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'Like a criminal': Clemson linebacker's ejection in title game was low point, but he's back

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James Skalski enters his final season of college eligibility ready to take on more of a leadership role. 

CLEMSON — Sherri Skalski needed to excuse herself. It was the College Football Playoff national championship, and her son was having the "game of his life." Then the referee's whistle blew.

The verdict was delivered: James Skalski, Clemson's middle linebacker, was ruled guilty of targeting. The punishment? Ejection, and an escort to the locker room.

"Like a criminal," Sherri observed. "It's really humiliating. It just doesn't look good."

As her son retreated to the bowels of New Orleans' Superdome, Sherri stood up and left her end zone seat. She didn't want the camera to capture her heartbroken face.

She was found near the concession stands by the rest of the Skalski cheering section: her daughter, Brenna; her step daughter, Caitlyn; and her son's girlfriend, Caitlyn Moyb.

Three sets of eyes focused on the family matriarch. Their guy was gone, but the game was still happening. LSU was on the verge of pulling away.

What were they to do?

"Well," she said. "We take a deep breath. And we're Clemson fans. We're not James Skalski-only fans. We are Clemson fans. So we go back down, and we cheer for our team."

That's what they did, though there was less to cheer about as the night wore on. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow hit wide receiver Thaddeus Moss for a 4-yard score the play after Skalski's ejection, turning a three-point Clemson deficit into a 10-point hole. Another LSU touchdown two possessions later spelled the end of Clemson's 29-game winning streak.

The 42-25 defeat stung for coach Dabo Swinney's team, but perhaps no player felt as helpless as the clock wound down than Skalski. Some on social media criticized the call. 

ESPN's Stephen A Smith chimed in on Twitter: "What B.S. To get thrown out of the game for (that) hit is utterly ridiculous."

That was a popular sentiment. Skalski himself was seen screaming on the sideline after the ruling, having yanked off his helmet in frustration. Before Skalski left the field for good, though, Swinney pulled him aside and said something that brought a "calmness" over the linebacker:

"I love you."

Brenna and Sherri said something had shifted by the time they saw him later in the night. He had moved on. He refrained from lamenting what could've been.

Skalski, instead, looked toward the future. He had one year of eligibility remaining, after all. Another shot at a national championship. One comment he made stuck with his mother:

"We'll be back."

'Bawled like a baby'

Swinney had high hopes for Skalski entering last season. Addressing the media in July, he gushed over the 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker.

"The football world does not really know who Skalski is, but if he stays healthy, they will," Swinney said. "He is a really good football player. It is just a matter of time before everyone knows that."

The words proved prescient. Forced to redshirt the previous season after suffering a broken foot, Skalski helped anchor a Tigers' defense that held all 12 of its regular-season opponents to fewer than 300 yards.

Playing beside All-America linebacker Isaiah Simmons, Skalski finished second on the team with 105 tackles (7.5 loss), in addition to recording 4.5 sacks, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The football world, without question, had learned who he was.

The Jan. 13 national title game was shaping up to be the perfect coda to his breakout season. Through 39 minutes, Skalski had recorded six tackles, a sack and a pass breakup, and with the game close, he was likely to fill up the box score some more.

With about six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Burrow completed a 7-yard pass to LSU's Justin Jefferson over the top. Safety Denzel Johnson went low. Skalski went high, inadvertently smashing the crown of his helmet into the receiver's shoulder. 

In addition to Skalski's ejection, LSU was granted an automatic first down. Burrow then connected with Moss for the touchdown the following play.

Up in the stands, Skalski's sister felt a sinking feeling. Brenna said she took her four years on the Georgia State softball team "for granted" before graduating in 2018, focusing more on the balls she didn't catch than those she did. 

It was important, she insisted to her younger brother, to enjoy the present. Now, on the biggest stage of his career to that point, Skalski had the moment yanked from him.

"Yeah, man, I cried," he said. "I bawled like a baby."

 'Can't control everything'

On Monday, Skalski leaned against a back wall in the Tigers' practice facility, covered in sweat. His white tank top bore a quote: 'Forgetting what is Behind, and Looking Forward To What Lies Ahead.'

The team had been progressing well in spring practice, he said. And he was taking on more of a leadership role. Some of the young guys have taken to calling him 'sensei.'

"Skalski, I feel like he is the epitome of mike linebacker," redshirt sophomore linebacker Mike Jones Jr. said. "Skalski could go out there, no joke, and coach up every position. Every single position.

"He'll rally the troops, man. He has me ready to go knock somebody out every practice."

Skalski said he's moved on from the ejection, which will force him to sit for the first half of Clemson's season opener at Georgia Tech on Sept. 3. He's trying to appeal that ruling, he told The Post and Courier, but is uncertain the measure will work. 

Brenna, for what it's worth, wasn't surprised her brother put the targeting call behind him so fast. The family's resolve has been tested in the past. On Oct. 14, 2016, Skalski's father, John, died of a heart attack. He was 51.

"As an athlete, you have the impression that you have control of things, and to an extent you do," Brenna said. "When you have a life event a little contrary to that, you're able to grow as a person. That helps you grow as an athlete. You realize you can't control everything."

Like a referee's hand signal, and the corresponding frustration that comes with it. Skalski can control his attitude. And his diet. He's cut out junk food and lowered his sugar intake — that means no more Gatorade. He fills his body with fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Sherri no longer sees charges from Chick-fil-A on his bank statement.

On Jan. 29, Clemson posted a video to its official Twitter account that started with Skalski walking into the team weight room. Wide receiver Amari Rodgers provided the voiceover against dramatic music.

"When one season ends, the next begins," Rodgers said in the video, as the music quickened. "So what happens after you go 29-0 but lose in the national championship?"

The music stopped. Skalski, standing at a squat rack, balanced the weight on his neck. Before lowering into the squat, he looked into the camera and answered Rodgers' question:

"You get back to work."

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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