TAMPA, Fla. — It will never be the same, you know. It can't be after that.
Not after they conquered the unconquerable. Not after writing a defining final chapter in a dazzling two-year epic. Not after transforming into a football goliath, right there and then, in the closing moments of one of the greatest games the sport has seen.
The confetti drenched the Clemson Tigers for the second consecutive year, this time for all the right reasons. After coming so close a season ago against the Alabama Crimson Tide, after walking off the field as a celebration ignited behind them, the players and coaches danced like children following a 35-31 victory on Monday night.
And why wouldn't they, given the agony of last year. A year of pain and old wounds were rehashed this week, which was to be expected, considering the opponent and the obvious questions that had to be asked.
What did that feel like?
Does it still hurt?
Have you watched the tape yet?
This year, in a script almost too good to be true, opposite emotions were realized. The hurt was washed away in one glorifying second.
"We finished it," linebacker Ben Boulware screamed after the game. "It's been 35 long years. It's finally coming home, baby. It's finally coming home."
Sports stories this good and this real are rarely realized. After a gut-punching 45-40 loss to Alabama in last year's title game, Clemson had a rare chance at revenge. It had a chance to win its first title since 1981 in the most fitting, appropriate way possible.
Up against a roster stockpiled with stars—the kind of roster Alabama is putting together one year after the next—the Tigers once again assumed the familiar underdog role.
But this time, despite falling behind 14-0 and looking to be losing their grip on the moment, they changed everything. Not just this particular game, but everything still to follow.
Of all the players to push Clemson into rarefied football air, it was a former walk-on who arrived at the program weighing 150 pounds. Hunter Renfrow's two-yard touchdown reception came with a single second remaining on the game clock.
On the other end of this play, of course, was Deshaun Watson, a former blue-chip prospect whose sheer existence was thought to be the tipping point. That was the hope, at least.
"I just wanted to sign my name and end it with an exclamation point, and I think I did that," Watson said. "Moments like this I'll never forget. Clemson was the best three years of my life, and credit me as the person I am today."
Even before Watson arrived, Clemson was trending upward. Now, the trajectory is different. It will aim higher from this day forward.
The moment Renfrow secured the football across the goal line, Clemson became a team that will be feared and celebrated in a way few others are.
"Hopefully before they put me off to pasture," a euphoric Dabo Swinney said, "we can do this a few more times."
Here are the programs that have won championships since 2002: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, LSU, Texas and USC. That's the full list. Alabama was a second away from keeping this exclusive group from expanding any further.
Teams do not simply stumble into moments this big. History tells us that one doesn't slip into a title. It doesn't happen.
In one season, Clemson beat each of the last seven national champions, culminating with the most significant victory as a finale.
A moment like this is realized over the course of many years. It takes a string of successful recruiting and development. It takes a coach capable of propelling the vision forward. It takes a bit of luck here and there as well.
Above all, however, it takes talent. That's where the true separation occurs.
Here's the most fascinating part about a team that will live in this moment for many months to come: There will be more moments like these. This is just the beginning for Clemson.
This isn't the end or a peak. This is the new standard.
In the coming weeks, Clemson will cut the tape on its $55 million, state-of-the-art football complex. The building, which is reportedly 140,000 square feet in size and equipped with nap rooms, will serve as a luxurious selling point.
Now, it will also house a national championship trophy. It will likely be in plain sight in the main entryway. It will not be missed.
This gaudy structure isn't just a timely new addition. It's a symbol of all the work, success and money that have helped turn Clemson into something more.
Whether the Tigers won on Monday or not, this was coming. They saw it as necessary long before a national title.
And the talent? That's where the intrigue grows. Although Clemson will say farewell to many of the gifted players who starred in this game, starting with Watson, who threw for a combined 825 yards in the last two championship games, it will keep reloading.
Hunter Johnson, one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2017 and the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, is a Clemson commit. He is the future. So is, potentially, Trevor Lawrence, one of the top players in the 2018 class and a Clemson verbal commitment.
Off the field, the past few years were about building toward the future. Although there was no national championship to hold up high for the world to see, Clemson was evolving into more than that fun, up-and-coming program with the quirky head coach.
Behind the scenes, it was building a monster. Perhaps not on the same yearly level of an Alabama yet, but it was getting closer.
Now, after taking down the sport's biggest giant on the grandest stage imaginable, it will only grow into something more.
"Tonight, at the top of the mountain," Swinney said, "that Clemson flag is flying."
This team will be remembered and loved for this in the decades to follow: a beautiful, story-rich evening in which a 35-year title drought fell in the most spectacular way imaginable.
The stories of Renfrow's catch and Watson's brilliance will be told over and over, and it will never get old for those who lived it.
But in time, these moments will carry significance far greater than one night. This will be the group that jump-started the many moments like these still to follow and the greatness that awaits.