Friday, January 1, 2016

Fuller, Fullest, and the Fantastic 4

Old football proverb: The name on the front of your jersey is more important than the name on the back. (New York Times photo)
    At the end of the Orange Bowl, Clemson needed to run a six-second play to exhaust the clock and keep from giving the football back to Oklahoma. So instead of taking a knee, Deshaun Watson took a shotgun snap, waited a couple of ticks, cocked his golden right arm, and launched a 60-yard pass into the Clemson fan section on the other end of the stadium.
     The way this perfect-ending season has gone, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Watson's game-ending pass was caught by none other than Steve Fuller.
     Almost everything Watson has done this season has brought honor to Fuller, who was—listen, children! the quarterback who put Clemson football on the map.
WON NOT DONE (Miami Herald photo)
     By the time Watson reached the podium on New Year's Eve to accept the award as the most valuable offensive player in the Orange Bowl, he had shed his game jersey, the one with the patch on the right shoulder honoring Fuller. Instead, he was wearing a T-shirt saying WON NOT DONE, immediately changing the focus to the Jan. 11 national championship game against Alabama. 
     I know there are some who thought it cheapened Fuller's memory to unretire his number and use it to entice Watson to come to Clemson. Some of my friends say it would be better to keep Fuller's No. 4 under glass, like Howard's Rock.
     Why not have it both ways? The New York Times had the story this week of how Clemson has balanced its history against its future:

A Clemson Juggernaut Is Led by a Star Wearing No. 4. That Figures.
By Tim Rohan
   Inside the Clemson locker room at Memorial Stadium, about 10 feet from quarterback Deshaun Watson’s locker, is a shrine to the jersey number he wears. There, set up neatly in another locker, is a throwback helmet, a pair of uniform pants and a hanging No. 4 jersey. It is all encased in glass, like a museum exhibit recalling the glory days of Clemson football.
   In reality, it is a tribute to Steve Fuller, the quarterback of the famed 1978 Clemson team. His number, 4, was the first one retired by Clemson’s football program.
Fuller made an exception two years ago and allowed Watson to wear the number. That has created an awkward situation: In leading Clemson to a 13-0 record and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Watson has perhaps surpassed Fuller as the greatest player in Tigers history.
   When Watson was coming out of high school in Gainesville, Ga., Clemson’s ability to offer him No. 4 was another advantage in his recruitment as the university competed with the likes of Alabama and Florida State. When Watson was still a high school junior, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney slyly mentioned to Fuller, while the two of them were paired at a golf tournament, that some universities honored their past by allowing current players to wear retired numbers.
   The next year, at the same tournament, Swinney got more specific, explaining to Fuller who Watson was — a five-star recruit ranked among the top players in the nation — and what it would mean if Fuller would consent to Watson’s wearing his No. 4.
   “I gave him my blessing with the understanding that this was an unusual kid, and it would be a nice thing for the program,” Fuller said in a phone interview this week as he prepared to travel to the Orange Bowl. “If Coach said it was a good idea, I was going to go along with it.”
   It would have been hard for Swinney to blame Fuller if he had said no. When Fuller arrived at Clemson in 1975, the Tigers had not made a bowl game in the previous 15 seasons. When he took his first snap in his first start as a freshman, his feet were in the end zone in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — a metaphor for the state of the program.
   Fuller never put up the flashy statistics Watson has produced, but his role was different. Even though the Tigers had Dwight Clark and Jerry Butler, a future first-round draft pick, they ran a gritty option offense, and Fuller was its maestro. At one point, he started 27 consecutive games. In his senior year, the Tigers went 11-1, averaged 31 points a game, and beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl in Buckeyes Coach Woody Hayes' final game.
   At the time, Fuller was the most decorated player in Clemson history. He was twice named the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior, becoming the first Tiger to finish in the top 10. Clemson retired his No. 4 before he left campus, during the 1979 spring game.
   “I just happened to be the guy that was the quarterback on a team that, as we look at it, the team that turned the program in the right direction, gave it a little bit of a renaissance,” Fuller said. “We got it to the point where it was not a big national power, but a program that people started recognizing and kids in high school started noticing. It was more that, than me as an individual. I was the guy taking the snaps.”
    Three years after Fuller graduated, Clemson won its only national championship. Now, with Watson, they have their best shot at a second title.
   When Watson first got to campus, Swinney frequently gave Fuller updates on Watson’s progress, on the field and in the classroom, as if Watson were Fuller’s son. But Fuller mostly watched Watson from afar, from the same seats that his father had sat in when he played.
    Injuries, most notably a torn anterior cruciate ligament, cut short Watson’s freshman season, but he impressed his coaches with his maturity, decision-making and athleticism. Fuller noticed his poise under duress.
    In early October, Fuller watched from the stands with his college teammate Jeff Bostic as Watson accounted for all three Clemson touchdowns in a close win over Notre Dame, in what was perhaps Clemson’s most important game of the regular season. Bostic leaned over and asked Fuller if Clemson could retire No. 4 twice. He chuckled to make clear that he was joking.
   But perhaps Bostic had a point. “He would certainly be deserving of it when he’s done,” Fuller said of Watson. “Knock on wood. Hopefully we’ve got a lot of good things left to come.”
     Schools differ in how they honor the numbers of their football heroes. Alabama has never retired a number. Florida State retires jerseys but allows the numbers to be reused. 
     Of the schools who recruited Watson, only Clemson had retired No. 4, so once Fuller gave his blessings, it essentially leveled the playing field. Wherever he went, Watson could keep the number he wore for the Gainesville High Red Elephants.
     I don't know if No. 4 was even a factor in Watson's college decision, but it was a nice trump card for Clemson to be able to play. And of all the inducements a hotshot recruit may be offered, a special jersey number is pretty honorable.
     But the question remains: By bringing No. 4 out of retirement, has Clemson taken anything away from Fuller? Not as long as kids see the patch on Watson's shoulder and ask Granddaddy, "Who's Fuller?"
Steve Fuller against Notre Dame in 1977

