EXCLUSIVE: Clemson Football Family Shares Bonding Week Before Bowl Trip
CLEMSON, SC - In the huddle after practice Tuesday afternoon, head coach Dabo Swinney sent his team off with a message that has become familiar to the veterans on the team when they are about to have idle time on their hands.
"He was like, 'You've got a little time off, so make the right decisions,'" junior wide receiver Adam Humphries said.
The older players shared a knowing grin at the suggestion they might find mischief around town.
"About the only thing to do around here is play some video games or go out to eat, so I don't think we'll be getting in too much trouble with all the free time we have," Humphries said.
This week, after exams wrapped up on the Clemson University campus, the parking lots were empty, the dorms closed, and the members of the football team had the chance to focus completely on football without the distraction of classwork.
"It's 100 percent football focus," Humphries said. "It kind of feels like fall camp again. We're coming in here in the morning, we're meeting, and we're lifting and just practicing. There are no academics, so we don't have to focus on that. We're just watching film and getting ready for Ohio State and just grinding it out with our teammates."
But they weren't the only ones grinding.
What most people won't realize as they settle into a comfy recliner to watch college bowl games over the holiday season is it isn't just the players and coaches working hard to give their team a chance to win.
There are also the equipment managers, athletic trainers and video staff - many of them students themselves - who have given up a chance to go home for Christmas break to stay around campus and make sure the football team is ready to play.
"Most people just see the games and see there are 11 guys on the field against 11 guys and that's all there is," senior student trainer Jordan Achterhoff said. "But they don't realize there are people doing laundry, people making Gatorade, doing medicine - there are so many things behind the scenes that really affect whether we win or lose."
Talk about 100 percent football focus.
Clemson Head Athletic Trainer Danny Poole has 16 undergraduates on his training staff who are still on campus and working what most would consider full-time jobs to help the Tigers prepare for the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl.
"These guys and gals are here three days before the players officially report for camp," Poole said. "They're here getting ready, and they're here the whole time. We couldn't do this job if we didn't have their help."
Most of Clemson's student trainers don't necessarily want to go into athletic training as a profession - Poole has one student on his staff considering it - but many are hoping to go to medical or law schools and know it could bolster their résumés.
"I've been here awhile, and it's been a good privilege and I've gotten to see a lot of things and do a lot of things that most people wouldn't get to do," senior student trainer Braden Waters said. "But at the same time, I'm hoping to go into physical therapy, so instead of just coming here and working a job, I've actually used it as a step to the future as well."
While the student support staffers have varying plans after college, what they have in common is a love for Clemson and a love for being around athletics.
"They're good citizens, they work hard, and they have fun with it," Poole said. "But there's a lot of grunt work - just like with the equipment managers - that they have to do day in and day out. They're working six days a week during the fall."
In fact Clemson University doesn't even offer athletic training or sports medicine as a curriculum, and its student trainers view that fact as a sort of badge of honor - proof that they aren't just doing what they do to earn credits to graduate.
"It's kind of cool because it's like a melting pot," said Achterhoff, a business major. "At other schools that have a curriculum or have a program, those people are there because that's what they have to do to get their degree. We do it as a want. We don't have to do it because that's what is required, we just do it to keep busy and help pay for school and experience things you never would've as a regular student."
One of those things is being part of the team. While most Tiger fans have a personal stake in the outcome of Clemson's games, the student trainers have the benefit of knowing their actions actively contribute to each victory.
They take the losses just as personally.
"If they lose, it's like you lose too, because wherever they go, you get to go too," sophomore student trainer Alex Derrick said. "You're hoping as much as they are to go to a good bowl or win the next game because it just makes it a lot more fun."
Of course, this season the Tigers are going to a very good bowl game, their second Orange Bowl in three years, which means a trip to Miami for Poole's entire staff.
"(Bowl week) is a reward time for them, just like it is with the players," Poole said. "I don't know if you'd call this week a reward week, though, because everybody else is home and visiting with their families, and they are here and working practice and getting packed. We've got to get so much stuff packed to take to Florida because we basically try to take everything and set up a training room in the hotel, so we've got all the comforts of home right there in house."
While next week, bowl week, is a reward week for the players and student support staffers alike, this week is a bonding week.
Since those with a job to do for the football team are among the few people left on campus, they are almost forced to develop a bond in order to have companionship during this week of practice.
"We all get to know each other real well and hang out with each other because it's really the only option," senior student trainer Kyle Smith said. "But it's a really good opportunity for us. We don't get to go home and have a big Christmas like the rest of the students do, but we have our Christmas break with each other."
To occupy their time, the student trainers organized a secret Santa party, while the equipment managers had a paintball game in the works.
While there is some intermingling between the various support staffs, there's also a certain loyalty within each of the groups that exists.
"Normally when we're going out to eat most of the times we'll hang out together, but not really before practice," senior trainer Alex Tomberlin said. "I guess since we're in the same hotel we normally collaborate on different stuff we do, but most often not really. We're kind of separated, but we have no grudges or ill will towards (the managers and video staff). We're still cool with them, but most of the stuff we do is internally."
After practice Tuesday, just after Swinney had delivered his message about staying out of trouble, Humphries and his roommates - Stanton Seckinger, Jim Brown and Ammon Lakip - were planning to host some other players, including quarterback Tajh Boyd, for some heated video game competition.
"It's awesome," Humphries said. "Tajh and Nick Schuessler, we challenged them to a two-on-two FIFA matchup, so they're coming over to the house later today. It's just fun to play and mess around with those guys outside of football. FIFA soccer is the main go-to game. Tajh has been talking a lot of junk, so we'll see how he holds up."
Some of the other football players also had plans for video game competition, but their preferred sports for virtual athletics were football and basketball, not soccer.
"Everybody is competing," senior outside linebacker Quandon Christian said. "Guys are competing in NBA2K, Madden and NCAA Football. Tavaris Barnes, Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford, all those guys can play. This week of bowl practice is fun because we get to have fun with each other, go places, go to the movies, go to the mall and spend that quality time with each other."
Many of the players also spend quality time with the support staffers. Since most of the veterans from both groups have been part of the team for up to four years now, they have spent quite a bit of time together and formed a bond.
"They're part of the team, too," junior quarterback Cole Stoudt said. "We treat them just as equal as everyone else, and we've made great relationships with all of them. Some of them are our best friends who we've been friends with since we got here. They're just part of the team, and we love them all.
"Every single person that's in the stadium every day contributes to the football team and makes us better. That's the football players, the staff, the graduate assistants, the equipment guys, the managers, the trainers, they all put in the work to make us better and we're so thankful for them."
Of course, a football team is largely a male-dominated operation, and that goes for the support staff too. But according to one of the exceptions, senior student trainer Katelyn Dennis, there's plenty of room for a female influence on the team.
"It was kind of intimidating my first year just because it was like 200 guys and me," Dennis said. "But there are a couple girls here, and so you definitely have a bond with them. I feel like I have 200 big brothers - and that's awesome. I feel like I can go to them whenever I need to."
That is especially true during bonding week, when the Clemson football family feels more like a family than ever.
"It's weird, you sort of realize that this is your second family and you really love all these people," Dennis said. "It's been great. It's been kind of a different experience, but one I wouldn't trade for anything."