Note: The following appears in the SC State gameday football program. To purchase a copy of the program while supplies last, send a check for $6 to Clemson Athletic Communications; P.O. Box 31; Clemson, SC 29633 with your return address.
As a kid growing up in Greenville, S.C., David Estes had two dreams. One, to play college football, and two, to attend Clemson University. The Estes family is full of Clemson graduates, 10 to be exact, and therefore Estes felt a deep connection with Clemson from an early age.
Estes applied to Clemson during his senior year of high school and was accepted. However, he decided to focus on his dream of playing college football and chose to attend Presbyterian College to be a long snapper for the football program. Although he enjoyed his time in Clinton, Estes knew his heart was in Clemson and he decided to transfer.
“After a year of college, I realized I wanted to transfer to Clemson, so I did. At that time, I thought football was over for good. I enrolled at Clemson in the spring of 2013 and joined Air Force ROTC.”
As a Clemson student, Estes had fulfilled one of his dreams, but his aspiration of playing college football was still in the back of his mind. Then in August 2013, Estes received an email about football tryouts. He decided to go for it and pursue his other dream once again.
“I didn’t make the team in August, but then I got a call in the spring of 2014 asking me to come do a semester-long tryout and they would let me know how I stood.”
Estes embraced the challenge of a four-month-long evaluation and understood that in order to become a member of the football team, he would have to perform at a high level every single day.
“That experience was nerve-racking, but also calming. I knew I was capable of doing it. I constantly reminded myself every day was a tryout, whether it was a workout, walkthrough or practice. I brought everything I had every day.”
Estes’ determination paid off in a big way. He passed his semester-long tryout with flying colors and was awarded with a spot on the squad at the end of the spring semester.
Fast forward to Dec. 5, 2015. It’s halftime of the ACC Championship Game. Clemson leads North Carolina 21-16. A berth in the College Football Playoff is on the line.
Starting long snapper Jim Brown is visibly in pain in the locker room, holding his head in his hands. Head athletic trainer Danny Poole diagnosis him with a concussion and rules him out for the remainder of the game. “Next man up” is the mentality, and that next man was Estes.
“I was shaking with nervousness and excitement,” admitted Estes. “I went out to warm up and thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is actually happening.’ I looked up at my dad in the stands and gave him a big thumbs up to tell him I was playing.”
The average career notes of a walk-on generally do not read, “saw action in the ACC Championship Game.” Estes understood this was a rare and unique situation, and he embraced it with the workman’s mentality he had displayed since he first made the team in 2014. He knew he had one job and he knew he had to do that job for two more quarters.
Estes successfully snapped the ball for an extra point following a Wayne Gallman touchdown in the third quarter to put Clemson up 28-16. Then he did as he had always done during his Tiger career. He completed his assignment, put his head down and ran off the field.
“I did my job and was trying to get off the field,” recalled Estes. “And coach (Dabo) Swinney was there to give me a big high-five and he screamed, ‘How does it feel to play in the ACC Championship Game, Estes?’”
Usually, when a team’s head coach is yelling at a walk-on during a title game, it is not a good sign. This was different.
“I didn’t say a word,” remembered Estes. “I looked at him and nodded. During the rest of the game, I kept praying to myself. People might have thought I was talking to myself…I’m sure the other specialists did…but I tried to stay focused and key in on my job.”
Estes did his job to perfection that night in Charlotte and helped Clemson win the 2015 ACC title. He did not catch a pass, make a tackle or even kick an extra point, but he did his job. He snapped the ball, ran off the field and prayed until it was time to go snap the ball again.
“Playing in the ACC Championship Game is the kind of stuff I dreamed of as a little kid. Growing up a life-long Clemson fan, it was awesome. It was an amazing experience and something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
Now in 2016, Estes is the starting long snapper for the Tigers. He has embraced his starting role as well as the leadership component that comes along with it.
“The experience in the ACC Championship Game has served as a confidence booster for me. I know that I did my job on one of the biggest stages, so I can do it in any game.”
It is players like Estes who make a college football team what it is. Yes, Tiger fans flock to Death Valley seven Saturdays a year to see Deshaun Watson throw picture-perfect deep balls to Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. They also pack the stands to watch Ben Boulware scream with emotion after a tackle and to watch 300-pound men like Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins track down running backs half their size.
Long snapping doesn’t exactly result in the glory, fame and recognition that playing quarterback or linebacker does. But for Estes, the kid from Greenville who always dreamed of playing football in orange and purple on Saturdays, that’s just fine with him. It is actually more than fine. It is a dream fulfilled.
“As a walk-on specialist, you’re not going to be on ESPN. It’s not a role that you need a pat on the back for, and sometimes it’s not always the highly-recruited players who make a difference.
“This role is what I signed up for.”
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