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Escaping Death: Georgia Tech @ Clemson 2004, featuring the Birth of a Legend

In September of 2004, one of the most electric atmospheres in college football got shocked by one of the best wide receivers in the history of the game.

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I was only 12 years old, but I can remember the ten-minute bus ride back to the old YMCA parking lot in Clemson like it was yesterday. Georgia Tech just pulled off one of the most insane comebacks the ACC had ever seen. A freshman wide receiver cemented his name in college football history - and all it took was ten minutes. We were ecstatic, but our bus ride didn't start that way.

I grew up in Marietta, Georgia. My father is a Georgia Tech graduate, so naturally I also grew up pulling for the Yellow Jackets. We had season tickets to basketball games, baseball games, and, of course, football games. Like many sports fanatics, I can't remember the time or day that I decided to be a Georgia Tech fan simply because it wasn't a decision. It was in my blood. I also can't remember leaving a game early -- ever. We were always the family that let the stands clear out before we made our way to the car. But on September 11th, 2004, from the lower deck of Death Valley, we decided to make our exit with three minutes left in the ballgame. Down by 10 points, we would hop on the shuttle back to the YMCA defeated, heads down, with a classic 'we'll get 'em next week' reassurance from my Dad.

The echoes of Memorial Stadium only confirmed the loss. A lot of Clemson fans gave us the 'good luck the rest of the way' treatment, while some Clemson fans taunted us with the Tiger Rag. We get it. We know how to spell Clemson. Smart phones didn't exist, but people started calling their friends and family. "Well, we lost," said the Tech fans. "It was a good game, but we pulled away from them late," said the Tiger fans. "We'll get 'em next week," said my Dad.

Then, as we were nearing the parking lot, we heard it. "What? Georgia Tech won??" Everyone's head turned. There was silence. "Are you kidding me??" said the man in orange. Nobody knew what had happened, or if it was even true, because the game we had all watched left no doubt - Clemson had beaten Georgia Tech. As we all know now, one man, with the help of a nervous long-snapper, decided to change that.

Calvin Johnson, a 6'5" true freshman from Sandy Creek High School (and still two weeks short of his 18th birthday), was recruited by almost every major school in the Southeast. He racked up offers from Auburn, Florida, UNC, South Carolina - you name it. When his decision came down to four schools, most outsiders thought Georgia Tech had no chance. After all, Georgia Tech hadn't competed for a national championship since 1990.

  • Oklahoma: Perrenial powerhouse and NFL pipeline
  • Notre Dame: One of the most storied programs in the country
  • georgia: COFH, THWg, SEC SEC SEC... blah blah

But Johnson was different. He wanted to do more than just play football - he wanted to be an engineer. Once he made that declaration, Georgia Tech was in the driver's seat. And in January of 2004, the hometown kid decided to take his talents to The Flats. It wouldn't take long for him to live up to the hype.

After starting off the 2004 regular season with a win at home against Samford, the unranked Yellow Jackets had the daunting task of playing #18 Clemson in Death Valley. They were on national TV - ABC's 8PM prime time game. It was my first trip to Death Valley, and when the Tigers ran down the hill ("The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football"), I was in awe. Over 80,000 fans yelling in unison: C-L-E-M-S-O-N. It is an intimidating atmosphere for those who enter, but for the true freshman from Sandy Creek High School, the noise only added fuel to the fire. After winning the coin toss, Tech deferred and decided to give Clemson the ball first. The game was underway, and the two defenses battled back and forth throughout the majority of the first quarter. Stephen Furr missed a field goal for the Tigers halfway through the opening quarter, which would set up the Jackets on our own 19 yard line.

Chan Gailey's offense featured walk-on running back PJ Daniels and sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball. Ball was as athletic as any quarterback in the ACC, and Daniels was a freight train. However, Gailey had yet to find a serious threat on the outside. Well, with 4:47 to go in the first quarter, he introduced the world to Calvin Johnson. Reggie chucked the ball 50 yards in the air, and Calvin laid out to steal the ball away from a crowd of Tiger defenders. The crowd was stunned. Even Georgia Tech fans were stunned. "How did he catch that?? This guy is for real," we said to each other. Calvin Johnson scored the first touchdown of his collegiate career to cap off an 81-yard drive for the Jackets. The Georgia Tech defense stayed strong, and Calvin would reel in another outstanding, over-the-shoulder catch before the end of the first frame.

