College of Business and Behavioral Science Academic Advising Center.
“It’s an honor, just to be in the presence of this,” Cannon said. “Knowing what they’ve done, you can’t match up to what they’ve done and what we’ve done — it’s all good. I’m really proud to be from here, so just to be in the same vicinity as the great ones before me, it’s an honor.”
The honor was all Greenlee’s as well, a self-described army brat whose father is a double amputee and Vietnam War veteran.
“For us to have just five minutes of their time, it’s more of an honor on our part,” Greenlee said. “Football is a small parallel — it’s in no way compared to actual battle, but we use a lot of their mentality in training as far as preparation for games. But those guys, they’ve sacrificed, and that allows us to play on Saturdays.”