The stains on his uniform would quickly wash away; the memories will linger a lifetime. In a game even better than advertised, John Tice had been mostly terrific. Everybody who stopped by his locker emphasized that. Still . . .
"It really came down to one play," he said. "Me."
Too bad. Tice's was the last fumble yesterday, although each of the other three was as critical for Maryland. And it also helped tie together a game almost as confusing as it was exciting. Down 17 points to Clemson, which had lost just once in two seasons, the Terrapins had a chance for the winning field goal in the final minutes.
But Maryland's best player, Tice, was tackled by Clemson's best player, Terry Kinard, and a Tiger whose goat horns were stretching from Byrd Stadium to the Beltway, Reggie Pleasant, recovered. Several seconds, one play, symbolized all the irony and drama of a 24-22 game literally swaying in the wind all afternoon.
Tice caught 11 passes in all; the last, which set a Maryland one-game record, cost Jess Atkinson a chance for a 40-some-yard field goal with a gale at his back. The massive tight end was questioning his judgment as much as his hands on the play, wondering if he hadn't been too heroic, if the Terrapins would have been better with him on the sideline.
To understand that, go back with Tice to his 10th catch. It was a wonderful leaping effort that gained 30 yards; Tice paid a mighty price.
"Hit the back of my head, on the ground or the guy who hit me," he said. "Maybe I should have called it a day there. Head was a little fuzzy (later, Maryland officials said he suffered a mild concussion). Wasn't myself after that. My stomach was turning, getting a little nauseous." Later . . .
"The combination of the fumble and being hit earlier had me really out of it."
He was calm now, an hour after the game ended, one of the few Terrapins left in the dressing room. His ankles still were taped; pads were hanging from his uniform trousers.
"Even if I had held the ball," he said, "I probably would have taken myself out the next play. I had a little trouble comprehending the (earlier) plays."
The play flashed before him again.
"Had the ball in my hands," he said, "but no chance to tuck it away. Usually, I put it away very quickly. He (Kinard) separated it from me -- and then he laid on me. The ball was only a couple feet away; I couldn't get to it, 'cause he was on top of me." Pleasant, who had been called twice for pass interference, grabbed it.
Came the question of Tice's being on the field at all. Nobody could deny him that, he being a fifth-year senior with one last chance to win an Atlantic Coast Conference championship. A few feet away, another of those red-shirt seniors, Mike Corvino, explained the feeling.
"The whole season seemed to ride on this game," he said. "I was here when Clemson took away our title (28-24, in 1978, the last game in Byrd Stadium as significant and sensational). I sincerely didn't think that was gonna happen again."
Entire sections of an overflowing stadium were beginning to disagree when Maryland fell behind by 17 points early in the fourth quarter. Clemson was coping with the wind and the Terrapins very well. Whatever sins the Tigers had committed in recruiting, one fact was obvious: they'd gotten full value.
"Last year," Tice said, "we might have sunk about then. This year, we know we can score in a hurry. Even with a few seconds left, we can put points on the board."
The play before Tice's drop also was frustrating for Maryland. On the snap, from the Clemson 20, quarterback Boomer Esiason stumbled and fell; an official caught somebody holding.
"Awfully quick call," Coach Bobby Ross said.
That forced a pass.
The fateful one.
"I put myself back in (for the series)," Tice said. "I should have been responsible enough to keep out. But I thought I was all right."
Tice was as tough on himself mentally as Kinard had been physically.
"I question whether I should have gone back in," he said. "I did--and I paid the consequence."
He added: "So close."
Esiason was giving Clemson credit, but blaming himself and teammates more.
"They didn't win it," he insisted. "We lost it."
He seemed to realize that was too harsh a tone.
"A great season so far," he said. "No sense getting down on ourselves. We're on the way up; we'll reach the top sooner or later."
The bowl scouts made it a point to congratulate Ross. A fellow a few feet away thought for sure he heard the Tangerine Bowl guy say: "You're our choice." Whether that will be the Terrapins' choice is uncertain. The Aloha Bowl might be more appealing.
Before those thoughts could get rampant, Ross said. "We'd better bounce back against Virginia."
Captain Corvino promised that would happen. And more.
"We'll show our character," he said. "We're gonna beat Virginia and go to a bowl game. And then we're gonna kick whoever's butt we play."
Corvino looked toward his buddy Tice.
"John played a first-team all-America type game," he said. "Exceptional. And unfortunate. One of those things. We just couldn't quite get it in the end zone, just couldn't put three on the board."
Corvino was strolling outside when Tice stirred from his stool. He was coming to terms with what had happened, the fine catches and blocks finally intruding in his thoughts. But his head still hurt.