On Monday night in Tampa, Florida, the Clemson Tigers scored in the final seconds to upset the Alabama Crimson Tide, 35-31, and win college football’s national championship. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson tossed a touchdown pass to former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow to give the Tigers their first national championship since the 1981 season.
But this was far from the most exciting thing that happened in Tampa in the past few days.
OK, who am I kidding? Of course this was the most exciting thing that happened in Tampa in the past few days.
That said, there were other exciting (or at least interesting) things that transpired in Tampa during this time. I know because I was there and I jotted down a list of them. (Full disclosure: I was on a press trip for Dos Equis, one of the sponsors of the college football playoff.) Here are my 11 observations from three wild days in Tampa for the biggest game of the college football season.
1. Tampa is colder in January than you might think.
Or at least, this year it was. Sunday night was particularly brutal. It got down to like 38 degrees. It didn’t help that I left my apartment in Brooklyn with only a light jacket (read: one thin layer of cotton), assuming it would be 82 degrees and sunny in South Florida. It also didn’t help that a lot of the places I visited seemed to be running their air conditioning like it was 82 degrees and sunny.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a complete wuss. This wasn’t Giants-Packers at Lambeau Field or anything. And I live in New York year-round so I know cold. But there’s something particularly crappy about heading thousands of miles south and expecting sun and warmth and not packing any layers and then freezing your ass off for a good portion of your stay. I probably sound like a spoiled asshole, don’t I? I’ll move on.
2. Drivers have good stories and quotes.
This isn’t necessarily a Tampa observation. Most drivers have good stories and quotes. On my ride to JFK Airport on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. to catch my flight to Tampa, I mentioned to the driver that I was going to the college football national championship game courtesy of Dos Equis.
“Oh Dorse Equis!” he said. “Man, what’s up with that new guy?”
He was talking about the company’s new Most Interesting Man in the World. And he was not a fan.
“That guy looks messed up,” he said. “Why’d they get rid of the other guy? He want too much money?”
“I think they thought he was getting too old,” I said. “But maybe he wanted more money.”
For what it’s worth, I like the new guy. I think they could’ve mixed it up by going with an Asian guy or black guy (or at least a Latin guy… this guy is French), but I think he’s got a good distinct look. He’s handsome but in an interesting way, not an annoyingly perfect way. Down in Tampa, somebody commented that he looks like a European Michael Phelps, which I could see.
But back to the original point: Drivers have good stories. My driver from the Tampa airport to the hotel told me about some of the famous people he’s carted around. He had quite a list. Kim and Kanye, Evan Longoria, CC Sabathia, Terry Bradshaw, Jon Gruden, John Cena, Derek Jeter and Hannah Davis. (He said he’s picked up Jeter many times, since Jeter has a huge house in Tampa.) I asked him which celebrity gave him the best tip. His answer surprised me: Michael McDonald gave him fifty bucks. Makes you like McDonald a bit more, doesn’t it?
3. Clemson fans cared a hell of a lot about this game.
But enough about the drivers. Let’s talk about the fans and the game. You couldn’t go anywhere in Tampa without seeing dozens of people, if not hundreds, clad in bright orange shirts, hats and pants. Clemson fans turned up for their team. They repped hard. There were so many more Clemson fans than Alabama fans at every restaurant, bar and event. Not to mention in every elevator and public bathroom.
Tiger fans were clearly seizing the moment, unlike the all-business, “been there done that” Bama fans. It felt like every Clemson grad on the planet was in Tampa for the game. They turned that place into Clemson Bay. The stadium was a good 65 percent Clemson fans, and they yelled their lungs out whenever the Tide had a third down to put pressure on Alabama’s young quarterback.
It’s funny. Alabama is in the SEC, and the SEC’s motto is “It just means more.” But it was obvious that this game meant significantly more to the non-SEC team.
4. Bern’s Steak House grills a great piece of meat.
The most well-known steakhouse in Tampa is Bern’s. This publication named it one of the best old-school steakhouses in America. We went there on Sunday for dinner. If you’re in Tampa, I highly recommend it. The place is a trip. It’s separated into all of these different rooms. Like you’re in a medieval castle or a game of Clue or something. I don’t know who designed it. Maybe the Parker Brothers. But it’s huge. And it’s old-school. And it has paintings of old white men all over the place, and high-backed chairs upholstered in red velvet.
On Sunday it was at full capacity, flush with lots of Southern gentlemen in those Eli Manning-style haircuts that you just don’t see too often outside the South. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s when a guy grows out his hair a little long and then sweeps it to one side. I believe one term for it is “Bama bangs.”
Anyway, Bern’s has many different types of steaks to choose from, and all of them looked highly succulent. I opted for the 12-ounce Delmonico (similar to a ribeye, I’m told) and it was pretty badass. The waitress asked me whether I wanted it with the fat still on or not. I asked her what she recommended and she said go with the fat, so I did. And it was fatty. But it was amazing. Slightly charred on the outside and pink in the middle.
The other thing that was amazing: all the food that comes with the steak. You know how most places let you choose between a salad, fries, soup or a baked potato? At Bern’s you get all four of those with dinner. I was so full I took only one bite of my potato, which was unfortunate because it was delicious and I am a big fan of potatoes.
