‘He made heavy light and made hard easy’: Homer Jordan’s Clemson legacy 40 years later


BOGART, Ga. — All these years later, Homer Jordan is amazed that anybody still remembers him.

But, then, that’s Jordan, unassuming and humble, almost to the point of being uncomfortable when the subject turns to him and his role in Clemson‘s first-ever national championship four decades ago, and more specifically, his role in opening so many doors for those who came after him as the first Black starting quarterback to lead an FBS (then Division I-A) team to a unanimous national championship.

“I’m a laid-back guy. I don’t like to be out front, and coming up, I was real shy,” Jordan said. “But when I go back to Clemson’s games, and a lot of the fans hang out in the same spots and look for you and tell the same stories — stories that get better with time — you walk by, and it’s, ‘Hey Homer!’

“You’re sort of like, ‘They still know me, gray hair and all?’ But they do, and it’s a good feeling.”

The truth is, they will always know Jordan, one of the enduring faces of that 1981 Clemson national championship team. In fact, it was almost 40 years ago to the date (Jan. 1, 1982) that Jordan was fearlessly running the option, scrambling for clutch first downs and fighting through dehydration issues to lead the Tigers to a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and a perfect 12-0 season.

“I don’t know how many different ways to say it, but Homer was just a winner,” said Cliff Austin, Jordan’s roommate and the starting running back on that 1981 team. “No matter how good or how well he practiced, he was even better in the game. You just knew he was going to make something happen when we needed it the most.”

Jordan, who earned offensive MVP honors that steamy night in Miami, remembers celebrating with teammates on the field in the jubilant aftermath of the Orange Bowl, but doesn’t remember much of the night after that. When he got to the locker room, he was so dehydrated that he passed out and had to be administered IV fluids.

“The team was going to a big party, and I’m stuck in my hotel room with an IV,” said Jordan, who first started to feel weak at halftime. “I didn’t even ride the bus back to the hotel with the team because I was still receiving treatment.

“I had to ride back in a police car.”

But what a ride it was, and as Jordan reflects 40 years later on that night, that victory and that season, he has gained a deeper appreciation for what it’s all meant and the way a shy, skinny kid from Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia, helped to transcend college football.

“Just a great man and a great leader and the perfect example of what that team was all about,” said Bill Smith, a starting defensive end in 1981 and a lifetime member of Clemson’s board of trustees. “We were brothers with one common goal, to go win football games, and weren’t going to let anything divide us. As one of Homer’s white teammates, I can’t tell you what it was like to be in his shoes back then. What I can tell you is that Homer’s quiet confidence set the tone.

“I called him the silent assassin. He didn’t say much, but boy, he would rip your heart out on the field.”

In many ways, Jordan was the heartbeat of that team and undaunted by the ugly stereotypes of that era when a Black quarterback was viewed as a liability. Jeff Davis, a college football Hall of Famer and All-America linebacker for the 1981 Tigers, marveled then at Jordan’s steely resolve and still does.

“I’m sure the weight was heavy, but that’s one of the things that marked Homer,” Davis said. “He made heavy light and made hard easy. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t struggling with some of that stuff, but the true champions, when they’re hurting, they don’t show it because victory is their true destination. I don’t think Homer ever put ‘Black’ in front of quarterback. He put ‘excellent’ in front of quarterback, because excellence is a universal word and crosses all barriers.”

Jordan talked very little about the racial component back in those days, according to Austin, but Austin said Jordan wasn’t oblivious to the times.

“You tell Homer he couldn’t do something, and it was going to light an unbelievable fire in him,” Austin said.

That fire burned, albeit deep inside, the entire time Jordan was at Clemson. His passion for his alma mater burns equally as bright to this day, as he’s a regular at games, fund-raising events, anything to get him back on campus.

Jordan is being inducted this year into the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame. His only regret is that his beloved Tigers won’t be playing in Miami when he’s honored on the field.

It won’t be the same field he played on 40 years ago — the old Orange Bowl stadium has long since been demolished — but his thoughts will invariably drift back in time. And even for a man whose humility is as legendary as his football exploits, Jordan is much more aware now of his place in history than he was while playing.

