A night at The Esso Club: Stories from an iconic Clemson watering hole

David Hale/ESPN

CLEMSON, S.C. -- As is the case with any liberal combination of time and alcohol, the details surrounding the origin of The Esso Club's name are a mixture of fact and mythology. The story goes that, in the late 1940s, a group of Clemson students came to realize they'd spent far more time downing cheap beer at the gas station near campus than they had participating in actual collegiate activities. Not wanting to appear negligent in the school's annual yearbook, they identified themselves under their photos as members of The Esso Club, and the name stuck.

The place opened in 1933, a ramshackle gas station that has evolved into a game-day headquarters in Clemson. The Esso Club reportedly poured its first beer the day Prohibition was repealed, and like those students 70 years ago -- plenty of outsiders and misfits, raconteurs and eccentrics still call it home.

"There's a rumor that if you drink a beer here before you graduate, you won't graduate," said Candice Bell, The Esso Club's general manager, who's been on staff for nearly two decades. "I hate hearing that, but at the same time, I do like that we're the alumni place. You start out down the road when you're young and immature, then you come here when you're older and immature."

As one longtime customer explained, The Esso Club is not a college bar, but it couldn't exist anywhere but Clemson. Tigers memorabilia covers virtually every square inch of space on the walls, a roster of famous alumni is marked by name plates on the bar, and even the bar itself is crafted from old seats from Memorial Stadium. Inside, its walls tell the story of the town, the school, the people and the ways it has all changed and, in some corners, stayed beautifully constant.

On game days, the place rocks. In the aftermath of Clemson's blowout win to kick off the 2017 season, picnic tables are filled with revelers, a cover band belts out ubiquitous Southern anthems from Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band, and partygoers clothed in orange eagerly wrap their arms around a contingent of Kent State fans seemingly larger than the one that actually attended the game.

This is nothing like the atmosphere legendary Atlanta Journal columnist Lewis Grizzard stumbled upon 40 years ago when he penned a tribute to The Esso Club that made the place famous.

Back then, The Esso Club was a gas station that served beer with seating, as Grizzard wrote, "for 12 people and two pinball machines comfortably." Legend has it that Grizzard was sent to Clemson to pen a story on football but ended up at the bar.

Grizzard found a menagerie of Southern characters there, drinking with folks named Popeye and Punk and Jimmy Howard, the son of Clemson's former coach Frank Howard, who taught Grizzard how to chew tobacco on one side of his mouth while drinking beer with the other.

The locals regaled Grizzard with the legends of The Esso Club, such as the time Jimmy Howard met a beer truck driver who bore a striking resemblance to Billy Carter, the ne'er-do-well brother of President Jimmy Carter and proprietor of the short-lived Billy Beer. In one of his legendary pranks, Howard hired a police escort to bring the truck driver to the bar, passing him off as Billy Carter to The Esso Club's then owner, Bob Higby. Higby gleefully welcomed the truck driver into the bar, relishing an appearance by a celebrity, posing for pictures and reveling with whom he believed to be the brother of the president. Only later did Higby learn he'd been duped.

Grizzard spent the day drinking and carousing at The Esso Club, then recounted all the color and debauchery in his story for the Atlanta newspaper. Overnight, The Esso Club blossomed from small-town dive to a national curiosity.

"He said it was the greatest bar he'd ever been in in his life," Punk Bodiford said. "And he's a man known to have seen the inside of a few bars."

A copy of Grizzard's article now hangs on the wall between flat-screen televisions.

The day before Clemson kicked off its 2017 season, Bodiford is reclining on a bench in front of The Esso, a novel flipped open on his lap and a beer, wrapped in a national championship koozie, in his hand. It's happy hour, which he notes, is prime time to gather with professors and wax intellectual. The bar even has a section set aside for the professional crowd dubbed "The Educational Corner" that looks, essentially, like the rest of the bar, but is ostensibly more conducive to more scholarly pursuits. He's perched next to Dewey Barefield, who has been coming to The Esso Club since 1969 and is a Rolodex of great stories, of which he admits "some are realer than others." They both love The Esso, abhor the rampant development that surrounds the bar and scoff at the idea of drinking at the more run-of-the-mill college bars down the road.