The only bad thing about Bern’s is that for some reason it was very cold inside. About halfway through our meal, somebody turned off the heat or something and it transformed the entire restaurant into a meat locker. We asked if they could fix it but the temperature didn’t rise. I don’t know whether this is an every night thing or just something that happens when 65 men with Bama bangs show up. But it was pretty intolerable by the time we were done. I don’t know what was going on. It was just another case of me feeling less cold than I wanted to feel while in Tampa.
5. There’s a front desk guy at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ybor named Thor.
So there was a miscommunication about my reserved hotel room at the Aloft Hotel on Sunday and I had to stay at another hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn in Ybor City, which is a historic neighborhood in Tampa. When I showed up there, I walked up to a front desk attendant with a name tag that read “Thor.” Which amazed me.
First of all, it says his name is Thor. Second of all, we’re in a place called Ybor. So it was Thor in Ybor. I thought it might be a joke. Or he lost a bet. I asked him if that was his real name. He confirmed that it was. He was the first Thor I’ve ever encountered (unless you count Noah Syndergaard of the Mets). I was a little annoyed that I had to switch hotels, but on the other hand, if this hadn’t happened, I never would’ve met Thor.
6. Alligator meat and frog legs are worth a try.
I am a big believer that when you are in Tampa, you should do as the Tampans. Or whatever they’re called. So when I was offered alligator sliders and frog legs as two of my food options at the Dos Equis tailgate party on Sunday afternoon, I went with the alligator sliders and frog legs.
The alligator “sliders” (they were called sliders but there was no bun, so they were really more like alligator poppers, in my opinion) were rather tasty, if a little too chewy. I really liked them. I would order them again. They tasted a bit like breaded gizzards.
The frog legs are worth a shot too, although I wasn’t overly impressed with them. The cliché goes that frog legs taste like chicken, but I would beg to differ. From what I can surmise, frog legs are fattier than chicken and have less taste. I gave them a second shot before the game on Monday night at a little soiree inside Raymond James Stadium, and I didn’t love them there either. I much prefer other animal meat to frog meat. Indeed, there’s a reason that it’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, not Kentucky Fried Frog Legs.
7. Deshaun Watson can take a hit.
Let’s get to the game already. Deshaun Watson took a little while to find his rhythm on Monday night, but once he did he was outstanding. He was a threat with both his arm and his legs. It’s almost like Clemson can run the wildcat on every play. (Same with Jalen Hurts for Alabama.) But the most astonishing moment for me was when he tried to scramble for a first down, got hit by two Alabama players and was sent spinning through the air like a helicopter blade. Somehow Watson popped right back up and continued driving his team up and down the field.
The biggest hit of the game? https://t.co/FtoLsCZNYR
— ESPN (@espn) January 10, 2017
When I saw the play live in person, I thought surely he broke a bone or tore a ligament, or at the very least suffered a concussion. It was a frightening hit because Watson was running nearly full-speed when he made contact with the defenders. But after the game Watson said it looked worse than it was. Which is good for him. Because if it had looked better than it was, he’d be dead.
8. Clemson has some awesome receivers.
Of course, Watson was able to drive his team up and down the field because his receivers made some unbelievable catches. They kept Watson’s low passes from hitting the turf on many occasions, and they leaped high to steal balls away from Bama’s talented cornerbacks when Watson’s passes sailed. Mike Williams alone made no fewer than three highlight reel-worthy catches. Here’s one of them:
9. I captured some semi-interesting videos at the stadium.
First, here’s me playing pool with an incredibly drunk man before the game:
Here are two parachuters landing on the field:
Here’s Clemson scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter:
Here’s the totally jacked referee announcing that the Clemson onside kick at the end of the game was legal and would stand:
…here’s a ton of orange and purple confetti and Clemson fans going crazy and a PA announcer selling some gear.
10. Clemson defensive lineman Carlos Watkins has serious game. And Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has serious dance moves.
Clemson’s big men can move. Somehow at 305 pounds, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins was able to track down Alabama’s star running back Bo Scarbrough on numerous occasions and throw him to the ground.
too. much. sauce. pic.twitter.com/iKSA1zg6w5
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 10, 2017
And another D-lineman, Christian Wilkins, displayed insane dance moves for a person of any size, let alone a man who weighs 310 pounds. (See above.)
11. Clemson fans handled the win well.
All in all, I came away happy for Clemson for breaking up Alabama’s dynasty, if only for a season. I didn’t witness much trash talking from Clemson fans, either. They just savored the moment. Tens of thousands of fans remained in the stadium long after the game ended. Many of them didn’t even move from their seats.
I met one of those fans on the plane that took me back to Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon. His name was Caleb. He is a young minister who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but is from South Carolina. He has a wife and four kids. He was wearing a crazy purple and orange paisley type hat with an orange button that said “Beat Bama.” He sported a thick beard and a bright orange Clemson sweatshirt, just like the Tigers’ head coach and nearly every other Clemson supporter. He said he stayed in the stadium for an hour after the game, “just soaking it all up.” I don’t blame him. If I were him, I would soak up every last drop.
But to be honest, I did observe a bit of gloating. There was a little “In your face, Saban” attitude in the air after the game. Some Clemson fan had rubbed out the “Bama” part of a meticulously designed Clemson vs. Alabama sand sculpture in the lobby of the Marriott Waterside.
And while in line to board the plane, I overheard one Clemson fan telling Caleb the young bearded minister about a moment he took particular joy in. “Right after the touchdown with one second left, I looked over at these Alabama fans,” said the man, who was already sporting a Clemson national champions hat. “They had these totally deflated looks on their faces. It was the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life.”