Sept. 11, 2001
By Louis Garmendia
Will Merritt had always hoped to play football for Clemson. But this isn’t even a dream.
The 6-foot-3, 275-pound guard enters his final season with a degree in hand, a wife at his side and another chance to shed blood, sweat and tears for his beloved Tigers. Yes, Will Merritt life is more than fantasy.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day I would have this opportunity,” he said. “It is kind of like uncharted territory for me. I never even dreamed it would be this much.”
It is a short 30-mile trip to the Clemson campus from his home near Easley, SC, and it is a trip Merritt has made many times. Ever since he can remember, Merritt has never missed a Clemson football home game or bowl game. His father told him growing up that he could go to any college he wanted, but Clemson was the only school he would pay for. He still has a book of autographs he accumulated in the late 1980s of his heroes, Clemson football players.
“I just remember thinking those guys were just giants on the field,” said Merritt, whose favorite football players growing up included quarterbacks Dan Marino and Rodney Williams and whoever played for Clemson.
Merritt has not forgotten the joy he had when he greeted the players after the game and getting that cherished autograph or pat on the head. On more than one occasion last season, he got in trouble for being late to the locker room after the game. The reason? Merritt just couldn’t leave without making sure every kid that came up to him left Death Valley with the same feeling he had when he was a kid.
“It’s neat to be on the flip side of the coin now and see all the kids walking up,” said Merritt. “I just remember how special it was to me for those so-called giants to take their time out to bend down and sign a hat or a ball. I think it’s really important for me to do the same thing. I just want to cherish every one of those moments.” The special moments have been piling up. Merritt is coming off a 2000 season in which the team finished 9-3 and the Easley, SC native was named a second team All-ACC guard. He was ranked as the seventh-best guard by Lindy’s and the 14th-best by The Sporting News heading into this year as Clemson looks to achieve a double-digit win total.
He heads into his final amateur season of football after first picking up the game at age eight. Merritt says he was the only Pee Wee football player he ever heard of that played quarterback on offense and lineman on defense. But as he moved into middle school, Merritt began to grow into the position of offensive lineman. He started at tackle for Wren High School and was named an All-Area Lineman-of-the-Year by the Anderson Independent as a senior. He was a Western 3A first-team choice and was the captain of the North squad in the North-South All Star game in Myrtle Beach. Defensively, he contributed 57 tackles his as a defensive lineman. Baksetball was Merritt’s first love and he lettered as a center for three years while leading the team in rebounding.
“I loved basketball and if it wasn’t for my size in football I would have loved to play basketball in college somewhere,” he said. “Football was definitely my ticket to getting a scholarship.” He also threw the discus and shot put in high school, but Merritt found he couldn’t be master of all trades. He couldn’t make the golf team.
“Too bad of a slice, I guess,” he quipped. So with his sport already chosen, Merritt was faced with making his college decision. He received interest from N.C. State, North Carolina, Auburn, Furman and Wake Forest among others. But there wasn’t really a choice to make.
“It was funny because you had to play it out on the phone like you were interested in going to school in other places,” he said. “But if you cut me open right now I would bleed orange.”
With his lifelong goal achieved, Merritt set foot on campus full of excitement, hope and a little bit of pride, that is, until the first day of practice.
“It was a shock. It was like somebody hit you in the face with a frying pan. You go from being the big man on campus to being a very small fish in a very big pond with a lot of other very big fish. It was tough and I think anybody who comes in as a freshman would say the same thing. It’s the toughest year of your life to that point, especially starting off with two-a-days. You get thrown into the fire really quick.”
Merritt redshirted the 1997 season and played just six snaps against Furman in 1998. But then one of the biggest moments in his football life occurred when Clemson changed head coaches after the 1998 season. “I was upset at the time because Coach (Tommy) West was the one that gave me an opportunity to come here,” he said. “To see him leave was tough on all the guys he recruited.”
After his initial frustration, Merritt decided to turn the change into a positive. Clemson hired Tommy Bowden as its new head man and with him came a high-powered offense known for using smaller linemen. At 6-foot-3 and 256 pounds, Merritt size was far from the prototypical ACC lineman. He saw the Bowden offense as one more tailored to his strong suits.
“That’s not to say I wouldn’t have played under Coach West, but you had to be kind of a bigger lineman and move people,” he said. “Coach Bowden gave an opportunity for the smaller lineman to play. Both those coaches have played huge roles in my college career.”
Merritt got his first chance to start in the first game of the 1999 season. Not only was losing a tough 13-10 game to Marshall frustrating, but so was the fact that Merritt knew he did not play well. He bounced back the next week against Virginia and was one of the keys to the Tigers’ 33-14 victory.
“That was the moment where I thought that I could be at this level and I could compete although I knew I had a long way to go,” he said. “I had to get a lot bigger and stronger, but mentally, that was the point where I thought I could compete at the Division I level.” Although he was hampered by a collarbone injury for the rest of the 1999 season, he continued his progress in 2000 by playing in all 12 games and starting 10. He graded a team-best 83 percent against Duke and tied a Clemson record with 21 knockdown blocks the next week against N.C. State, which earned him ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors.
