Notre Dame fans saved from storm by Clemson assistant Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.
CLEMSON — For all Larry and Tony Luppi knew, they were about to meet an untimely end at the hands of a kidnapper wearing Clemson gear.
Luckily for the two brothers, Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, not a man with bad intentions, was in the right place at the right time to rescue the stranded Notre Dame fans during a driving rainstorm in the wee hours Sunday morning.
Larry Luppi, 31, graduated from Notre Dame’s law school in 2010. He and his brother Tony, 30, both from Southern California, were celebrating Tony’s 30th birthday by making their first trip to South Carolina for Saturday’s nationally televised Notre Dame-Clemson showdown.
“Pretty dedicated fans to come all the way out here. They were the nicest people, and they were tickled pink,” Caldwell said Wednesday night. “All they could talk about was how well they were treated by the Clemson fans. That’s very impressive by our people.”
Three weeks ago, they purchased two tickets off StubHub - $275 each – in Section TDL, Row I, the nosebleeds of Memorial Stadium high above the Notre Dame sideline near the end zone. Weather conditions were far from ideal.
“It felt like someone sprayed a garden hose at me for 5 continuous hours,” Larry wrote in an email to The Post and Courier.
After Clemson’s 24-22 win went final at 11:42 p.m., the Luppis’ plan was to ride a shuttle back to their hotel in Seneca and drive their rental car to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in time to catch a 7:30 a.m. Sunday flight.
“Obviously, we were saddened by the outcome,” Tony said by phone Tuesday. “But to be honest after this whole incident, I got over this loss so much faster than I normally would.”
They never saw the shuttle, and traffic was impossibly congested due to the exodus of fans trying to escape the weather. So the Luppis began hiking in the dark and the rain.
“We’re the most conservative guys. We didn’t have anything to drink the whole day, totally sober,” Tony said. “As we’re running alongside the highway, Larry’s going, ‘you realize these cars can spin out of control and hit us?’ I’m thinking, ‘how would we ever explain this to our loved ones, or how would someone piece this all together?’”
According to MapQuest, their rental car at the hotel was 9.75 miles west of Memorial Stadium.
“The plan was idiotic,” Larry said. “Thankfully, the cars were passing by sporadically, which gave Tony and I enough time to jump into the grass next to the guardrail to avoid the cars. Clearly, all of our common sense had gone out the window by this point.”
After dodging traffic to cross busy Highway 123, they found a convenience store a mile and a half from Memorial Stadium and called for a taxi, which wouldn’t arrive anywhere close to the time promised.
While the Luppis waited, close to 2 a.m., a man in a Clemson hat and polo shirt filling up on gas and fetching a Dr. Pepper passed the Notre Dame supporters in the store.
“Honestly, when he walked past us, I thought he was just a fan,” Tony said. “On his way out, he asked, ‘Do you guys know where you’re going?’ I said, ‘Actually, we’re waiting on a cab, but we’ll pay you for a ride.’”
The man invited the Luppis to hop in his Chevy Suburban, but he said, “that (back) door don’t work — you ride up with me in the front.’”
Tony and Larry looked nervously at one another.
“Larry goes, ‘that’s like a kidnapper’s dream,’ ” Tony recalled. “We told him our phones were dead, no one knows where we are. We gave this guy way too much information about ourselves.”
“At this point,” Larry said, “I start thinking I should text my mom goodbye and tell her I love her and my family.”
The driver began making small talk — “Were you at the game? Did you have a great time?” — and eventually, Larry asked what the man did for a living.
“I coach at Clemson,” was the response. According to Tony, “my first thought was, ‘he coaches baseball or rugby or lacrosse or something.’ So he asked Caldwell what he coached.
“Oh, I coach the offensive line,” Caldwell said.
After reaching the hotel, Caldwell gave the Luppis directions to return to the highway toward Atlanta, stayed until their rental car started and refused to accept any compensation.
The men made their flight on time.
“Soon as we got to Atlanta we Googled him,” Tony said. “We saw Robbie Caldwell was the head coach at Vanderbilt just five years ago, he coached at N.C. State. His whole story checked out. We’re big college football fans and we had no idea.”
Caldwell, 61, is in his fifth season coaching Clemson’s offensive line and 37th season as a college coach.
Originally from Pageland and a 1977 Furman graduate, Caldwell was Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2010.
“Our guardian angels were looking out for us, and they came in the form of a football coach,” Larry said. “Thanks, Robbie.”
The Luppis promised to send Caldwell a handwritten thank-you note — “I don’t know if he can receive gift cards, but he said he likes fishing, so maybe we’ll get him a Bass Pro Shops gift card,” Tony said.
Tony added Saturday night’s game was the loudest and best environment he’d ever attended, including Notre Dame’s 2012 win at Oklahoma. The brothers said “there wasn’t one person the entire trip” who gave them grief for wearing Notre Dame jerseys, and they won’t soon forget their Good Samaritan.
“It was such a cool moment,” Tony said. “I’ll be rooting for Clemson from now on. Not only because of him, but the hospitality of everybody in Clemson.”