For a moment, just for a moment, go back with me to almost 3 full years ago.
Back to Tommy Bowden's second year calling the shots in Tiger Town. Back to a 7-0 start on a team that was overflowing with confidence and creating more noise in the Atlantic Coast Conference then any Clemson team has in any of the last 10 seasons.
The date was October 21st, 2000 and the Clemson Tigers were venturing into Chapel Hill with thoughts of another National Championship.
Clemson had pummeled every opponent in their path that year, including a 62-9 destruction of Missouri in just the second game of the season.
Starting quarterback Woodrow Dantzler was a bonafide Heisman Trophy candidate, leading one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And then disaster struck.
North Carolina jumped out of the gates to a 17-0 lead and Dantzler had to leave the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury. The wheels on the Tigers' undefeated season seemed to be coming off faster than the South Carolina Gamecocks were losing football games.
Enter redshirt freshman quarterback Willie Simmons.
All Simmons did that evening in front of an ESPN primetime audience was complete 10-of-18 passes for 228 yards and a school record 4 touchdowns to help lead the Tigers to an incredible 38-24 come-from-behind win.
It was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Clemson football, and it also came at one of the most important times.
Simmons' pinpoint accuracy on the long ball to Rod Gardner and Jackie Robinson quieted the Kenan Stadium crowd and showed the rest of the college football world that the Tigers new fast-paced, no-huddle offense was here to stay.
Simmons would come off the bench just one week later and throw an incredible touchdown pass to a diving Rod Gardner in the back of the endzone to rally the Tigers for what turned out to be a short lived lead over rival Georgia Tech late in the 4th quarter.
Even though the Tigers would lose on a late touchdown pass from Tech quarterback George Godsey to Kerry Watkins, Simmons' status as a reserve signal caller had reached legendary proportions in eyes of Clemson fans.
But those were the good old days you could say.
While Tiger fans everywhere secretly hoped that Simmons would be able to beat out Dantzler during the following season, it would never materialize.
Dantzler held off Simmons during his senior season, forcing the Quincy, Florida native to watch the Tigers from the bench for one more year.
And then came 2002.
This was finally supposed to be the year that it all came together for one of the all-time favorites of Clemson fans. This was going to be the year that the true passing attack that was visualized by Tommy Bowden upon his arrival in December of 1998 would come to fruition.
However that dream, that vision, would never quite materialize either, at least not under the direction of Simmons.
Simmons was steady and effective during his first 5 starts of the year. He had the Tigers in the perfect position to upset archrival Georgia in the season opener, yet it didn't happen.
He also had the Tigers on the verge of upsetting national power Florida State, leading Clemson to a late 3-point second quarter lead. But it didn't happen.
He was oh-so-close in helping the Tigers climb over one of the biggest obstacles that has been facing this team in each of the last three years- a big win over a nationally ranked team.
But it didn't happen, and following a disappointing upset loss in Charlottesville to the Virginia Cavaliers, Tommy Bowden felt as though he needed to kickstart the offense.
Simmons was effective, there was no doubt about that, but something just wasn't right, and so he was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Charlie Whitehurst.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
With Simmons only playing in mop up time during the rest of the 2002 season, it was somewhat expected that he might consider transferring to another school for his senior year.
Yet he never talked about it. He never said a word. In fact, he was always be the first one to congratulate Charlie Whitehurst after he threw a big touchdown pass or made a big play last season.
He would always hold his head high and say the right things to the media when quizzed about his demotion to the second team. You knew it bothered him, but you also knew that he was above it all.
Simply put, Willie Simmons is a class act. And while he won't be playing football at Clemson University next year, that's no reason to view him in a negative light.
He paid his dues and then some at Clemson University. He redshirted his first year and learned the offense that was run so brilliantly at times by Woodrow Dantzler. He worked hard in the weight room, he ran the scout team at practice, and he finally put himself in a position to do some great things as the starting quarterback last year.
But, as most of us know, things don't always work out as you like them to, and after learning that he would be on the second team headed into fall practice, he decided that it would be in his best interest to move on elsewhere so that he could reap the benefits of almost 5 full years of hard work.
You know what I say to that? Good for him, he deserves it. And we as Clemson fans should do everything in our power to support him in his decision.
Whatever school decides to hand over their starting quarterback position to Willie Simmons will never look back on that decision with an ounce of regret. He's talented, he's a hard worker, and he's a leader both on and off the field.
And even if that doesn't land him take him to the proverbial "next level" in professional ranks, it will certainly take him there in whatever else he decides to do with his life after football.
Willie Simmons is a class act that did things the right way at Clemson, and wherever ends up, success is sure to follow.
Good luck Willie, I know I speak for all Clemson fans when I say that we are going to miss you.
Good Luck Willie...
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