“I played 100 snaps in that game, which is a lot, and I was exhausted at the end of it,” he said. “But that was a fun game.”
But the highlight of the year was the 16-14 win over South Carolina, which he called, “most memorable game I’ve ever competed in. To be out there on the last play during probably one of the greatest catches in school history and just being able to say, I blocked for (quarterback) Woody (Dantzler), that was pretty special.”
As much fun as the competition has been, Merritt points to the relationships he has cultivated through football as being even more fun. He roomed with T.J. Watkins his freshman year and with Watkins and center Kyle Young during his sophomore year. The three have remained close and all are graduate students. Both Merritt and T.J. Watkins are married and Kyle Young is engaged.
“We’ve kept that closeness and that bond together for five years now and we don’t want to let each other down,” Merritt said. “We all want to go out on top, and that’s the same for Woody and T-Zac (Travis Zachery) and all the other guys that got redshirted with us.” Merritt’s most important personal relationship has everything and nothing to do with football. On March 31, 2000, Will Merritt married the former Melissa Atkins.
“Aside from accepting Christ, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I can’t believe how God has blessed me with such an unbelievable woman. We spend such great time together. She makes me a better person and I strive to make her a better person.” The two grew up as friends, but football was always a part of the lives of both. They didn’t shy away from a fiery exchange or two, especially when it came to Clemson and South Carolina football.
Atkins and her family were Gamecock fans, which presented Merritt with a dilemma. The Merritt family has always been heavily involved with Clemson. Merritt’s brother-in-law, Matt Reeves, played for Clemson in the mid-1990s. The matriarch, Lynn, was named the Tiger Brotherhood Mother of the Year in 2000. “Nobody deserves it more than she does,” he said. “My mom is a special unique woman. My whole family is kind of unique in how close we are. I talk to my brother and sister probably four or five times a week.”
Merritt was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying he wouldn’t marry her unless she became a Clemson fan. So what happened?
“Now she’s a diehard Clemson fan,” said Merritt. “Her whole family is now. It’s a whole lot easier going home at night.”
Melissa makes Merritt a better person, and he strives to do the same to her. Sometimes, however, he wonders if that is possible.
“I have a very beautiful wife and my dad told me right before we got married, ‘Son, you know you out-punted your coverage on this one.’ I think I got the better end of the deal,” he said. “Sometimes, I sit back and wonder what’s wrong with her. Either she can’t see or hear or something. She never made a B in her life, so we know she’s smart. We’re trying to wait and find out why she married me.”
Should an opportunity in professional football present itself, Merritt and his wife will discuss it and make a decision together. But the tentative schedule for the newlyweds is to leave in January for Beaver Creek, CO. The two plan to work at a ski resort owned by Tiger fan Harry Frampton for a year before coming back to South Carolina and mapping out their future.
For Merritt, it will be some well-deserved downtime after a busy college career. Besides playing football for five years, he has been a member of LIFE Line, a group of football players chosen to work together in specific community outreach programs, the IPTAY Student Advisory Board and Tiger Brotherhood while also attending numerous sporting events of other Clemson athletic teams, including the 2001 NCAA Golf Championship.
“I guess I just don’t want to grow up yet so we’re going to go out there and have some fun,” said Merritt. “I’m going to spend some time with my wife where it’s just us two for a while.”
But there is more work to be done in the months ahead. Merritt knows that the Clemson football program is returning to a position amongst the nation’s elite. He knows that he and his senior teammates have played a big part in the revival, and the fact that he is a lifelong Tiger fan helps him to appreciate it even more. With the momentum building up, Merritt sees no reason to stop now.
“I want to go out there and play well and win every single game on our schedule,” he said. “We have the talent to do it, there’s no doubt about it. Whether we slip up and fall or not, this team is special. There’s a group of guys that have been on the team together a long time, for five years, and we don’t want to let each other down.”
The sun may be setting on Merritt’s playing career at Clemson, but his involvement surely never will. From Danny Ford to Tommy Bowden, Merritt’s heart and mind have always been stuck in Tigertown, as they undoubtedly will be next year in Colorado or wherever he ends up. There’s no doubt for Merritt that Clemson graduate Joe Sherman was right. There is something in these hills. It’s not a dream, and sometimes it is hard to believe it’s real. He can’t define it, he can’t shake it, but he knows it’s there. The only thing he can do about it is be grateful.
“I think I’ve realized in the last six months or so how much God has blessed me. The Lord just opened up a huge door in my life to let me come play here. I know it was nothing I really did, it was all God’s doing. This place has meant so much to me and I am so blessed that God has given me this opportunity.”
Louis Garmendia is a first-year graduate assistant from Mt. Pleasant, SC and works in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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