Monday night all die-hard college football fans will be glued to their TV sets to watch the battle of Tigers as Clemson and LSU play for college football bragging rights at the National Championship game inside the Super Dome in New Orleans.
Both teams have superstar quarterbacks.
All it takes is about five minutes of viewing to understand why LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman and Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence could easily be the frontrunner to win college football’s top individual honor next year.
However local fans should have a rooting interest in Clemson linebacker James Skalski.
Anybody who has watched the Northgate graduate play the game knows he is a warrior who has a nose for the football.
He’s also a class act who has earned his place in the spotlight through hard work and dedication.
The redshirt junior has been one of the defensive catalyst for Clemson, elevating his game each and every year he has been on campus.
The former Newnan Times-Herald Defensive Player of the Year is simply put, a great competitor.
The Northgate graduate had just as much passion for soccer, helping the Vikings win plenty of games in the spring sport, but it was “American football” that proved to be his meal ticket to college and the limelight of playing for and winning a national title at one of the best college football stops in the country.
Skalski was part of the best football team in Northgate history as the Vikings, under the direction of now retired head coach Tommy Walburn finished 12-2 in 2015 and made it to the semifinals.
In the end it was Clemson which won the recruiting sweepstakes in the battle for Skalski over rival South Carolina and fellow ACC opponent Louisville.
Skalski has grown up on and off the field, which should surprise nobody who has been around him for five minutes.
He started his freshman season as one of Clemson’s top special team performers all while dealing with major heartache just weeks into his freshman campaign.
As the Tigers were getting ready to play N.C . State in a game that eventually went into overtime, the young freshman was dealing with something far more important than football, the death of his Dad, John, who suffered a heart attack on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
All it takes is a few minutes of surfing the web and listening to Skalski’s own words to understand that all of this has made him a better football player and person on and off the field.
He comes into Monday’s championship game with some individual eye-popping numbers in a year that saw Clemson dominate the ACC and finish undefeated.
Skalski is Clemson’s leading tackler with 99, He also has 3.5 sacks.
For some reason, Skalski’s name was left off the All-ACC Conference list when voters kept him off the team.
It was something that seemed to bother Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney.
“Not sure how Skalski didn’t make it,” Swinney told the Greenville News.“He’s one of my top votes, for sure. I don’t think he even made honorable mention.”
Skalski handled the snub with a level of maturity that should surprise nobody.
The former Northgate Viking has his eyes on a bigger prize, helping the Clemson Tigers win another national title Monday night.
“I’m really not worried about all the stuff,” Skalski said before the ACC championship. “I just know what we’ve got here and the piece of the puzzle that I am to this defense,”
Skalski and his teammates know they face a tremendous challenge trying to figure out how to stop LSU’s high-flying offense.
This battle of Tigers could come down to who scores last.
Clemson may need to create turnovers and find a way to put pressure on LSU’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in order to again rise to the top of the college football mountain.
For the record, Skalski is pretty good at that too. In addition to his 3.5 sacks, he has 6.5 tackles for a loss.
Skalski is definitely Clemson’s unsung hero who could go along way in determining the outcome of Monday night’s game.
The good news for Clemson fans, win or lose Monday night, it looks like Skalski is headed back for his senior season next fall with the Tigers.
Many people in this state have ties to other football programs and don’t cheer for Clemson.
However, there is something wrong if you don’t cheer for James Skalski.
The young man is a winner on and off the field who has brought tremendous pride to the Clemson Nation through his hard work and dedication.
(Doug Gorman is sports editor of the Newnan Times-Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)