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Clemson football fans enjoying the ride, no matter what it cost

January 7, 2017 GMT

TAMPA, Fla. — The loudest Clemson fan on the front row at media day on Saturday morning jubilantly chanted Clemson’s cheers and proudly wore an orange Tigers hoodie.

“Mom!” her son Josh joked. “You don’t have to yell!”

But Sandy Troiano couldn’t help herself.

“I’m proud to be where I’m at today,” Sandy beamed. “And it’s all real.”

Indeed, Sandy feels fortunate to be in Tampa for the days leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship game, a matchup in which Clemson takes on Alabama on Monday night.

Thirteen years ago, when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, doctors told her husband she had six months to live. That she’s even here — alive and cancer-free in Tampa — is worth celebrating.

“It’s priceless,” Sandy said, as her eyes welled up. “Every day is priceless — every day. Every day ... And I think that’s why I get so excited. I’m here. I’m here and I’m blessed and I thank the Lord.”

But Sandy doesn’t have a ticket to Monday’s game — at least not yet. These are the best of times for Clemson football fans, but the fun doesn’t come cheap. Between an ACC championship game in Charlotte last year, an Orange Bowl in Miami last year, a national title game in Arizona last year, an ACC championship game in Orlando this year, a Fiesta Bowl in Arizona this year, and now a national championship game in Tampa, the most committed fans have had to pay thousands of dollars to see the Tigers compete these last two seasons.

Sandy is hopeful that she and Josh — who both flew from Pittsburgh — will find some that are affordable, but as of Saturday afternoon, the cheapest tickets to Monday night’s game on StubHub were selling for $1,400 each. The most expensive ticket was priced at nearly $13,000 and for most Clemson fans, hotels and travel also had to be factored in.

Deborah Nelson, a Charleston native who has been a Clemson fan for decades, said one of her tricks to help alleviate some of the financial burden of this national championship trip was to plan early -- and gamble on the Tigers making it back to the title game.

“I’ve had (hotel) reservations (in Tampa) since last January,” Nelson laughed. “The Hampton Inn at Rocky Point. We got the best rates in the world because we made them so long ago — $132 a night.”

Tammie Isgett, another Clemson fan at media day on Saturday, took a similar approach: “Ours have been made since July,” she said.

On Monday come kickoff time, a large contingent of Clemson fans are expected to be at Raymond James Stadium, which has about a 71,000 capacity. The Tigers were outnumbered by about a 3 to 1 ratio at the Fiesta Bowl, when Ohio State fans traveled and Clemson fans presumably saved their money for Tampa.

But for those without tickets, Saturday was a way for fans to soak up the championship atmosphere with their favorite players and coaches. Fans were given personal radios on which they could listen to specific player or coach press conferences, depending on what channel they selected at Amalie Arena.

As a group of Clemson fans gathered and started to form an instant bond, 300 feet ahead of them Deshaun Watson took a minute to reflect on what the Clemson fans have done for him these past three seasons.

To Sandy and all of those like her, the quarterback had a message: the feeling is mutual.

“They don’t know it, but they really impact my life, too,” Watson said. “They really really inspire me to do great things and do it the right way and just be able to carry myself in the right way and inspire others ... Clemson is a special place. Those fans — I don’t know, it’s hard to really explain. It’s just a special feeling.”