It's called the most exciting 25 seconds in college football, and I can personally attest, as a many-times physical witness to the event, that it's been that way at fall football games at my alma mater for at least 25 years.
Death Valley stadium at Clemson University rarely has empty seats to fill. Thousands of fans even gather outside the stadium, tailgating and enjoying the Tigers' roaring from beyond the stadium walls, just content to be near the live action, watching on mobile screens and still listening to radio.
Prior to kickoff, the entire team boards two chartered buses from the west end of the stadium. The buses circle the exterior of the structure to deliver the Tigers, fully pumped and ready for action, to the top of The Hill--the famous seatless slope at the end zone which is filled with the lowliest of fans: all the freshmen. But hey, we were just happy to be there, and somehow the thrill of being close to the team and close to the famous Howard's Rock, made squatting on the crowded grass and trying not to slide into the fans in front of us for three straight hours worthwhile.
As the buses circle the stadium, the roar outside from the unadmitted fans, begins to rise. It moves around the exterior of the field like an audio version of the Wave, and we know: They're almost here!
The mass of massive players emerges, enters through the gate, and stands in two lines at the top of The Hill. A cannon fires, hundreds or maybe thousands of balloons escape heavenward, the band bursts into the Tiger Rag, but there's no holding these Tigers. Each player, having committed beforehand to give at least 110%, rubs Howard's Rock and charges down The Hill and onto the field.
The roaring is ear-shattering. Once, for my Acoustics class, we actually measured and reported the decibels. I don't remember the number, but it was far beyond the level needed to sustain permanent hearing loss. And it doesn't stop for about three hours.
Something like 22 years ago, I crossed a stage at Clemson University with several thousand others like me. I accepted a piece of paper in a leather folder which said I had accomplished the requirements and was conferred a Bachelor of Arts degree. There was a smattering of applause from a crowd comprising approximately 15% the turnout for a home football game--with most of those people there to see only one of about 4500 graduates commemorate a major life accomplishment. It's nothing less than PUNY compared to a football crowd.
Now, I am a fan of Clemson football. I hope one day to let my girls experience the festivity and celebration. It's something I want to share with them. It's something I want them to know. I'm a little on the proud side today about the 38-35 win the Tigers pulled out at home last night, despite being ranked behind the Georgia Dawgs at the start of the season. We humans are made to enjoy and to celebrate, and football, especially here in the South, gives lots of opportunity for many to do that, together, in one place, and make memories that last a lifetime.
But at the end of the day, something in my heart catches a bit when I see the fanfare and the hype and the rush of the team which produces a rush of such adrenalin in the crowd too. And competitive, sporty, festive, alumnus that I am, even I cringe a little.
I truly love Clemson. I love the place. I love the memories. I love the friends it gave me. I love the way of thinking--processing a problem and addressing it--that came from my education there. I love the freedom I had to become who I really was, not just who I had felt expected to be. And I love Clemson because it was there that I met one whom I love even more than all of that. One who loves me into eternity.
I was in my junior year at Clemson when I had the priceless opportunity to take an art history class over spring break in London, England. It would be about a two-week intensive. We'd leave a few days before break began and come back a few days after it ended, jet-lagged and exhausted and enthralled and exhilarated and absolutely culture-shocked all at the same time. Much of our time was spent in lectures at significant buildings and museums. But there was free time too, and for one of those evenings, one of the other students and I decided we would go find tickets to a major stage play. For some providential reason, the line for Les Mis was shorter than the line for Phantom of the Opera. We chose Les Mis.
We did manage to get seats, and I think they were at the remarkably low price (by today's standards) of just about $30 US each. But they were in the "nosebleeds," as we'd call them if we had similar seats back at Death Valley at home. They were perfect. The height and sharp angle gave a perfectly clear view of all the stage action, the construction of the barricades, the comings and goings of the characters. It was like a God's-eye view, I now think. And something happened to me during that stage play.
