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A Decade Of Dabo: Enter C.J. Spiller

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Awkward silence permeated the living room of C.J. Spiller's home in Lake Butler, Fla., on an evening in late January of 2006.

Dabo Swinney had basically been laughed at by coaches on his own staff for persisting in his pursuit of Spiller.

The top recruit in Florida going to ... Clemson? Get real, Dabo.

ALSO READ: A Decade Of Dabo | Tuesday Insider Notes | Monday Insider | Recruiting Big Board - Defensive Tackle

Running backs coach Burton Burns had already done a bunch of legwork on Terry Grant, a four-star back from Mississippi. Grant was going to be a big get for Clemson. And now this fanciful notion that Swinney had a prayer of landing Spiller was threatening to ruin it.

Dabo Swinney, then a wide receivers coach, was C.J. Spiller's recruiter of record for Clemson.
Dabo Swinney, then a wide receivers coach, was C.J. Spiller's recruiter of record for Clemson. (Getty)

Swinney was so confident that he brought Tommy Bowden to Lake Butler for an in-home. Swinney knew how much Spiller loved his visit to Clemson, when James Davis hosted him. He knew what almost no one else knew, that Spiller was probably going to be a Tiger. Even without having ever witnessed a Clemson football game.

This night of Jan. 22, when Spiller returned from a recruiting visit to Miami, was when Spiller was going to tell the head coach he was already a silent commit to Clemson.

Except he never did. Not that night.

"I hadn't told nobody where I was going," Spiller said. "Didn't tell my mom. Didn't tell any friends. I was like: 'No, I want to surprise my mom.'"

After Bowden hopped into the rental car, Swinney pulled aside Spiller and pressed him. Spiller indicated to Swinney he was coming, but Bowden still wasn't sold.

A few days later, Bowden and Burns were about to get on a plane to see Grant in Mississippi. Bowden called Spiller.

"I think Terry Grant was getting ready to make his commitment to Clemson," Spiller recalled. "Coach Bowden said: 'Listen, are you coming to Clemson?'

"I still remember saying: 'Coach. Do not get on that plane. I'm coming to Clemson.' He said OK."

This was but one of several dramatic, fateful, pivotal moments that would unfold involving Spiller over the next three tumultuous years. The type of stuff that seems better fit for a movie script than reality.

We dare you to disagree with the following statement:

C.J. Spiller is the most important player in Clemson football history.

C.J. Spiller, a 5-star, was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 all-purpose back recruit in the winter of 2005-06.
C.J. Spiller, a 5-star, was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 all-purpose back recruit in the winter of 2005-06. (Getty)

Because if you believe the current era is the foremost era in Clemson football history (how can you not?), then you have to believe Dabo Swinney is the foremost coach in Clemson football history.

If there's no Spiller at Clemson, there's probably none of this.

Terry Don Phillips is justifiably given credit for what he saw in Swinney when he was a receivers coach, seeing enough to take a chance on him in 2008 when most everyone on the outside (and surely some on the inside) were wondering what the hell he was doing.

But Philips' gamble was not the only gamble that set this thing, this bordering-on-fairytale Decade of Dabo, in motion.

Spiller took quite a gamble himself, dating to the moment he first met Swinney in 2005. Swinney came down to Union County High School to see Kevin Alexander, who would commit to Clemson.

Swinney wanted to speak with Spiller, so someone went and pulled Spiller out of class and told him: "The coach from Clemson wants to see you and talk to you."

Spiller thought sure, why not. A good excuse to get out of this boring class.

They were in the field house at Union County -- Spiller, Swinney and Spiller's teammate Mathis Jackson.

Swinney asked Spiller if he'd come visit Clemson. Spiller said sure.

"He really didn't believe me," Spiller said. "He thought it was a joke. I'm pretty sure the coaches at Clemson were telling him he was wasting his time doing all this stuff. So he didn't believe me."

