Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. George Lucas. There was a time when I believed in all of them. But I’ve never, ever believed in Clemsoning. 

Perhaps, you’ve heard of the term. Basically, Clemsoning occurs when a heavily hyped football team not only loses the big game, but they blow it harder than a fluffer trying to raise the spirits of a porn star suffering from a case of cocaine cock.

Although the term was first used well after the Clemson Tigers’ disastrous 70-33 loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers in the 2012 Orange Bowl, there’s little doubt that its origins began with that one fateful game.

The thing is, prior to that, Clemson generally a had way of stepping it up for the big game, whether it was against a higher-ranked opponent, their in-state rivals the South Carolina Gamecocks, or their bowl opponent. And because of that history, the term has always been something of a misnomer. 

But now, I’ve learned the horrible, horrible truth: Clemsoning is real — so tragically, horribly, horrendously real. 

Anyone who was watching Saturday’s loss to the Steve Spurrier-led Gamecocks surely could tell within the first quarter — if not that first failed drive — that Clemson was Clemsoning once again. Yes, there were a few moments where it seemed like the Tigers might get their act together, but each one was punctuated by an embarrassing turnover, a boneheaded decision, or a chance encounter with an invisible gremlin hellbent on beating the Vegas spread. 

The truth is, Clemsoning isn’t something that is innately part of Tiger football DNA. And it’s not a curse, although it seems like it today. It’s simply what happens when an entire team believes deep down in their hearts that God is on their side — and then they find out that He’s not, at least not this week.

Now, I know that athletes are by nature a superstitious lot, but no athlete is more prone to visions of divine intervention than a football player — just watch them on the field or listen to an interview. And there are few teams in college football who believe they are the Lord’s team more than Clemson. In fact, an unholy strain of wish-list Christianity — a selfish-gene denomination that believes that God rewards those who pray the hardest for their earthly desires — seems to pervade nearly every aspect of team life. Or at least that’s the picture painted by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle’s Brad Wolverton reports:

“It’s not to say they’re not recruiting anyone who’s not Christian, but people who are initially interested in Clemson are people whose faith and religion do matter to them,” says Cullen Harper, a former quarterback here.

Ebenezer (Ebo) Ogundeko, a freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., picked the Tigers over Alabama, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, and other programs. One of his reasons: “I felt like coming to Clemson would bring me closer to Jesus,” he told The Chronicle. “Most dudes on the team, they take their religion very seriously, and their relationship with Jesus Christ. They’ve encouraged me to move closer and closer to God.”

Rolitha Oglesby, the mother of Shaq Lawson, a freshman defensive end, has seen her son grow spiritually since he enrolled, in January. Growing up, he went to church with the family, but lately he has shown more and more interest in his faith.

Soon after arriving, he let his mother know he needed a Bible for his room. In May, he posted a photo on Facebook revealing a striking new tattoo, with the words “Jesus Christ is my Savior” spread across his chest.

Dozens of other players also display signs of faith. Many wear orange and purple wristbands inscribed with Bible verses, which one player’s parents bought for the whole team. Others have biblical references on their Twitter bios. “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus,” says the page of one Clemson recruit.

Game days are awash in religious ritual. Players mark their faces with crosses, write inspirational messages on their wrist tape (“Blessed”), and kneel together in groups to pray.

Wolverton also notes:

Last season, Dabo Swinney, the head football coach at Clemson University, gathered his team on the practice field one day for an important announcement. “Someone is about to turn their life over to Christ,” he said.

DeAndre Hopkins, a star wide receiver, stepped forward. A livestock trough had been placed near the 50-yard line and filled with water. Mr. Hopkins, still wearing his uniform and pads, climbed in. As several dozen teammates and coaches looked on, he was baptized.

At Clemson, God is everywhere. The team’s chaplain leads a Bible study for coaches every Monday and Thursday. Another three times a week, the staff gathers for devotionals. Nearly every player shows up at a voluntary chapel service the night before each game.

The players all know the coach’s favorite Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “Run your race to win, don’t just run the race.”

“I’m a Christian,” Coach Swinney tells Clemson recruits. “If you have a problem with that, you don’t have to be here.”

Now, I have nothing against Dabo’s desire to help mold his players into better men, nor that he uses Christianity to do it. Both the Old and the New Testament are inspirational texts that can have truly transformative powers on those who read — and study — them. But as a Clemson fan it’s disheartening to see that he and his staff spend so much time proselytizing when it’s their job to win games — not souls for the Almighty. 

And by wrapping up God’s grace with the game of football, Swinney and Clemson have crafted a culture where the two are inexplicably intertwined much to the detriment of Clemson’s win-loss record.

Faith is a double-edged sword. When players think the game is going their way, God is great. He wants them to win. It’s fate. And when a team is behind, faith can also give players the strength to rise up and take the lead. But when faith repeatedly fails to put points on the board, then surely players begin to believe that God Himself wants them to lose.

And if you watched Clemson get trounced by South Carolina on Saturday and Florida State earlier in the year and West Virginia in 2012, you clearly saw a team that was beaten well before the game ended, not by the superior play of their opponent but by their own mistakes — and their own mistaken belief that God, at least this time, was not on their side.

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