I had grown up in a culture that would most certainly call itself Christian. And I had been taught all the basics. But it's like the coin that goes into the slot of a soda machine and lodges partway down. It didn't engage. It didn't produce a result. I didn't believe what I knew. I didn't understand it either. And I still didn't understand it at the end of the play, but something changed. When the Bishop handed the best silver in the house to the thief Valjean and set him free with his full, lavish favor, the right of siblinghood, and his crimes forgiven, I, for the first time, understood the meaning and application of the word "grace." Prior to that moment, it had just been so much "church-talk" to me. An overused bit of jargon. So overused, it meant nothing at all to me except that it was a very frequently recurring female middle name among my peers.
And a seed was planted. That seed stayed dormant for almost exactly another year. But it was there.
One year later, I was making plans to stay on in Clemson after I graduated that May. I had met a young man, another student, whom I thought I would marry. We had plans. But he was a year behind me in school and so we began to think of how that was going to work. I didn't feel particularly called to take my degree back home, where there were no jobs, nor to any other particular place, and as romantic love does, it created the singular desire to just stay there. I thought I knew why. But God knew something more. I found a job locally and began working part-time for that last semester of school, with the intention from the company that upon graduation, I would be promoted to full-time local office manager. It seemed like a good fit for hanging around Clemson for an extra year before getting married.
A few weeks after I started work there, though, another young woman, about my age, also named Rebekah (though the spelling was different) and also red-headed was hired to work with me in the large, open office. Within a day, I knew I liked her. She was open and refreshing and kind. She smiled easily and seemed so much more comfortable in her own skin than most of us 20-something young women were, not out to prove anything, not insecure, comfortable, hospitable, welcoming. Within two weeks, I can pretty much say that I loved her. And I wanted what she had. Something I couldn't put my finger on.
It was that seed, waking up.
Rebekah had a deeply genuine grace-based relationship with Jesus. She was the most authentic Christian I had at that time been aware of meeting. She wasn't out to defend God. She wasn't angry at the people who didn't know him. She wasn't trying to conform public behavior to some standard of conduct that would make her comfortable. Rebekah was walking with God. She was content and at ease and so very attractive. And I saw Jesus in her. I saw love and compassion and freedom--oh, so much freedom!
Shortly after that, through attending an RUF Bible study with Rebekah, which she invited me to when she saw I was interested, and starting to go to church (at first, because I thought that was what "good people" did, but later out of a true, deep desire), I came to know that same Jesus she had. And everything changed.
He became such a priority that everything else, the fanfare of the celebrating crowds, even the romantic attraction to the cute boy I was waiting on--it all seemed to take a step backward from me. It faded a little. He shone. And I shone.
So when I see the fervor at Howard's Rock and The Hill, and I love the pomp and the pageantry, it all still seems a little hollow for me now. Because it won't satisfy long term. Tomorrow, it's just a memory of a lot of color and noise. Even the victory will fade.
And I know the story of the limited fanfare, under such humble conditions and make-shift pageantry, my Lord experienced when he made his grand entry into the greatest victory of all history--his entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem, where he would die to take on all the sins of the world to grant that grace, that unmerited favor, that restored fellowship and wiping out of the record of wrongs, to his beloved, forever.
There were no fancy chartered buses. Just a borrowed donkey colt. There wasn't a band nor a crowd of 100,000. A few gathered to wave him on with branches torn from trees or picked up off the ground, not giant foam fingers and felt pennants made in a distant Asian country for pennies apiece and purchased here at exorbitant profits to someone. Some of the controlling religious leaders even tried to shush the ones who had gathered: Stop that noise!
But it wouldn't be stopped, and it hasn't been stopped ever since. And the day is coming when the celebration and fanfare and decibels of praise will make even the most exciting 25 seconds in college sports completely forgotten. This time, it won't be for the Tigers.
It will be for a Lion. A Lion who appears as a slain Lamb. Where's the logic and victory in that? The power of meekness and humility and self-sacrifice and unconditional love and umerited favor is greater than anything a lifetime of weight-room training and wind sprints can ever hope to produce. That's what real power is. Power to overcome the valleys of death.
And I'm going to be there. There won't be anything hollow or passing about that--the victory that will never fade.