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Whistling past the graveyard

Van Kornegay loves putting Clemson’s landmark road wins in stone

Posted: March 20, 2017 4:35 p.m.
Updated: March 21, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

THE CROWN JEWEL in Clemson’s Victory Graveyard is this 1,500-pound granite headstone detailing the national football championship game win over Alabama. The piece was added to the area during a ceremony attended by the Tigers’ coaching staff and players last Wednesday. Taking a handful of men to help put it on its base was the task entrusted to Camden’s Van Kornegay, white jacket kneeling behind the stone, while joined by, from left, Joi Brunson, Kirk Brunson, Michael Boozer, Matt Downey, Justin Finley, Matt Bishop and Thomas Bishop.

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CLEMSON --- Visitors to most graveyards make their way through the headstones using hushed, reverent tones out of respect for the dearly departed. Then, there is the Clemson football burial ground, located along the entry way to the Tigers’ practice facility and a couple hundred yards from the program’s sparkling new $150 million football operations hub, dubbed “Dabo World.”

On this small plot of land sits grave markers commemorating landmark Tiger victories over ranked programs on the road or, in postseason and/or bowl games.

Four more marble edifices were added to that collection last Wednesday with the largest of those being a 1,500-pound black granite stone regaling Clemson’s 35-31 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the National Championship Game in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 9, 22017.

The newest additions to the grave plot were driven to Clemson by Tigers’ superfan, Van Kornegay, of Kornegay Funeral Home in Camden and Lugoff.

Since 2004, the 1991 Camden High graduate has made it his mission to make sure that notable Clemson football victories take their rightful place in one of the two graveyards located on the school’s campus. All it took was a simple phone call following the Tigers’ 24-17 win over 10th ranked Miami in Miami Gardens, Fla., for Kornegay to become an extended part of the Clemson football family.

“After the big win against Miami,” Kornegay said, “I called (then-Clemson associate athletic director for Facilities and Grounds) Robert Ricketts and asked him, ‘Who does the tombstones?’ He said they got them from a company out of Easley.”

Hearing that, Kornegay offered his services while telling Ricketts of his family’s long service in the funeral business. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t y’all get them from me?’ He said, ‘OK. You can help us with these tombstones?’

“I said, ‘Yeah. My family runs a funeral home in Camden and I can help you with these tombstones. Why not get them from a Clemson fan?’”

Ricketts took Kornegay up on his offer and the next day, the two men met in Clemson to discuss the new partnership. From there, Kornegay took down the measurements for the tombstones and has been the official provider of the product to the program ever since.

“Usually,” he said, “it’s just me and another guy who put in the base and put the headstone on top of it and do it in one day. This year, we had so many to put in that me and my good friend, Ben Myers, put the bases in the Wednesday prior; that way we could actually go up and enjoy our day in Clemson.

“We all wanted to go up there and make this a special day and enjoy it.”

Last week, four vehicles filled with helpers, along with a truck and trailer which held the four tombstones, Kornegay and company made their way to Clemson to put the headstones atop the four bases which he and Myers dug into the ground the previous week. None, however, was more precious, costly and heavier than the one signifying the national championship victory over Alabama, the 15th stone which Kornegay had brought to Clemson.

“This was the first time Clemson had ever beaten a number one-ranked team in its history,” Kornegay said of the special stone. “It was a pretty big win and they wanted something different. Coach (Dabo) Swinney told D.J. Gordon (Clemson’s Assistant Director of Football Operations and Creative Media and Kornegay’s contact) that he wanted this one a little bit bigger; he wanted this one to stand out.

“I suggested that they might want to do that one in black and they could have everything smooth and polished. It’s a little bit different.”

The Alabama headstone was the star of the show in the four most recent tombstones which included one for last season’s 37-34 win over 12th ranked Florida State in Tallahassee, the 42-35 victory over 19th ranked Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game in Orlando and the 31-0 shutout of third-ranked Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, played 10 days before the national title contest.

Those three 440-pound stones required two to three men affixing them to the base of the monument. The Alabama stone was an “all hands on deck” endeavor with six men needed to carry it from the truck to its rightful place in the cemetery.

Kornegay was in the stands for the national title game and had a perfect view of Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown catch with one second left in the game. While Clemson fans were busy celebrating, Kornegay’s friend, Kirk Brunson, who was seated next to Kornegay, knew the drill.

