Nov. 8, 2007
By Sanford Rogers
Just one week from today, the legendary Orange Bowl goes dark forever when Miami (FL) plays hosts to Virginia in an ACC tilt. The Hurricanes are moving some 30 miles away, where they will share Dolphin Stadium with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
The Orange Bowl, now a rickety, aged facility, may not have all the creature comforts of newer stadiums around the country, but it will always have a special place in the hearts of Clemson coaches, players, and fans alike. The Tigers have made three bowl trips to the historic Orange Bowl, including postseason victories in 1951 over Miami and 1982 against Nebraska, when Clemson claimed its one and only national title.
Former Tiger cornerback Gil Rushton, who lettered on undefeated Clemson squads in 1948 and 1950, may have more memories than any former Tiger of a place that has played host to five Super Bowls (one of just three stadiums to do so).
Rushton, who was a Clemson letterwinner in 1945, 1948, 1949, and 1950, has vivid memories of the Orange Bowl as a player. But he also has a history with the stadium as a game official, a role he served for the ACC for over three decades.
For Rushton, a native of Greenville, SC and product of Greenville High School, the journey down Highway 123 to Tigertown was a short one. But in order to be a member of the Clemson squad, he had to be a bit creative with his weight.
“Coach (Frank) Howard liked big guys,” recalled Rushton. “When I came to Clemson, I did not weigh more than 170 pounds. I remembered telling Coach Howard that I was 190, because he liked bigger players. I’m glad that he never put me on a scale.”
Following his freshman season in 1945, Rushton left Clemson to serve in the United States Army. He returned to Clemson for the 1948, 1949, and 1950 seasons, and he was a letterwinner of Gator Bowl Champion (win over Missouri) and Orange Bowl Champion (win over Miami) squads. In his four seasons at Clemson, the Tigers were an outstanding 30-8-2.
“I was very fortunate to be a small part of some great Clemson teams,” said Rushton. “There are not too many guys out there that had the chance to say they played for two teams at Clemson that went undefeated. I still have great memories of that time.”
Former Clemson Sports Information Director Brent Breedin covered Clemson for Anderson Independent-Mail during Rushton’s playing days. He remembered Rushton as a steady team player.
“In those days you had the platoon system, so you had to have 22 guys make a contribution,” said Breedin. “Gil was one of those steady players that made a difference. Clemson had some great teams during that time. I know Gil will never forget playing on such great teams.”
While his memories of his playing days at Clemson are quite good, his memory of the 1951 Orange Bowl stands out for less than exemplary reasons. He had the misfortune of being the Tiger defensive back that allowed one of the longest plays in Orange Bowl history. It is also a memory of Howard that he will never forget.
“We had Miami pinned back to its own one-yard line after they had gotten three 15-yard penalties in one play,” remembered Rushton. “In those days, you didn’t take just one of the flags on a play, you took them all.
“I was playing cornerback and had it in my head that I wanted to be a hero and tackle a guy in the endzone. If I got a safety, I would have my name in the paper. Unfortunately, I didn’t read my keys right, and the Miami end (Ed Lutes) ran right past me and caught the ball. I was running as hard as I could down the sideline trying to catch him. Coach Howard was running down the sideline right beside me yelling that if I didn’t catch him I would walk back to Clemson!”
Fortunately for Rushton, he was able to chase Lutes down at the 19-yard line and avoid a walk back to Tigertown. That 79-yard play was the longest in Orange Bowl history at the time.
“That was a good lesson for me,” admitted Rushton. “I would have been much better off doing what was in the gameplan instead of being a hero. I saw years later that that play is no longer the longest in Orange Bowl history. I’m glad that play is out of the recordbooks.”
Following his playing days at Clemson, Rushton still wanted to be involved with the game he loved and was able to do so as an official. After officiating high school games for a few seasons, he moved up to the college ranks. In 1959, he joined the ACC and spent 32 years on the field. That 32-year stint is the longest tenure ever for any ACC football official.
During his time wearing stripes, Rushton worked 10 bowl games, including one in, you guessed it, the Orange Bowl. It was there Rushton had his most memorable bowl game as an official.
“In 1977, I had the chance to officiate the Orange Bowl in a game that featured Colorado and Ohio State,” stated Rushton. “Before the game, I asked one of the Colorado cheerleaders how they kept that big Buffalo (Ralphie) under control. They told me they had trained for a while and had never had a problem.”
Rushton saw moments later that there was indeed a problem.
“I was in the middle of the field and looked towards the endzone when I saw that big buffalo coming full speed ahead. He had gotten away from those handlers. I ran towards the sidelines and climbed a wall to get in the stands. Whenever I see a Colorado game, I always think about Ralphie.”
Following his 32 years on the field as an official, Rushton has still not left the game he enjoyed from his youth. He has served as an ACC official observer at Clemson home contests and today assists with the replay officials who take a look at questionable calls that can be reversed from the booth.
For Rushton, the technology that exists today is a far cry from his early days on the field as an arbiter.
“It is amazing how good the technology is today,” said Rushton. “Not only are the officials outstanding, the ACC works very hard to make sure calls are made correctly. Each week, the officials get a DVD of calls that were made and how they could be made better.”
While Rushton, who now lives in nearby Easley, SC, never officiated a Tiger game (graduates of a school do not officiate their alma mater’s contests), he has had contact with many officials that have enjoyed calling a game at Clemson.
“All the officials like doing games at Clemson,” said Rushton. “For years, Fred Hoover (former head trainer) has taken care of them from the time they get here until the time they leave the stadium. Clemson is a great place for a football game, even for the officials.”
During the next week when stories are told about all the great contests played in the Orange Bowl, many Tiger fans will have nostalgic memories of great Clemson victories in Miami. None will have more than Gil Rushton.
Sanford Rogers worked in the Clemson Sports Information Office from 1989-93 and now works in sales in Greenville, SC.
March 14, 2019