By Jaime Aron
As Alabama coach Nick Saban, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and their top players sat on raised lecterns and answered questions at Media Day on Saturday, the real fun of the event played out around them on the floor of the SAP Center.
On one end, guys played Madden on PlayStation against each other and against former NFL players – including one who appeared on the game’s cover. To their left stood the shiny gold trophy they’re playing for Monday night.
On the other end of the floor, players went through video stations set up by Facebook and Twitter.
And in the vast space in between, the scene included hot-dog-eating champion Joey Chestnut talking food, a teenager in a wheelchair getting overwhelmed with kindness and a magician performing one mind-blowing trick after another.
Here are those tales and more.
Four televisions were hooked up with PlayStations. While Spider-Man and FIFA19 drew some players, the crowds gathered around the back-to-back setups featuring Madden.
Alabama’s Trevon Diggs beat a teammate while playing as the Minnesota Vikings, his brother Stefon’s team. Then Diggs got a new opponent: Marcus Spears, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys and now of the SEC Network.
Diggs switched to the Chiefs while Spears took the Texans, an interesting choice because it meant his quarterback was DeShaun Watson, who led Clemson over Alabama in the 2017 CFP title game.
Spears went three-and-out on the opening series. On Diggs’ second play, he threw a long touchdown pass, sending Spears back to the TV set.
During Clemson’s session, players were greeted by 41-year-old man bearing a copy of Madden 07. Former Alabama star Shaun Alexander is partial to that year’s game since he’s on the cover.
‘AS A FAT GUY, THIS IS ABOUT AS GOOD AS IT GETS’
In the world of competitive eating, Joey Chestnut’s dominance is Alabama-like.
Ranked first in the world by Major League Eating, he’s also a college football fan – and a San Jose resident, making his presence this weekend a good fit.
Players from both teams were excited to meet Chestnut and to hold his wrestling-style championship belt from the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. As you might expect, beefy linemen were especially eager to meet him.
“You’re like an idol,” said Clemson’s Matt Bockhorst, an offensive lineman listed at 310 pounds. “As a fat guy, this is about as good as it gets.”
Chestnut had questions for the guys, but wound up mostly answering theirs. They all wanted to know how many hot dogs, pretzels, wings and more he’s eaten in one sitting, and they were especially curious about how he got started in this unusual profession.
“My little brother signed me up. I didn’t want to do it,” Chestnut said. “I got an engineering degree. Now all I do is go around and eat.”
THE MANY FACES OF NICK SABAN
Most images of the Alabama coach show him displaying various levels of intensity. The SEC Network used that as the basis of a game played with tables full of players.
Under the guidance of SEC Network reporter Taylor Davis, one player held up a picture of Saban and others sorted through cards with captions. Each player turned in a caption and the guy holding the picture selected his favorite.
For instance: One image showed Saban at a CFP news conference. He held a microphone with the game’s logo in one hand while two fingers from his left hand were pressed against his face.
Teammates chose captions that included “When you’re behind in The Process,” and “When someone tells you Alabama is ruining college football.” The winner?
“When someone asks you to pronounce Tagovailoa.”
Camden Lang is a 15-year-old from St. Mary’s, Georgia, who played quarterback, receiver and safety last year for his middle-school team. His dad, Mark, was the coach.
In July, a car hit Camden from behind, breaking both legs and his back. Now paralyzed, he was hospitalized until Dec. 18.
On Thursday, officials from Dream on 3 – an organization that makes sports-related wishes come true for sick or disabled children – told him he was going to the championship game. Another surprise came Saturday when he got to meet players from both teams.
“Man, this is crazy!” Camden said.
Camden’s favorite player is Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Their bond is even stronger now that they’ve met. In addition to shaking hands, taking pictures and signing Camden’s hat, Hurts told the teen to “keep working hard” and gave him the red Glory 2 God wristband he was wearing.
Camden is a fourth-generation Ole Miss fan, so he showed up wearing one of their jackets. An Alabama trainer took off his own crimson windbreaker and gave it to Camden to cover that up.
“My wife is a ‘Bama fan,” Mark Lang said, “so we pull for them every game except one.”
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA … AGAIN
When Clemson played for the national title two years ago, Maverick Morris and Gage Cervenka took a picture at Media Day with the CFP championship trophy between them. Two days later, the Tigers won that trophy.
So at this Media Day, they had to recreate the pose.
They took a picture with Cervenka on the left and Morris on the right. Only later did they call up the old image and realize that last time they were on opposite sides. So they took another picture in the correct positions. They also remembered to poke a finger on the base, as they did in 2017.
One then-and-now difference: Morris has gone from player to graduate assistant.
Cervenka said he plans to post the images side-by-side on social media on Monday night.
The biggest crowds and loudest noises during both sessions could be traced to one guy: magician Jibrizy Taylor.
Taylor had Alabama linebacker Jarez Parks tug on two metal rings to ensure they were solid. Taylor then snapped them together, amazing Parks and his pals.
Taylor made Clemson kicker B.T. Potter the foil on an elaborate trick that involved him signing a playing card with a black Sharpie. Taylor then made the signature disappear. Using the phone of Clemson linebacker Judah Davis, he took a picture of Potter and the unsigned card, then Taylor rubbed the card until the signature reappeared – on both the card and the image on Davis’ phone.
Then it was Davis’ turn. He squeezed his empty hands so tightly they were shaking. Taylor then tore the corner off a three of hearts and, without touching Davis, the corner wound up in his palms.
“That’s insane!” added his twin brother, J.D. Davis.
FANS IN THE STANDS
Hundreds of fans decked in team colors showed up for both sessions. While the stands appeared a bit fuller for Alabama, the Clemson backers were more into it.
They stood and chanted C-L-E-M-S-O-N when the team entered, and again when they left.
Fans could watch everything and could listen to interviews via free radios they were given. The event was free, as well, and included a free ticket to attend Playoff Fan Central.