In the euphoria following Clemson’s stunning National Championship victory Monday night, one moment stood out: ESPN reporter Samantha Ponder’s interview with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney as he left the confetti-strewn field. She asked Dabo how his team had managed to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide.
“I told the team,” he said, “that the difference in the game is gonna be love. My word all year has been love. Today, we’re gonna win it because we love each other. We love each other. We’re gonna win the game, I don’t know how—I told them at halftime—but we’re gonna win it.”
See the whole interview here
For anyone who watched the game—in South Carolina that would be everybody—the first half confirmed the general perception that the Tigers didn’t stand a chance. Clemson trailed by only seven points but the game was so obviously getting away from them that a blowout wasn’t out of the question. The claim in the weeks leading up to the game that Alabama’s defense might be the greatest of all time didn’t seem far-fetched.
But Clemson came out after halftime a different team. It was shocking, really, to see the Alabama defense that had been dominant in the first half become so ineffective in the second that Clemson scored 21 points in the fourth quarter—a total all the more remarkable when you consider that Alabama’s opponents had scored a total of only 38 points in the season’s previous 13 games.
Television analysts struggled to explain Clemson’s second half performance. They claimed that Alabama’s depth wasn’t as strong as in past years; that Tigers’ celebrated quarterback Deshuan Watson finally got on track after his first half jitters; or that the undersized Alabama defensive backs couldn’t keep up with Clemson’s stable of NFL-quality receivers.
What makes more sense to me is what Dabo said: “Love will win this game.”
Football is a violent game and at the level on display Monday night played by physically gifted young men who crave the kind of physical collisions that often bruise, batter and even break bodies. The game began, for instance, with Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster trying to knock off Watson’s head with a clubbed forearm. While the fans erupted in protest, coaches or players on the field didn’t complain. That’s football.
In the game’s final moments with Clemson on the Alabama’s two-yard-line and time for only one play that could mean either victory or defeat, Tiger wide-out Artavis Scott dove headlong into Crimson Tide defender Marlon Humphrey, knocking him back into teammate Tony Brown who was in turn thrown three steps behind Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow was then able to streak unmolested into the corner of the end zone where Deshaun—if he wasn’t smiling at the memory of Foster’s earlier attempt at decapitation, he should have been—threw a dart into his waiting hands for the winning score. That Tony Brown was the victim of the winning play seemed a just conclusion to Clemson fans since earlier he had almost given Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams a concussion with a questionable blow to the head.
Renfrow’s touchdown will take its place in the long series of grievances Alabama fans nurse against almost everybody, but you won’t hear the coaches and players complaining. That’s football. It’s a hard game played by hard men, where competitiveness, power and violence are fundamental values. No one wins who doesn’t understand that.
But Dabo said, “We’re gonna win because of love.”
Some would say the remark was one of the many Dabo-isms his fans love him so much for, like “B.Y.O.G.” (Bring Your Own Guts) or “All In” or “Don’t Buy the Lie.”
Others might try to explain it by pointing to the way football requires so much from its players that their common sacrifice and shared vision depend on an emotional attachment best described as love.
Then there are always the cynics who say that Dabo is just one more coach manipulating his players by appealing to raw emotion.
All that may be true of some other coaches, but you don’t get that sense from Dabo. His life story is so remarkable and his personal faith so central a part of his personality that you can’t imagine him saying or doing anything without referencing his Christian values.
When he told his team at halftime that they would win because they loved each other, he was thinking not only of the camaraderie and affection they had experienced with one another in their pursuit of the National Championship but also of something deeper and more spiritual. Dabo had in mind, I think, a love based on grace and not performance, that embraces the value of sacrifice for another person and is more willing to give than to receive. A love that’s higher than our own individual desires and looks to a higher good. A love that remains even if you lose a football game. The amazing thing about that kind of love is how it sets you free and makes you strong at the very time you need it most. Christians would say that kind of love flows from the cross.
I’m not saying that Dabo choose halftime of the National Championship Football Game to preach a sermon to his team, hoping it would motivate them enough to play better. But the fact that he turned to love as the means of leading his team through the most stressful moment of their lives shouldn’t surprise anyone. Being the man he is, nothing else would have made sense.