“There’s a sense of pride there, something I can share with my sons and grandson, to be the first to do it and how that helped others,” Jordan said. “I remember what it was like for me to watch Doug Williams at Grambling and then in the NFL. One of my proudest days was when I got to meet (Williams), and that’s something I’ve always carried with me.”

Minnesota‘s Sandy Stephens was actually the first Black starting quarterback to lead a Division I-A team to a national championship, but Minnesota shared the 1960 title with Ole Miss, which was named national champion by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), one of the NCAA’s four recognized selectors.

Jordan was the first, though, to do it in the southern footprint and the first to do it on an unbeaten team, paving the way for eight other Black starting quarterbacks to lead their teams to national titles in the 1980s and 1990s.

Jamelle Holieway led Oklahoma to the 1985 title, and Tony Rice guided Notre Dame to the 1988 title. In 1990, Colorado and Georgia Tech shared the national title, and the starting quarterbacks for each team were Black — Darian Hagan and Charles Johnson split time for the Buffs and Shawn Jones for the Yellow Jackets.

Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy in 1993 on his way to leading Florida State to a national title. Tommie Frazier guided Nebraska to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, while Tennessee’s Tee Martin became the SEC’s first Black starting quarterback to lead a team to a national championship in 1998.

“Homer Jordan is a fearless trailblazer and champion,” said Martin, now a member of the Baltimore Ravens’ staff. “Knowing of his life and story at Clemson inspired me to explore what was possible for us at quarterback if we were presented with a fair opportunity. He’s a hero of mine.”

As he blazed that path, Jordan was more focused on his teammates than he was the social significance of what he was doing. Even now, it’s that way.

“I guess I still think more about the friendships and bonds that were formed during that time, and yes, there were some bad times,” Jordan said. “But the bad ones get you through to the good ones. You have to go through a little pain to see the other side. That’s part of growing.”

Jordan, 61, lives now in Hobart, Georgia, not too far from where he grew up in Athens, where he’s enshrined in the city’s athletic Hall of Fame. His house is less than 15 miles away from Sanford Stadium, home of the Georgia Bulldogs.

As he stands one fall evening on his front porch, Jordan motions to the main road in his quiet neighborhood and quips, “You like all the orange Tiger paws leading to my house?”

His easy smile widens, and he sighs, “Yep, still surrounded by all these Dawgs.”

And surrounded by an endless stream of memories, too. Most of them, he insists, are good memories, even during a time in the early 1980s when a Black kid playing quarterback in the deep south in the Division I-A ranks was unheard of in many locales.

“I think I was more worried about it than he was, what all he might face, how the alumni and other fans might take it and how it was all going to affect him,” said Danny Ford, Clemson’s head coach at the time and only 33 when the Tigers won the title in 1981.

“Clemson had only had one other Black quarterback, Willie Jordan, and that was before I got there, and he ended up moving to defensive back. I remember sitting Homer down and talking to him about it, and he handled it like he did everything else. There I was afraid for him what could go wrong, but Homer never let anything go wrong.”

One of the main reasons Jordan chose Clemson was because the Tigers promised him the chance to play quarterback. He said Georgia also recruited him as a quarterback, but with a caveat.

“I remember the Georgia coaches saying, ‘If it doesn’t work out at quarterback, we will try you at defensive back,'” Jordan recounted. “Well, I knew what that meant. I said, ‘I guess you’re looking at me as a DB.'”

Jordan also seriously considered Tennessee because in Condredge Holloway and Jimmy Streater, the Vols had already shown they would play Black quarterbacks. But Clemson, South Carolina, was a lot closer to Athens than Knoxville, Tennessee, and Jordan wasn’t about to move any farther away from his high school sweetheart, Deborah Arnold, than he had to.

His teammates at Clemson called him “Bird,” because all he ate was chicken, and he was always “flying back home” in his navy blue Monte Carlo right after games to see Arnold, who would become his wife after his first of four seasons in the CFL. He also played part of the year in the NFL during the 1987 strike season as a replacement player for the Browns.

They were together for 40 years, but Deborah died in 2016 after a long battle with breast cancer. She died in the house in which Jordan still lives, and her picture is one of the few in his den. It’s prominently displayed on the coffee table in front of his sofa.

