Only in nutty college football could a star-to-be running back, Travis Etienne of Jennings, La., announce his college decision in winter 2017 by saying, “I’ll be taking my talents to the real Death Valley,” and have everybody know he meant Clemson and not eastern California, dwelling among bighorn sheep and roadrunners and coyotes and sidewinder rattlesnakes and awesome, awesome pupfish.
And, really now, only college football could hone the exquisite breed of fan such as those from Clemson and LSU, who, unaware of the illegality and unseemliness of extracting rocks from Death Valley, wind up dialing Death Valley National Park to ask whether Death Valley National Park might please send them a rock.
“Almost every year I have at least one or two people who call,” said David Blacker, who lives in the park among 600 humans and a zillion critters as the executive director of the Death Valley Natural History Association.
At the real Death Valley, they’re busy — wildflower season beckons! — but when told or reminded of Death Valley vs. Death Valley, the College Football Playoff title game Monday night in New Orleans, they do not sit around in their hottest spot on Earth and their driest spot on the continent and sneer across the country at these ersatz Death Valleys with their plush suites and their tailgate libations.
No, they’re unbothered enough even to offer up football parallels.
These parallels go beyond that cellphone reception is lousy in both Death Valley National Park and in stadiums. Or that the fee for park entry, $30, resembles the fee for tailgate-parking entry. Or that the real Death Valley got its name after a smallish group had a hellish time getting through the valley on the way from Salt Lake City to the 1849 gold bonanza in California, a plight resembling that of, say, most of Clemson’s visitors the past five seasons. Or that one of Death Valley’s legends, the 20-mule teams of the 1880s that hauled borax 165 miles on journeys that would take 10 days, would be recognizable to LSU fans as similar to some of their suffered offenses of the more recent past.
First off, park superintendent Mike Reynolds asserts that the real Death Valley, with 11,000 feet of elevation on one side and about 6,700 on the other, is “like a giant bowl.”
That’s imaginative, as is Blacker delving into the hard set of linebackers and fleet speed-position critters who reside in the park. “Roadrunners,” he said. “We have sidewinder rattlesnakes. Scorpions. Everything here is very tough — even our wildflowers. We joke that everything here will bite you, scratch you or sting you. Everything here lives a pretty tough life. You’ve got to be pretty tough if you’re going to live in Death Valley.”
A rare individual who both adores a dry place (Death Valley) and a waterlogged football team (the Oregon Ducks), Blacker said, “Even our little fish are tough,” referring to the pupfish, and who could possibly boo a pupfish? He explained, “A number of them spend time in water that’s basically two or three inches deep — and saltier than the oceans.”
On a roll, he begins to pinpoint coyotes as Death Valley’s foremost defenders, saying both, “They take advantage of anything that comes their way,” and, “They’re opportunistic.”
Don’t even get him started about the resiliency of the botanical players. “I always think of the desert gold,” Blacker said of a type of wildflower. “A foot to 18 inches off the ground. Sometimes the wind blows through here at 20, 30 miles an hour. They’ve got to be able to bend but not break.”
“Yeah, I just thought of that one," he said. “That was pretty good.”
When Reynolds pointed out, “Plants will be dormant for years under the ground and then, when it rains, they’ll pop out, and every single plant you encounter will have either thorns or leaves close to the ground … adaptation strategies,” the long dormancy and sudden adaptation sound very much like the current LSU offense.
Reynolds, after all, has been to the real Death Valley and Etienne’s “real Death Valley.” In 2016, Clemson invited him for a weekend at the Clemson-Louisville game that became the first duel of Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson. Reynolds reveled. He loved hearing and overhearing the frequent usage of Death Valley. He loved seeing the T-shirts about "the real Death Valley,” even if they were not quite accurate. He spoke to classes, hoping to recruit park interns.
On game day, he accepted professors’ invitations to noon tailgates for an 8 p.m. kickoff, wondered whether they would just drink for eight hours and marveled that the bustling tailgate population seemed four to five times that of the ticket holders.
“It blew my mind,” said the native of Louisville, where football always bows to that round ball that bounces obediently when dropped.
He visited the university president’s box, met U.S. senators and a governor (Nikki Haley) and talked about Death Valley. (“I thought I was just going to get chicken wings,” he said.) He appeared on a 30-second video clip on the scoreboard. He loved that when he introduced himself, people would laugh and say: “Oh, yeah! Death Valley National Park!”
No one disputes, of course, that Clemson was the first football Death Valley, originating in the mid-to-late 1940s, and began with Presbyterian College Coach Lonnie McMillan, who apparently had visited the real Death Valley, dreading another trip into Clemson’s September heat and unfavorable scores, such as 76-0 in 1945. LSU’s usage appears to have turned up around the late 1950s, possibly after LSU’s 7-0 win over Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl, won on a touchdown pass from halfback Billy Cannon, the only such Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy until Joe Burrow did so in December.
As retraced by writers and historians who include a Clemson one-man library named Tim Bourret, Frank Howard, the unforgettable sort who coached Clemson from 1940 to 1969, liked, adopted and utilized McMillan’s phrase. Eventually, a derelict friend brought Howard a rock from Death Valley, which sat in his office until he tired of it, whereupon, according to Howard’s book, he asked a booster to hurl it over a fence somewhere, whereupon the booster, Gene Willimon, had it mounted on a stand atop the stadium, where it rests today as one of college football’s inanimate wonders, touched by Clemson players as they enter the stadium and the fray.
So that large chunk of white flint, Howard’s Rock, joins the world’s vast collection of artifacts purloined from natural homes and then treasured afar. Those at Death Valley National Park have no interest in reclaiming it, even though that would make an interesting court case.
Instead, they’re good sports with recommendations. Maybe, Blacker said, the fan bases could compete to see who could donate more to the park, with the winner each year becoming "the real Death Valley.” Or maybe, he said, one of the schools could draw inspiration from Eastern Washington’s red field or Boise State’s blue. It could make its field look like a salt flat because, as he knows, it’s hard as hell for a visiting offense to drive across that.