By Stan Welch – Monday night marked the first National Championship the Clemson Tigers had won in thirty five years. But for one Williamston resident, memories of Clemson football go back much farther than that.
Donnie Bunton, 81, watched every minute of Monday’s game with Alabama. He had lots of thoughts about the game, but he also had bowl memories of his own. In 1957, Bunton was the center and linebacker on a Clemson Tigers team that traveled to the Orange Bowl, where they were defeated by a squad all the way from Colorado.
The year before, his Tiger team had become Clemson’s first team to win the ACC championship. The conference had only formed five years earlier, in 1951. The Clemson/ Carolina game was always played on Big Thursday at the State Fair back then too. “Man, Big Thursday really was big back then.” His brother would later follow him both to Clemson and to the gridiron, where he also played Clemson football.
Bunton played in both 1955 and 1956. “Back then, freshmen didn’t play. There were separate freshmen teams and we played other freshman teams the first year. I played for Coach Howard, and he was a tough old coach. He didn’t hesitate to punish you, and he could use some pretty rough language too. It didn’t bother him a bit, I can tell you.”
That willingness to discipline players is one thing that he admires about current head coach Dabo Swinney. “He makes those boys behave themselves, or face the consequences. But you can still tell he really cares about them. I think he’s a fine coach, and he seems to be a good man.”
“I also think he has the best quarterback in the country. That young man is something special. And he’s tough. I’ve never seen anybody hit and spun in a complete circle like he was Monday night, but he just got up and headed for the huddle. I’m really happy to see him and the Tigers get that trophy.”
As Bunton watched Monday night’s game, he was reminded that a two hundred pound player was a pretty big fellow back in his day. “Those players today are a whole different breed. I doubt if a single player from our teams back then could even play with these guys today.”
He reminisced about the Orange Bowl trip, stating that he was married at the time. “My wife was pregnant. In fact, she had the baby on Christmas Eve, and the team left for Florida on Christmas Day. So I left her home with a newborn while I was in Florida,having a ball. I think she’s pretty much over it now.”
“I always told her if we ever got to go to the Orange Bowl again, I would take her. So in 1981, when we won the first championship, she and I were right there.” He also keeps her original ticket, that she didn’t get to use in 1957. The face value price of that ticket was $6.25. Bunton keeps it in a display in his office.
Sadly, he hasn’t been to a Tigers game in two years. “I just don’t get up and down those stairs like I used to. And for the last couple years, they’ve been remodeling, and the old Letterman’s Club has been closed. I used to go in there a couple of hours before the games and have lunch and swap lies with other athletes about how good we all were.”
“Coach Howard used to always tell us, “Boys, when you come back five years after you graduate, every one of you will have become an All American.”
His son Randy, three of his grandsons and a a brother in law traveled to Tampa for the big game. “I expect they’ll get back this afternoon. I can’t wait to hear all about it. I’m just very happy and proud of them all.”