Bodiford was a kid when he first went to The Esso Club in the 1950s with his grandmother, who'd stop in for milk and produce. He moved away from Clemson for a while, returning in 1971 and finding a home at the bar. He's something of a living history of The Esso Club now. He knows all the bartenders by name, and they know his drink order before he asks. He has seen the bar evolve from gas station to shotgun-beer joint to full-service restaurant, and he has been a part of nearly every great story told in the place.

"If you're going to grow old, it's nice to do it in a college town around a bunch of college kids," Bodiford said. "There's always something going on."

Until the 1980s, The Esso Club was little more than a ramshackle gas station with Kudzu, a kind of vine, growing through the walls and cheap beer on ice. At the time, Clemson students like Tim Nun, who was a freshman in 1985, thought it was all a bit too rough around the edges for the more refined tastes of the college crowd.

On game weekends, however, Nun's dad, Rod, would drive up from Atlanta and head straight to The Esso Club. They'd meet up for the game, then Nun and his buddies would retire to the dorm to recover. Hours later, they'd head out into town for a party, and inevitably, they'd pass by The Esso Club and find Rod's car still parked in the lot.

As time passed, however, Tim's friends began to understand the allure. It fit their budget, and, as Tim noted, the entire menu, which consisted of saltines and cheese, was free for anyone who was drinking. By senior year, Tim said, he'd be at The Esso with his dad all day, too.

Three decades later, Tim has kids of his own living in Clemson. When he heads back for a football game, his routine is just like his old man's.

"Straight to The Esso," he said.

The gas station is gone, and the menu now includes all types of traditional pub fare. The cheap beer isn't quite as cheap and is now served alongside a slew of microbrews. The Esso has its own beer, too. One bartender offered it as an alternative to Yuengling, and another said it's just like Miller Lite. In actuality, it tastes like a half-dozen cheap beers blended together -- in a good way. Still, the feel of the place, the family of outcasts and alumni, young and old, home team and visitors laughing together -- that's just the same.

"It's just iconic, and it grows on you," Nun said. "Once you get sucked into The Esso cult, you're in."

Grizzard and a Billy Carter doppleganger are far from the only celebrities to find their way to The Esso Club over the years. Along the rafters above the bar, a menagerie of autographed Esso hats signed by luminaries, ranging from Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow to TV star Tim Allen, offer something of a historical record, though some of the caps, Bell said, are simply signed by folks with exceptional bar tabs.

But if The Esso Club has a patron saint among the famous, it is no doubt Brent Musburger.

The longtime broadcaster has a signed hat, too, along with an engraved plate on the bar and memorabilia throughout the place. If you've heard Musburger call a game at Clemson, you've heard him preach his love for The Esso Club, which is how Chris Mann found his way onto Musburger's bar tab one night.

Mann was an equipment manager for Clemson in the late 1980s, and Musburger had come to town to swap jokes and drinks with his pal Danny Ford, the former Tigers coach. At the time, Mann hoped to become a broadcaster, too, so he decided to break the ice with some common ground.

"I hear you like The Esso Club," Mann offered.

"Oh yeah," Musburger replied. "And I'll be there tonight."

Musburger offered an invitation for Mann to join him for a drink -- an invitation Mann assumed was made more of politeness than actual enthusiasm. Still, he rounded up a few friends and went to stalk the star broadcaster.

When they entered the bar, sure enough, Musburger was already a few beers deep.

"Hey Chris," Musburger said when Mann entered the bar. He then turned to the bartender. "Whatever they want, put it on my tab."

For the remainder of the night, Musburger shared one story after another of his life in college football.

