Death Valley Daze

Or welcome to the Dixie Stampede

By Jim Moriarty

One September on a travel assignment ferreting out backwoods golf courses in South Carolina, I spent a night in a hotel just off Interstate 95 festooned with enough University of South Carolina Gamecock regalia to dress every piece of poultry at Tyson Farms in garnet and black.

“You sure take your football serious around here,” I said to the desk clerk.

“Naw,” he replied as he checked to make sure the names on my driver’s license and credit card matched. “It’s only life or death.”

What I didn’t tell him was that I was also the football photographer for Clemson University. I decided to keep that bit of information to myself, having made the simple calculation that I would prefer my wake-up call not be accompanied by the discharge of a 12-gauge shotgun. Photographing Clemson’s home games was something I did for about 20 years, beginning in the Refrigerator Perry days. It was a dramatic change of pace from more staid assignments at haunts like Pebble Beach or Augusta National. Golf has its exciting moments but rarely is one player hell-bent on hitting another one so hard his liver exits his body through a nostril.

When my son was 11, give or take, I got him a pass so he could be down on the field with me. This practice was generally frowned upon since it is, in point of fact, dangerous. During pregame warm-ups, the last players to take the field are the hog mollies, the big nasties. The late Chester McGlockton was at Clemson that year, and I told my son to watch number 91 when he trotted out of the locker room and down the sideline. Big Chet stood 6-foot-5 and played most of his 12 NFL seasons at somewhere between 335 and 350 pounds. His left leg was larger than my boy. Hell, his right leg was larger than me. I’m not sure either one of us has seen a bigger human being since.

During the game, I made certain to keep my son stowed well out of harm’s way, behind the Clemson bench. The biggest thing I wanted him to get hit by was a 102-pound cheerleader. I was adamant about his staying back from the sidelines because I’d seen what could happen. I’d felt it, too.

You may be familiar with a photograph known as “The Catch.” It was taken in 1982 by the great Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr., showing Dwight Clark (a Clemson alum), catching a pass from the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana in his fingertips to beat the Dallas Cowboys. The 35 mm picture is actually a horizontal, made with a 50mm lens Walter had hanging around his neck. There is nothing more aggravating than having the action happen right in front of you and all you’ve got in your hands is a 600mm telescopic lens and the only picture you get is a close-up of a tooth.

Anyway, one year at Clemson I was positioned in the back of the end zone, à la great Iooss. The Tigers’ tight end was running a pattern vaguely similar to the Dwight Clark’s. Recognizing the developing play, I pulled the camera with the short lens up to my eye to get the same shot Walter got. But this time the defensive coverage was too good, and Clemson didn’t have Joe Montana throwing the ball. The pass sailed high and incomplete. As the tight end and the defensive back exited the back of the end zone, I jumped to my feet. We became a threesome. I put my hand on the tight end and backpedaled as the two players began to slow down. No harm, no foul. Until the moment the tight end stepped on my foot. Planted firmly in the ground, that was as far as I was going. Since the remainder of my body was still attached to the foot, over backwards I went. The tight end, followed in short order by the defensive back, stutter-stepped across my chest leaving behind a pattern of cleat marks that, the next morning, resembled a violent outbreak of chicken pox.

The then-assistant Sports Information Director Tim Bourret, a friend of mine, was doing color commentary on the radio. When I bounced to my feet after being trampled by two large human beings, he could barely contain himself. “That’s our photographer!”

There have been a lot of great moments in Death Valley. Clemson is, after all, the reigning national champion. I’m reasonably confident, however, that I’m the only photographer who ever got a standing ‘O’ from the students sitting on the hill.

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