CLEMSON - If Tommy Sharpe learned one lesson from Clemson's 2002 season, it was this:
If you don't show up and play your best, you get embarrassed.
Sharpe, and his teammates, found that out first hand on two different evenings - a Thursday night 38-6 loss to visiting N.C. State, and a 55-15 debacle at the hands of Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl. Both games were nationally televised. Both have lingered in the memory of Tiger fans all offseason.
Count Sharpe, who is as big a fan of Clemson as he is a player, among them.
"We got embarrassed sometimes last year, and that's not fun," he said. "I don't want to be on national TV looking like an idiot...We're not so good that if we don't show up and play our game, we're still going to win.
"We've got to go out there and fight; every day, every down and every play."
If anyone knows about fighting, it would be Sharpe.
A walk-on sophomore who barely tipped the scales at 250 pounds when the 2002 season opened, Sharpe fought his way into the lineup and eventually unseated Jermyn Chester as the team's starting center. Sharpe led Clemson offensive linemen in knockdown blocks in each of the team's final four games, and he finished the season with a film grade of 77.
Not bad, considering the first time anyone even heard Sharpe's name was in late Dec. 2001, when he filled in for a missing teammate during a prime rib eating contest as part of the Humanitarian Bowl festivities in Boise, Idaho.
Since then, the Albany, Ga. native has followed a script that is oddly familiar to the Rocky movies:
An undersized underdog who finds himself standing toe to toe with the world's top heavyweights while the nation watches, mesmerized.
But then even Hollywood would be hard pressed to pen Sharpe's life story, football-wise. If only he would notice.
"I've got to maintain my starting spot," he said, deflecting the question about his rise from anonymity. "I've got a big ol' boy (redshirt freshman Dustin Fry) behind me. He's big, strong and tough. That's what keeps me getting out of bed...It would eat at me if I lost my job now.
"I don't want to be a starter, then go back on the bench. Once you get a taste of it you don't want to lose it. I don't want to lose that spot, so I've got to play harder than ever."
Still, it is something of a remarkable story.
Twice an All-Region selection at Westover High School in Albany, Sharpe decided to take his chances as a walk-on at Clemson in 2000. He spent that season as a redshirt, then didn't play a snap the next year as a backup to long-snapper Henry Owen.
In fact, little was expected out of Sharpe when 2002 began. As a walk-on, he was significantly behind a number of others when it came to playing time. Plus, he only weighed 250 pounds, if that.
But as fall camp went on, Sharpe began to bring attention to himself because of his ability to handle the shotgun snap to the quarterback. Chester struggled with the snap at times, but eventually gained enough consistency to win the starting job.
Sharpe ended up playing 22 downs in the season opener at Georgia, and before the season was done he had started five games - one replacing an injured Chester, the other four having beaten out his larger teammate as the season entered it's final stretch.
Now, with the starting job his as fall camp opened, Sharpe reported at around 280 pounds. He is noticeable bigger, yet claims he hasn't lost any speed.
And after a year of proving himself, Sharpe is ready to do it all again. This time, he's ready to bring his fellow offensive linemen along for the ride.
"We're a more experienced unit as a whole. Everybody's back except the right guard position. You've got to see live bullets to really get the feel of the game. You can work hard in practice, but you've got to really pick up on that game-type blitz. Sometimes it takes getting burned once or twice.
"We've done that, and we've learned from it. Now it's time to start playing the way we know we can play."
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.