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Two tales of dedication from Clemson and Alabama fans

Clemson and Alabama return to college football's summit Monday night in a rematch of last year's national championship game. And many of the fans who watched the teams battle in Arizona are making the trip to Tampa for round two.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with two of these "super fans'' this week. Here are their stories:

• • •

Carrie Walden Thompson, a lifelong Clemson Tigers football fan, didn't miss last year's College Football Playoff National Championship game — at least not in the photos.

Her friends went to the game with a paper cutout of Thompson on a stick. Preserved for posterity were shots of Thompson smiling along with her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters as they gathered before the big game and inside the stadium.

Thompson couldn't make the trip. She was being treated for breast cancer.

When this year's championship game is played at Raymond James Stadium, though, she'll be there for the photos — and the rematch — in person.

Thompson, 38, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2014. Her mantra has been, "Fight like a Tiger," a nod to her alma mater.

Her treatment is ongoing. Every three weeks, she undergoes chemotherapy. A season ticket holder since 1985, she hasn't been able to attend many games lately.

The days after a treatment are "crappy weeks" followed by two good weeks. The College Football Playoff semifinal game against Ohio State Saturday came during a crappy week. Exhausted from the treatment, Thompson slept through the Tigers' trouncing of the Buckeyes and awoke to the happy news.

It should be a good week when she flies with her husband from Greenville, S.C., to Tampa on Sunday. Thompson will join a group of friends from throughout the country who still get together for a game each year, including last year's championship.

She doesn't have tickets yet, but hopes to buy them soon.

Standing inside Raymond James Stadium will hold even greater meaning for her. Thompson's stepfather died of cancer two weeks after she graduated from Clemson without getting to attend a championship game himself.

"He always said his dream was to watch one of his children graduate from there, so it's always been so much more than just a school for me," Thompson said. "It's support, it's family and it just means so much. For me to be able to go and see it, it's kind of like completing the circle."

Her friends who attended last year's championship are looking forward to more than just redemption when they travel with Thompson to Tampa for the rematch with the Alabama Crimson Tide.

"Carrie is fighting the hard fight," said Elisa Dolan, 38, a native of Treasure Island who attended Clemson and now lives in Connecticut. "Clemson has supported her family and been such a big part of her family for so long, so for her to be able to go to this game is just a huge opportunity."

• • •

As a wide-eyed teenager shuffling through the streets of New Orleans in 1993, Brian Limbaugh thought the good times would last forever for his beloved University of Alabama football team.

The Crimson Tide had just captured the Sugar Bowl, securing Alabama's 12th national title.

"My dad said you have to go when you get the chance because you never know when you'll be there again," Limbaugh said. "I thought, 'What are you talking about? We'll be back next year.' "

Alabama didn't compete for a college football championship again for 16 years.

Older and wiser, Limbaugh heeded his father's advice when Alabama made it back to the national stage in 2009. And again in 2011. And in 2012 and 2015.

So of course, Limbaugh, now 41, will be in Tampa this weekend when Alabama faces Clemson. His father, Bruce Limbaugh, has joined him at each stop, including last year in Arizona and Monday at Raymond James Stadium.

"It's expensive being an Alabama fan," the younger Limbaugh said. "It's a lot of traveling and a headache, but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The Birmingham resident and Alabama alumnus said Tampa should expect a businesslike approach from Crimson Tide fans. Clemson fans, by contrast, were friendly but much rowdier last year, tailgating en masse and coming early and leaving late, he said.

"It'll be interesting to see what year two is like," he said. "Are they as nice or do they like us a little less?"

And what advice does this seasoned vet have for first-time travelers to the College Football Playoff National Championship?

"Get out to the stadium early. We went in 2009 to the Rose Bowl and we were parked on a golf course at 10 in the morning," Limbaugh said. "Walk around the stadium, soak it in, and see what Tampa has to offer as far as putting on this event."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

Two tales of dedication from Clemson and Alabama fans 01/06/17 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2017 3:04pm]
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