“When Renfrow caught that touchdown pass,” Kornegay said in describing the wild scene after the Alabama game, “Kirk looked at me and said, ‘Looks like we got another trip to Clemson coming.’”

In affixing the headstone, Kornegay and friends along with a member of the Clemson facilities staff rolled a cement compound under stone, which is propped up by two pieces of wood to make sure it stays in place. Before the stone is laid atop the base, though, Kornegay adds his own personal touch, something which he has done since taking on the task.

In each of the four corners, he places a quarter, face side up. “I always put four quarters underneath the headstone,” he said. “There’s four quarters in a football game and I always place the quarters heads up because we have to play heads up football in order to win those games. That’s one of the unique things that I do for each one.”

Kornegay’s first stone, that from the Miami game, was affixed to its base the day before that year’s Clemson versus South Carolina football game. The Tigers were then coached by Tommy Bowden who made little, if any fuss, about a new addition to Victory Graveyard. In fact, the first time Kornegay put a tombstone in the field, he was joined by friend Michael Culp Jr. Together, the pair put the 450-pound marker up and left.

“When I first started doing it,” Kornegay said, “Tommy Bowden was head coach and they would tell me what they wanted and we would put it in the Friday before the next home game. It wasn’t a big deal. We’d install it and it was over. Nobody was even there.”

Since Swinney, who calls Kornegay and friends “The Tombstone Crew”, took over for Bowden as the Tigers’ permanent head coach in 2009, graveyard ceremonies have become must-attend occasions. Last Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after the headstones had been affixed and the cement had set, Swinney, his staff and players made their way out to the cemetery before practice.

“Dabo, from day one, wanted to make a big deal out of it,” Kornegay said. “He knows it’s special. To beat Florida State in Tallahassee is a big deal for Clemson.

“Dabo usually takes the time to come over and sign autographs for everybody and pose for pictures. He’s very approachable.” 

As the first headstone from the Florida State win was preparing to be unwrapped, Swinney pulled out a small plastic bag filled with dirt from Doak Campbell Stadium. He dug a small hole in front of the base and spread the dirt in it while talking about significance of the road win.

After the marker for the Ohio State victory was unveiled, Swinney called on his wife and fellow Alabama graduate, Kathleen. Together, they unwrapped the national championship stone which was enclosed under a national championship flag.

“Day in, day out. One day at a time. One victory at a time. One failure at a time and continuing to push through,” Swinney said of the significance of the monuments to landmark road wins. “What a blessing to be a part of a great tradition at Clemson. This is a tradition at Clemson that’s been here long before us. We’re happy to add to and be a part of it and that’s really what your job as a team is. It’s to build upon the tradition that’s here,  embrace what’s here and add to it.”

As part of that special day last Wednesday, Kornegay, his daughter, Caroline, and their friends made an entire day of it. In early afternoon, former Camden High and Clemson offensive lineman and current Clemson graduate assistant coach Thomas Austin gave the large group a guided tour of “Dabo World” which left no stone unturned in making it the standard in college football facilities.

From sliding down the sliding board which connects one floor to the other to running down a replica of The Hill to the tune of Tiger Rag and to seeing the meeting rooms, cafeteria, weight room and special displays contained inside the facility, the group enjoyed the full Clemson football experience concluding by being invited to attend that afternoon’s spring practice session inside the indoor practice facility by Swinney.

“Usually,” Kornegay said these days, “everyone wants to go because it’s a kid thing. Clemson gives special treatment to all the kids. My daughter Caroline loves to go and likes taking buddies with her. They got to play around inside the practice facility and meet the players. This year, Caroline wanted to make sure she and her buddies could go down the slide in Dabo World. They loved that.”

Kornegay said he is ready to add to the collection of headstones which he has driven from Camden to Clemson. It is a task which never grows old. He said when he gets the call to order a new stone and put it alongside the others, he gets right to work in a process which takes a week to go from drawing board to being placed in the bed of his truck for the trip to the Upstate.

When Ricketts was at Clemson, he talked with Kornegay about straying from tradition and, possibly, erecting a stone to commemorate Clemson’s 1981 national championship team. That idea never got off the ground but, for Kornegay, there is one stone which might come close to rivaling that from the Alabama win. It could come in four years.

“I sure would love to put a Notre Dame stone in there in 2020,” he said with a smile. 

 

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