CLEMSON — As a young boy, Thomas Holcombe sat in the front yard of his house and watched the cars roll by on Saturday mornings as they headed into Clemson.
“Daddy, where all these cars going?” Holcombe asked his father.
“To the Clemson football game,” was the reply.
That's all it took to create a Clemson fan for life.
At about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Holcombe — now 74, and confined by a nerve condition to a motorized wheelchair — arrived with his own son at Memorial Stadium, carving out a front-row spot to await the Tigers' triumphant return from Tampa.
Thomas and Brian Holcombe, clutching a white Clemson helmet adorned with autographs, waited for six hours for the buses carrying the Tigers. Father and son cheered along with about 5,000 other fans as Clemson players returned to campus Tuesday afternoon, fresh off their 35-31 win over Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
“If you ever come to a few ball games at Clemson, there's nothing else like it,” said Thomas Holcombe, who lives in Six Mile and is retired from Mohawk Carpets and the National Guard. “Then, you are hooked for life.”
Clemson players clambered out of the buses after what linebacker Ben Boulware called a “blurry” 16 hours since they won the Tigers' second national title, and first since 1981. The Tigers were agog at the deafening cheers from their fans.
“That's just our fans, that's what they do,” said defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, now noted for his shirtless belly dance in Tampa. “They love us and they care about us and support us. I'm not surprised at all at how many are here, honestly.”
Boulware, defensive MVP of the championship game, grinned widely as he approached fans, letting kids pull on his trademark beard.
“We have the best fans in college football, and I know a lot of fans say that,” Boulware said before wading into the middle of the crowd. “But look at the numbers and the amount of people that are here; it's unreal.”
Boulware said the reality of winning a national championship is “pretty even” with the dream Clemson players have nursed for so long.
“I've been dreaming of this my whole life,” he said. “Now, it's finally reality and it's such a satisfying feeling to see the fruits of your labor. I'm super excited for the community and to bring the national championship trophy home.”
Said Wilkins, "This is everything I ever imagined. You always dream about this moment, and to celebrate it with our fans like this, it makes it even more surreal."
Many Clemson fans who could not make it to Tampa gathered downtown on Monday night to watch the game and celebrate the victory. Clemson police chief Jimmy Dixon said there were about 6,000 people on the streets Monday night, about 3,500 of them at a viewing party on College Avenue.
Dixon said there were no major incidents and only six arrests, mostly of fans who had too much to drink.
“People were celebrating, they were cheering and happy, and quite frankly they did it the right way,” Dixon said. “There were a few who had a little too much to drink, but with six total arrests, that's a pretty good night. There were no incidents, no looting or rioting or tearing anything up. It was a great night.”
Tuesday was a great day for local business as well, as the parking lot outside The Tiger Sports Shop on Highway 123 was a madhouse.
The store, packed with orange and purple Clemson gear, was opened from about midnight to 2:30 a.m., as fans snapped up the first wave of national championship gear.
Doors opened again at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and there were already people in line.
“It's been a zoo,” said general manager Patti Nichols. “This has been the most exciting, insane, crazy place I could imagine. It's been busier than a game day when the team is at home.”
Nichols took a risk in ordering national championship gear ahead of time. That shipment sold out Monday night before a new one came in Tuesday morning.
“If the worst case happens and we don't win, we pay a reduced price and we donate it to overseas, and we take a hit,” she said. “But we knew we were going to win, so we had T-shirts and hats all ready to go.”
As he waited in line with his shirt, one Clemson fan turned to the person next to him.
“I can't stop smiling,” he said.