"That's when I learned he's actually part of the famous photo of Joe Namath at the swimming pool in Super Bowl III," Mann said. "If you Google that photo, you'll see Brent Musburger wearing a pair of Converse All-Stars with pants like a sweater, sitting on a chair at the pool with Joe Namath."

Mann didn't get into broadcasting, but his night with Musburger remains a favorite story for him all these years later. The funny part, he said, is that it really wasn't all that unlikely of an encounter. The Esso is just a place where good folks like to get together, regardless of status. Sure, other people recognized Musburger, but no one felt the need to pester him for an autograph. Membership in the club affords equal status to all.

As a means of explaining, Mann pointed to the men's room, where a trough requires patrons to stand three wide to use the bathroom. It's as good a place to start a conversation as any. What use was there in putting on airs? The Esso Club is above -- or beneath -- all that.

"It was a cozy little place," Mann said, "and quintessential Clemson."

Last spring, Tobie Stevens was working at The Esso Club when a guy with long, flowing blonde hair walked in and sat in her section. She was immediately transfixed.

His name was Moose, because of course it was, and he was there to play bingo, because of course he was.

By night's end, the two were peas and carrots, and they've been inseparable since, Stevens said. They're getting married this Christmas, the timing selected specifically so six of Stevens' coworkers at The Esso could serve as bridesmaids without the bar closing down. After the wedding, Moose and Tobie are getting a dog. They plan to name it Esso.

This is one of maybe a dozen stories of couples who met at The Esso, and that doesn't include the pair who came in for a drink one night and ended up getting married in Bodiford's hot tub after a few too many beers. Bodiford, among many other things, is also an ordained minister, because of course he is.

See, it's not just talk of family at The Esso Club. It's actual family -- husbands and wives, groomsmen and bridesmaids, buddies on a wooden bench out front of a bar, swapping stories for decades. So when bartender Kelly Grady couldn't swing a trip to Tampa for last season's CFP National Championship, The Esso was the next best thing.

"You have to see the picture," Bell says, of that night. Reluctantly, Grady grabs her phone from beneath the bar and swipes through her photos until she finds the right one. It's a snapshot of the immediate aftermath of Renfrow's touchdown. Grady is in the center, wearing orange overalls, her palm pressed to her chest, mouth agape, eyes closed in near hysteria, a friend's arms wrapped around her and a can of Busch beer in the foreground. It's a distilled version of what The Esso Club is all about -- friends, cheap beer and unmitigated jubilation. The Esso Club is so close to Memorial Stadium that the noise from the crowd on game day reaches the clientele before the TV signal catches up, so the celebration literally ripples from the stands, down Centennial Boulevard, and into the bar.

And that brings me to my Esso story, because everyone who spends any time there has one.

At the time, I was living in Athens, Georgia, the favored stomping grounds of Grizzard before he found The Esso Club. I had found the girl I wanted to marry, but being a lowly sports writer, funds were tight and an engagement ring was expensive. It was March, and a friend had suggested that if I let his accountant handle my taxes, I'd be guaranteed a nice return. This accountant, he said, lived in Easley, South Carolina, and he did the taxes for all of Clemson's coaching staff. How much of this was true, I don't know, but as with all liberal combinations of time and alcohol and taxes, it's probably a good mix of fact and mythology.

So it came to pass that, just before tax day, the two of us drove up to South Carolina with IRS forms in hand. The accountant really was good. My refund, it turned out, would be a few thousand dollars. It was, by my estimates, enough to get that ring.

When we left the accountant's office, my buddy suggested we travel back through Clemson.

"Have you ever been to The Esso Club?" he said. "You've got to go. It's an institution."

That afternoon, the two of us had chicken wings and Miller High Life at a bar made from old stadium bleachers, and though I hadn't told my friend what my refund would be used for, and while it'd be months before I bought that ring and more than a year before the actual wedding, we celebrated. That's what you do at The Esso Club.

"The town has changed, but we haven't," Bell said. "People come here for family, for a support group. They come here to celebrate the big moments in their lives."