     Oh, little Tiger, let me tell you about Steve Fuller. His team was the first from Clemson to beat Georgia "between the hedges," which were planted way back in 1929. Beat uppitty Georgia Tech in Atlanta back when they almost never came up to Clemson. Nearly beat Joe Montana and Notre Dame's 1977 national championship team. Beat Woody Hayes in the Gator Bowl. Fuller didn't do it by himself, of course, but he was the face of the program when Clemson decided to double-deck Death Valley and recruited many of the players who won the 1981 national championship.
     Little Tiger, don't you ever forget Steve Fuller.

     Retired numbers can be quickly forgotten. To prove my point, here's a pop quiz: See how many of these players you can name by their retired numbers:
Clemson: 4, 28, 66 (Hint: 66 is not William Perry).
Auburn: 7, 34, 88.
Florida State: 2, 16, 17, 25, 28, 34, 50 (Hint: 28 also had a profound impact on Watson's life).
Georgia: 21, 34, 40, 62.
South Carolina: 2, 37, 38, 56.
     Can you even pick out the seven Heisman Trophy winners on that list? (Answers below)

An Orange Bowl reminder of Fuller's first juggernaut
Before he was No. 4, Steve Fuller wore 11 at Spartanburg High
      I was away at Missouri or busy at the office during Fuller's career at Clemson, and the only time I remember seeing him play in person was in 1974, when he was quarterback of the Spartanburg High School team that regularly put 70 on the scoreboard and set a state record for points in a season. 
     And when I saw Watson and defensive MVP Ben Boulware on the podium after the Orange Bowl, it brought back a special memory. Boulware is a graduate of my high school, T.L. Hannathe team that stopped Fuller's Spartanburg juggernaut.
     Thanks for the memories, Ben and Deshaun.
     Congratulations, Steve. This one's for you.
T.L. Hanna graduate Ben Boulware (Miami Herald photo)

Clemson: 4-Steve Fuller, 28-C.J. Spiller, 66-Banks McFadden.
Auburn: 7-Pat Sullivan, 34-Bo Jackson, 88-Terry Beasley.
Florida State: 2-Deion Sanders, 16-Chris Weinke, 17-Charlie Ward, 25-Fred Biletnikoff, 28-Warrick Dunn, 34-Ron Sellers, 50-Ron Simmons.
Georgia: 21-Frank Sinkwich, 34-Herschel Walker, 40-Theron Sapp, 62-Charlie Trippi.
South Carolina: 2-Sterling Sharpe, 37-Steve Wadiak, 38-George Rogers, 50-Mike Johnson.

Heisman Trophy winners are underlined. Conspicuously absent from that list are the 2010 and 2014 Heisman winners, Auburn's Cam Newton and FSU's Jameis Winston.

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