So Swinney whipped out a business card and asked Spiller to sign under a makeshift contract saying he would visit Clemson.

"He was like, 'Sign it,'" Spiller said. "'I want to make sure you're going to follow through with your word.' Sure enough, me, him and Mathis Jackson signed that little card saying I would visit Clemson.

"I think it kind of shocked him a little bit. Like, 'Oh, shoot. Really?'"

Spiller also took official visits to Florida, Florida State, Miami and Southern Cal.
Spiller also took official visits to Florida, Florida State, Miami and Southern Cal. (Getty)

This was only the first of several momentous decisions by Spiller, rolls of the dice to take the road less traveled, that bring goosebumps in hindsight.

Fast-forward past the signing-day announcement for Clemson that shocked college football and angered his mother.

Skip through the 2006 season, Spiller's first, one that had such promise when the Tigers went to Tallahassee and knocked off Florida State, followed by the Thunder and Lightning showcase against Georgia Tech back when having ESPN GameDay on campus was an intoxicating novelty all by itself.

Go to the end of that season, when everything went off the rails with four losses in the last five games after a 7-1 start.

Spiller was devastated after South Carolina came into Death Valley and grabbed a 31-28 win.

Then he was angry and confused and disillusioned after he and Davis had a total of 13 carries in a Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky.

The team down the road from his hometown would go on to claim a national title in Urban Meyer's second season. Back home, Spiller felt the pull from the Gators. He started to think about the possibilities of playing in an offense with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. Tebow happened to be with him on his Florida official visit his senior year of high school.

When he hopped in his car to make the six-hour drive back to Clemson, it was going to be his last drive back to Clemson. He was going there to pack up his apartment. He was going to be a Gator.

"Me and Coach Swinney went for a little ride when I got back. He talked about emotions and frustrations, and don't ever make a decision when you're frustrated because you're not really thinking clearly.

"Coach always says it best: You just blossom where you're planted. Why go in somebody else's back yard when you can have your own back yard? That's what he told me. And it kind of made sense."

Back in January of 2016, in Glendale when Clemson was taking on Alabama the first time, Spiller was on the sideline and he saw Meyer.

Meyer gave him a playful jab and told him he was still mad he didn't get him. Told him he was the only guy he really wanted at Florida who got away. Spiller told him: "Well I guess you didn't recruit me good enough, like Coach Swinney."

Spiller ranks third all-time in Clemson history in rushing yardage.
Spiller ranks third all-time in Clemson history in rushing yardage. (Getty)

So Spiller stayed, through 2007 and then through that 2008 midseason craziness when Swinney took over, and then through December when Swinney became the guy for good.

If Spiller is healthy against Wake Forest and plays that whole game and the Tigers win, what happens? Bowden probably isn't out four days later, and who the heck knows.

What happens if, in January of 2009, Spiller decides to go to the NFL a year early? He was sitting in his car outside the McFadden Building that day, about a half-hour before the press conference.

His mother, and plenty of others from home, wanted him to go. He told her he was staying, hung up on her, and then walked into Swinney's office crying.

"All he did was hug me," Spiller said. "He was like, 'Hey, you can’t base this decision off other people’s opinions and thoughts, even the ones closest to you. You have to make the decision based off what you feel and what you think is best in your heart.'

"We really just talked about graduation. I was so close to graduating.

Coach said 'Why give up that opportunity when you can do it and also have a chance to play one more season?'"

Spiller walked out of the room without saying what he was going to do, across the hall into the auditorium packed with all those people.

"I think he was still kind of nervous about what I was going to do. I never said yes or no. I just said 'You’re right.' I just went up there and did it."

He stayed. And without him Clemson probably doesn't win the Atlantic Division title in 2009.

And if that doesn't happen, what happens in 2010 when the Tigers go 6-7?

What in the world was Dabo Swinney thinking when he, and he only, had the crazy idea that a 5-star talent like Spiller would leave Florida and come to Clemson?

Well, this.

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