CLEMSON — The gates to Death Valley opened before the sun rose Saturday in Clemson, when it was still 7 a.m., pitch-black outside and near-freezing in the Upstate with temperatures in the 30s.
Fans filed in, bundled up with their children from head to toe in order to catch a glimpse of college football's newest national champions up close and personal.
By 9:50 a.m., once the Tigers' College Football Playoff National Championship parade was on its way, Christian Wilkins was scarfing down donuts and also tossing the glazed delicacies into the crowd to anyone who could catch one.
By 10 a.m., he had a cigar in his mouth as he rode with Hunter Renfrow through the streets of Clemson in a bright orange Jeep Wrangler. By 11 a.m., he found himself jokingly apologizing for how ugly of a crier he was on national television Monday night after Clemson thrashed Alabama 44-16 for the Tigers' third national title. And by 11:15, he was crashing Clelin Ferrell's speech as the six permanent Clemson team captains took center stage.
He was also so excited he had cotton mouth.
"Chill out," Ferrell said jokingly to Wilkins, who couldn't sit still all day. "Y'all be quiet!"
But Wilkins couldn't help it.
"We all worked so hard our whole lives to get to this point, and it's great to see it all coming to fruition and getting to the mountaintop for sure," Wilkins said. "But the thing is, it's not really about the mountaintop moments. It's always about the journey, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of people behind me to experience this journey with.
"It's just truly special."
Saturday was the culmination of Clemson's 2018 story, which began with three defensive linemen returning to school for a crack at one more national championship instead of heading to the NFL draft and ended with some 50,000 fans fawning over Wilkins and Renfrow and Dabo Swinney and Trevor Lawrence and Mitch Hyatt (who also postponed the draft) as the Tigers paraded through the streets celebrating their second title in three years.
The parade included former Clemson football players who helped lay the foundation for the program and also showed highlights of how Clemson got here as players and coaches rode on top of everything from convertibles to trucks to bales of hay.
It even started to sleet at one point.
There was the replaying of parts of Swinney's first-ever press conference as the new head coach 10 years ago, and there were montages of older games throughout the 2010s that set up the Tigers to compete in the playoff with the regularity that they do now.
Wilkins, Ferrell, Renfrow, Hyatt, Adam Choice and Kendall Joseph all spoke — all six having been elected permanent team captains for the season and all six having thanked their families — and then Swinney made his way to the podium as the stadium exploded in celebration.
The three-time Bear Bryant Award winner shed some insight into the conversations he had with his team when no one was watching this season, which included how determined this team was to make history as one of the best groups to ever play the game.
"They wanted to know how many wins they needed to have to be the winningest senior class. They needed 50; well, they got 55," Swinney said.
"Then I challenged these guys with a (Paul J. Meyer) quote. It says: 'What you vividly imagine and ardently believe and enthusiastically act upon will inevitably come to be.' We talked about that.”
As the afternoon wore on, Swinney spoke directly to his players, encouraging them to take what they had learned in the football program and apply it to their jobs, their marriages, their relationships and their communities moving forward.
Joseph even jokingly told the crowd he expects to have “40 job offers” in his email inbox after the parade if the NFL doesn’t work out because of his status as an upstate South Carolina native.
Swinney was grateful for the day, engaged with his players who made it all possible and reminded of how the Tigers slayed the ultimate giant in knocking off perennial powerhouse Alabama. Spring ball starts soon, and the annual spring game is set for April 6, but Saturday was all about the present.
"This team set out to be about it from Day 1,” Swinney said. “The 2018 team is the best ever, drop the mic. The best ever. And they have set a standard for all future teams.
"It's not that we won. It's how we won."
For the Tigers, that was worth celebrating.