Jordan’s voice softens when he talks about the woman he still refers to as “my girl” all these years later.

“She battled cancer for 10 years, started on one side, went to the other side and then congestive heart failure,” he said. “She just kept fighting.”

They have two sons, Adrian (35) and Darius (25), and Darius works with his father in their car detailing business. At one point, Jordan was also coaching football at his old high school, but he gave that up a few years ago.

In the years after his wife’s death, Jordan said he shut down in ways that he knew weren’t healthy. But different people grieve in different ways.

It was during those dark times that he was reminded over and over again how unbreakable that bond was that he created at Clemson with his teammates and coaches.

“For two years, I basically didn’t do anything. I mean, I worked, but was kind of out of it, just trying to get myself together,” said Jordan, who said he drew strength in the way his former teammates rallied to his side.

They were all there for him, and in some of Jordan’s toughest times, he leaned the hardest on Davis, who is now Clemson’s assistant athletic director of football player relations and founded FreeWay Church, where Davis serves as senior pastor.

“You never saw Homer without Deb, and you never saw Deb without Homer. They were one,” Davis said. “She was his inspiration in so many ways. I told him, ‘Homer, the memories Deb left you are going to last a lifetime, and while you might not be able to physically see her, you will always be able to see and feel the impact she had on you and all those people around you that love you so much.'”

Those soothing words, Jordan said, “helped me start living again.”

A framed picture of Jordan throwing a pass in the Orange Bowl still sits on the floor in his den.

“I’ve got to put it up, a lot of stuff I need to put up,” Jordan said. “All of my stuff from college is packed up in boxes or in a closet, but I’m getting there.”

For the longest time, Jordan still wore his national championship ring, but he lost the crown of the ring while coaching football and was unable to find it.

“I’m nervous about sending it off somewhere to get fixed,” said Jordan, who was inducted into Clemson’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal to get it. So, yeah, I’m a little nervous.”

His coaches and teammates rarely saw Jordan nervous during his playing days, especially once he settled in after a trying first season as the Tigers’ starter in 1980. He won the starting quarterback job during preseason camp (after playing some earlier that year at defensive back in the Clemson spring game) and was the Tigers’ primary starter at quarterback for the next three seasons. He beat out touted prospect Andy Headen, an explosive 6-foot-5, 240-pound athlete who wound up moving to outside linebacker and played six seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants.

The 1980 season was a bumpy one for Jordan and the entire team. The Tigers lost four of their last six games, finished 2-4 in ACC play, and Jordan learned to become hardened to the boos.

He said the most overt case of racism he faced was one day in a store during his sophomore season when a white man noticed him and told him very matter of factly that he didn’t believe Clemson could win with a Black quarterback.

Jordan’s response was typical of the way he went about his business on the field no matter how tense or heated the situation became. He was unflappable.

“I don’t even know if he was a Clemson fan,” Jordan recalled. “I really didn’t face a lot of that kind of thing. I knew it was there and knew people were talking about it and maybe heard some things that others said they were hearing. But when that guy came up to me and said that, I didn’t worry about it, mostly because I knew my coaches and teammates had my back.

“I think I just said something like, ‘I don’t face you, so you can’t stop me.’ All quarterbacks get booed. That’s just part of playing the position. Was it different with me because I was Black? Probably so. Sometimes I deserved to get booed. But pretty soon, those boos turned to cheers.”

Jordan shared a special relationship with Ford and remains indebted to his coach “for sticking with me no matter what everybody else on the outside might be saying.”

It’s a relationship that has endured. Whenever Jordan goes back to Clemson, he makes sure to find his old coach.

“I know where he parks for games, and he still gives me a hard time every time I see him,” said Jordan, adding that it’s usually something crazy.

Just how crazy?

“Most of it you can’t repeat,” Jordan said smiling. “But he knows how I feel about him. He never wavered in his belief in me, and in the beginning, probably believed in me more than I even did. He was good to me. I can say that. He pushed me to be me … and let me be me.”

Ford, who still lives on his farm just outside Clemson in Pendleton, remembers Jordan’s calming presence, his penchant for delivering in key moments and the way he grew as a leader.

