There’s so much more to the cliffhanger national championship college football game that captured the attention of millions on Jan. 9. The Clemson Tigers entered the game as the underdog and defeated the most dominant college football program in a decade, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The victory began years ago in the towns of Pelham, Ala., and Gainesville, Ga., with two young boys whose lives would feature significant trials and adversity.
Ginny Dent Brant
In a chapel sermon delivered by former NFL player C.L. “Shep” Shepherd earlier this season, Clemson players and coaches who chose to attend heard a message about adversity.
“The best teacher in life is not success, “ he proclaimed. “It’s adversity.”
That message rang loud and clear when Clemson was unexpectedly beaten by the unranked Pittsburgh Panthers. What should have been an easy win for the Tigers became an obstacle that proved to make them stronger.
Coach Dabo Swinney was born to a mother, Carol, who at an early age overcame polio. Her dreams of a family and a stable home quickly diminished when her husband, Ervil Swinney, turned to alcohol to cope with his problems.
Swinney, his mom and brothers were left to fend for themselves. At times they were homeless. Those experiences instilled fierce determination in Swinney to provide for his mother, and to win back his father by making him proud.
Determination is what compelled Swinney to walk on at The University of Alabama and become a first-string wide receiver who played a role in their 1992 national championship victory.
After becoming a coach at Alabama, then losing his position in a leadership turnover, Swinney landed a job under Tommy Bowden as the assistant wide receiver’s coach for Clemson in 2003.
Bowden resigned mid-season five years later, and much to the surprise of Clemson fans, Swinney was named interim head coach. After winning the program’s respect, he was offered the full-time position and began rebuilding a program with great potential.
Swinney eventually reunited with his father. He calls forgiveness “One of the greatest gifts we have from God.”
Swinney’s father came to faith later and turned his life around before his death to cancer in 2015. He even lived with Swinney during cancer treatments – a time of healing for both.
Swinney’s wife of 23 years, Kathleen, also felt the sting of loss when her sister lost a nine-year battle to cancer.
After her sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, Kathleen and her younger sister underwent genetic testing and discovered they also had the gene with links to the disease. Realizing this gave her a 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer, Kathleen made the difficult decision to endure a hysterectomy and double mastectomy.
Adversity was not only limited to the coach and his family, but also Clemson’s five-star quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
Born the eldest son of a single mom, Watson took on many responsibilities. It was Habitat for Humanity and his mother’s hard work that provided a home for the family of five. It also provided escape from crime and drugs.
Responsibilities increased for Watson when his mother was diagnosed with tongue cancer during his sophomore year in high school.
“I was scared,” Watson recalls.
His mother’s fight inspired Watson to do the same in his football career. Known for being calm under fire, Watson’s motivation made him a finalist for the Heisman Trophy two times, winner of the Davey O’Brien Quarterback Award twice and the recipient of the 2016 Bobby Bowden Award.
What Swinney lacked in childhood, he was determined to provide for his family. As a devoted husband and father, his family usually travels with the team, and he involves his sons as game score trackers. But that family atmosphere also extends to how he treats coaching staff and players.
The team is infused with a family-focus making everyone feel part of the team, treated with respect and given high expectations. The team usually watches an inspiring movie together the night before a game.
Swinney expects players to attend class, make an effort and be good citizens. Each staff member has a picture of their family outside their door.
Through family focus, Swinney provides players with the support and role models many never had.
Even still, expectations are high. And don’t be late for any meeting or team meal or you’d better have a good excuse. Former players are welcomed back to visit the family they established while there. It’s just a part of Swinney’s “all in” philosophy.
In a press conference after the National Championship victory, Dabo said, “It’s been an unbelievable night. All of our teams get a piece of this trophy.”
He makes it a priority to train players to be successful in all aspects of their lives – work, community service and their families.
Swinney, a committed local church member, is unashamed of his commitment to Christ, which he made through the influence of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school.
In 2014, Swinney’s faith was challenged by the Freedom From Religion foundation, but he held firm. As a man of conviction he said, “I try to be a good example to others and to live my life according to my faith.”
“Coaching,” he said, “was God’s calling for me.”
Watson came to faith in Christ in the ninth grade – a decision that changed his path. Both coach and quarterback gave credit where credit is due on national television in the first moments after winning the title.
Speechless at first, Watson said, “It was what God wanted. It’s far bigger than us.”
Swinney’s words echoed that sentiment, “Only God,” he said, “Can take a guy like me … I’m thankful to the good Lord.”
Alabama’s tenacious defense tried everything in their power to stop Watson, but his words in the huddle will never be forgotten.
“Don’t panic,” he said, “We were built for moments like these. … Let’s be legendary.”
Clemson scored 21 points in the last quarter as part of a memorable comeback.
The winning touchdown was scored by the five-star quarterback’s pass to a walk-on wide receiver, Hunter Renfrow, who had overcome his own obstacles. Renfrow entered Clemson’s program at 5’11” and 155 pounds, making him vulnerable to a “runt” mentality.
That play gained Renfrow hero status in the eyes of fans, not to mention the cover of Sports Illustrated. He also acknowledged God in his comments after the game.
After thanking God, Swinney thanked his mom, calling her “a special lady,” his wife – “My rock who has stood by me even when I didn’t have a car or was living at a friend’s house” – and his three sons.
Swinney even mentioned his late father: “I know he is here.”
Shep’s inspiring message earlier in the season was God’s way of preparing this team for a greater ultimate victory – one in which He would be glorified.
My father, Harry Dent, who was transformed from a politician to God’s kingdom strategist always gave this example in encouraging Christians to be salt and light in this world:
“Your pastor is the coach and you are the team. As you play the game of life, remember that folks around you in the stadium are watching every play you make. In this way, you will be His salt and His light in a darkening world.”
Never has that been truer than Jan. 9. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation is eating crow as God’s message through His messengers is reaching out to a world enamored by sports. It’s a message of hope for all who face adversity.
God can make a difference in our lives, and His creation of the family is an important building block. Adversity is a powerful teacher that can develop you into what God created you to be.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ginny Dent Brant is a writer and speaker. Her book about her spiritual journey with her father, Harry S. Dent Sr., Finding True Freedom: From the White House to the World, was released in 2010. She is a former trustee of the International Mission Board. She and her husband, Alton, live in Clemson/Seneca, S.C. More info at ginnybrant.com.)