A stout defensive effort by Clemson would keep the Jackets scoreless in the second quarter, and Charlie Whitehurst would find the end zone on a 22-yard strike to Curtis Baham to tie the game at 7. Momentum never really favored either side early in the game as it was shaping up to be a classic GT-Clemson face-off. At halftime, we left and went to a family tailgate nearby. At Clemson, you can do that. Bobby Dodd is plastered with "No Reentry" signs, but at Clemson they just stamp your hand and let you return. As fans, we felt good about our team's chances. There was a lot of game left, and the Jackets were hanging tough with a Top 20 opponent on the road. We were hopeful.

We made our way back to our seats as the third quarter started. Another stout defensive effort from the Tigers held the Jackets scoreless throughout the quarter. We had a chance to punch the ball in the end zone from the one-yard line, but the Clemson defense swallowed up Daniels on fourth down to keep us off the scoreboard. In the last minute of the quarter, Furr would redeem himself by making a field goal and giving Clemson its first lead of the game: 10-7 at the end of 3.

What was a defensive battle through three quarters quickly turned into a offensive shootout in the fourth. Unfortunately for us, Clemson got it started. Reggie Merriweather gashed the Tech defense right up the middle for a 62-yard touchdown with 8 minutes to go in the game. 17-7 Clemson. Our chances were getting slimmer and slimmer. The crowd was getting louder and louder. But Georgia Tech wouldn't go away. Ball found Levon Thomas on a 19-yard touchdown strike with four and a half minutes remaining to pull back within three. 17-14 Clemson. We had found life again.

Clemson got the football back and start milking the clock. They had been running the ball effectively all game, and kept it on the ground for two plays in a row. Then, Whitehurst lined up in the shotgun with a running back to either side. He handed it to Kyle Browning - off to the races. Another 54-yard gash up the middle for a TD had to be the dagger, right? The crowd went wild. 24-14 Clemson. 3:18 remaining. Momentum finally seemed to have pick a side. We left. In our minds, the game was over. We weren't alone, and there we found ourselves in line for the shuttle back to the YMCA. We could still hear the echoes of Memorial Stadium.


I'm not the superstitious type, but maybe our absence was the key. It turns out the Clemson players got a little too excited after Browning's "game-winning" touchdown and got flagged for celebration. That set up a fantastic kick return by Levon Thomas. After two quick completions to Thomas and a run up the middle by Reggie Ball, the Jackets found themselves in the red zone with two minutes to go. Reggie dropped back to throw a fade in the right corner of the end zone - intercepted. Game over.

A quick outburst from the Clemson crowd is silenced as Ron Cherry makes the call - pass interference on the defense. That's when Gailey knew. That's when everybody watching knew. You cannot cover Calvin Johnson one-on-one, especially in the red zone. It was clear. Three plays later, Reggie Ball found Calvin Johnson on a fade to the right corner. Touchdown Georgia Tech. It was Calvin Johnson's second collegiate touchdown reception. 24-21 Clemson.

Georgia Tech failed to recover the onside kick with 1:49 remaining, and Whitehurst proceeded to pick up nine yards on first down. After an official's timeout for measurement, Gailey took our last timeout to stop the clock at 1:31.

2nd and inches. If Clemson gets a first down, the game is over. Whitehurst ran up the middle - stuffed.

3rd and inches. Clemson fumbled but recovered the ball in the backfield. 4th down. After taking a delay of game, Clemson lined up to punt with 0:23 remaining. Then, the unthinkable happened - they muffed the snap - Clemson gave Tech life on their own 10-yard line. How could this be happening? Clemson had the game won. All of a sudden, Georgia Tech had the chance to win. Only ten yards away.

Everyone knew it, and the fact had been proven just moments earlier - you cannot cover Calvin Johnson one-on-one, especially in the red zone. Apparently, the Tigers missed the memo, and it resulted in one of Wes Durham's iconic radio calls:

Son of a gun, indeed. A prevent defense sealed the deal with 0:03 remaining, and Georgia Tech had escaped death. Calvin Johnson finished the game with 127 yards and 3 touchdowns as a freshman in Death Valley, and I finished the game on a bus. The legend was born.

This week, we travel to Death Valley for a shot at redemption. Can the Jackets pull off another historic win against Clemson?