Of course, Ford still loves to needle Jordan about his inauspicious start to the 1981 season. Clemson fell behind Wofford 3-0 early in the season opener. The fans, already restless from the way the 1980 season ended, really started to squirm that Sept. 5 afternoon at Death Valley.

“The first play we called against Wofford was a bootleg pass, and he came out there and he dropped the ball and it bounced right back up into his stomach,” Ford recounted. “I said, ‘Dang, Homer, this ain’t basketball. You don’t have to dribble the ball before you throw it.'”

The Tigers wound up winning 45-10, and that one blip became a footnote. Jordan went on to lead the ACC in passing efficiency, earn first-team All-ACC honors, and most importantly, direct his team to the school’s first national title.

The Tigers, unranked to start the season, won three games over top-10 teams on their way to the championship, and none were any sweeter for Jordan than the 13-3 win over No. 4 Georgia and Herschel Walker.

Jordan, who had to do a lot of checking off and making quick throws against the Dawgs, was responsible for the game’s only touchdown when he hit Perry Tuttle in the end zone on an 8-yard pass. It was Jordan’s only win as a starter over the Dawgs in a fierce rivalry that was played annually in those days.

“That was back when you won with defense and the kicking game,” Smith said. “We didn’t throw it a lot, but when we had to, Homer could flat-out throw it. How Georgia let him get out of Athens, I still don’t know. But it’s good for us that they did.”

The Tigers were off and running after that win over Georgia, and Jordan adapted to whatever role his team needed him to play each week. The 10-8 victory over No. 9 North Carolina the first week of November in Chapel Hill was massive, the first meeting between top-10 ACC teams in league history.

“Defense won it for us that day, and it’s the hardest-hitting game I ever played in,” Jordan said.

A week later, Clemson beat Maryland and Boomer Esiason 21-7 at home to clinch the ACC championship, with Jordan throwing three touchdown passes, all in the first half, and finishing with 270 passing yards.

“I threw 29 passes in that game. They had to ice my arm down afterward,” quipped Jordan, whose ability to both run and pass effectively made him an ideal fit for the Tigers’ offense. “We were running the option and the veer. The spread is what they call it now, but we didn’t throw the ball much. There were some games I might have thrown it 10 or 12 times.”

But in every game, Jordan was there when the Tigers needed him, even if it was just for one timely third-down completion from the pocket or a keeper on the option to sustain a drive.

“The tighter the situation, the better he was,” Austin said. “Homer wasn’t fast, but he was quick. You could forget about tackling him if he got up on you. Your best bet was to let him get past you and then try to run him down.”

Ford loved Jordan as a football player when the Tigers were recruiting him, but he would be lying if he said he was convinced Jordan could be their starting quarterback.

“We never promised him he would be our quarterback,” Ford said. “We promised him he would have a chance to win our quarterback job, and Homer did the rest.”

What Ford was convinced of during the recruiting process was that he was getting a kid who knew the meaning of perseverance. Jordan was 11 when his father died of complications from diabetes, and his mother worked two jobs to keep the family afloat.

“It hasn’t always been the easiest on Homer, from losing his wife, to going through what he did to be Clemson’s first Black quarterback, and remember, it was even harder for him because we were coming off an average season,” Ford said. “But Homer never complained, not once. He never complained when he was playing. He never complained after.

“I can’t think of one negative thing to say about Homer Jordan other than him dribbling that football that one time.”

The 1981 Clemson team gathered earlier this season for their reunion during homecoming weekend against Boston College. Ford said it was a special time with a special team.

As he hugged players, greeted their families and re-lived that historic season from 40 years ago, his mind kept going back to the image of an exhausted Jordan slumped in front of his locker at the old Orange Bowl with an IV tube strapped to him.

Just a few minutes earlier, it was Jordan’s scramble on third-and-23 that all but sealed the win over Nebraska.

“He made two or three of their players miss and barely made the first down, and we kept the ball,” Ford remembered. “And after that game, everybody was in there hollering and jumping up and down, and Homer’s over there taking an IV because he’s give out (spent). He left everything on the field.”

And left a legacy that will endure.

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