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On January 13, Clemson and LSU will play for the College Football Playoff National Championship. Fans of Clemson University are hoping their Tigers will bring home the trophy for the third time in four years.
But this is a Clemson story of a different sort.
In August of 2018, when Aaron Ritz was 11 years old, he was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease.
"I was nervous, because I didn't know what it was," Aaron says. "Whenever the doctors were telling us what it was, I just asked, 'Am I gonna die?' "
The doctors told him he wasn’t, but they needed to run some tests. Aaron was awaiting the results in a South Carolina hospital room, when in walked a stranger.
"I heard the door open, and he walks through the door with his big old hat. And I didn't know who he was," Aaron says.
Aaron is a big fan of Clemson football. As he soon learned, the stranger was Clemson super fan Dean "The Hat" Cox.
He’s called that because of his oversized cowboy hat in blazing Clemson orange. He’s become such a fixture of the Clemson community that he’s the go-to guy when head football coach Dabo Swinney can’t make hospital visits. So, back in August 2018, The Hat paid Aaron Ritz a visit.
"We talked for a few minutes," Aaron says. "Then he gave me a Hunter Renfrow jersey and a Hunter Renfrow picture that was signed."
Hunter Renfrow was Aaron’s favorite player. He was in his last season as a Clemson wide receiver when Aaron was diagnosed. But The Hat had even more gifts up his orange sleeves.
"Everybody came together and rallied around [Aaron]. But the Tiger family was just absolutely overwhelming."Jeremy Ritz
"I took him a hardhat that was signed," The Hat says. "[And] a Tiger $2 bill."
The Hat is one of the most enthusiastic distributors of the Clemson $2 bill. We featured him in a story about it last August. The traditional Clemson $2 bill has orange tiger paws stamped on it.
The one The Hat gave to the kid had something else.
"It said, 'Get well soon, The Hat. Go Tigers,' " Cox says. "And he said, 'This was my favorite get well card.' "
After more tests, doctors told Aaron that his kidneys would soon stop functioning. He’d require dialysis, and then he’d need a transplant. He was put on a waiting list and released.
The Hat Pulls Some Strings
A few days later, “The Hat” invited Aaron and his parents over.
"I've got a man cave," The Hat says. "Dabo Swinney has called it 'West End Zone 2,' because there's so much stuff. Tajh Boyd, one of our old quarterbacks, his mom calls me 'The Clemson Hoarder.' That's a compliment."
"It was very orange," Aaron says. "He has this mannequin head where he puts his hat. He has a Clemson pool table."
A little over a month later, Dean "The Hat" Cox pulled some strings and planned something really special.
"The kid had no idea," The Hat says.
"We were just getting out of a doctor's appointment," Aaron says. "And we're all getting in my dad's truck, and I said, 'What are we doing?' And they said, 'We're going down to Clemson to eat dinner with Dean,' or something like that. And we ended up pulling up to the practice facility."
"So they were having practice," The Hat says. "Dabo came over, talked to him."
6-foot-6 Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence visited with Aaron, too.
"He walked over, and I got to talk to his kneecaps," Aaron jokes. "And then he said, 'Good luck.' "
But Aaron still hadn’t met his favorite player. After most of the team had returned to the locker room, Hunter Renfrow was still doing reps on the field. When he was done, he came over to Aaron waiting on the sidelines.
"Now, Hunter Renfrow, he never gives his gloves away," The Hat says.
It’s a superstition. Renfrow likes to wear his wide receiver's gloves over and over again.
"But he gives Aaron those pair of gloves."
Renfrow told Aaron they were the ones he wore during a big Clemson win over Texas A&M. When Renfrow left for the locker room, Aaron turned to The Hat.
"He was like, 'Hat, here's what I’m gonna do. We’ve got this pair of gloves from Hunter Renfrow,' " The Hat recalls. "He said, 'It's got his DNA. So I'm gonna give you one glove for your man cave. And I'm gonna keep a glove. So we'll never have a pair unless we're together.'
"I was like, 'Dude, you're killing me.' I mean, [an] 11-year-old kid giving me something."
I ask Aaron what made him want to give one of the gloves to Dean Cox.
"Because he did so much for me, and he’s given me so much Clemson stuff," Aaron says. "And I just wanted to give something back to him."
"I mean he, you know … " The Hat says, struggling to find the right words. "And then he told me, 'A lot of kids will never get to do what we did tonight. So, you know, even if I don't get a kidney, I've had a lot more fun than a lot of kids will ever get their whole life.' "
This season, The Hat has driven his Clemson Tigers golf cart around tailgating parties, collecting donations in 5 gallon buckets labeled "Aaron’s Army." Aaron’s mom, Brandy, had to quit working while Aaron was getting treatment.
"So all of that came in very handy to help pay our car payments, house payments, whatever we had," Brandy says.
Brandy and her husband, Jeremy, estimate the community has raised about $30,000 in support of their son.
On Nov. 2, 2019, the same day Clemson improved to 9-0, Aaron got his new kidney after a 14-month wait. He’s back home after a month in the hospital. He would have been home earlier, but the kidney didn’t work well at first. The Clemson football community has been there for him throughout. Jeremy Ritz says that’s made a big difference.
"There was this huge group of people that were willing to spend time with Aaron, talk with Aaron," Jeremy says. "We were getting contacts from England, Scotland, the West Coast, and everybody came together and rallied around him. But the Tiger family was just absolutely overwhelming."
Aaron’s 13 now. He’s in seventh grade, but he’s good enough at golf to be a member of the high school team. In the meantime …
"Well, we're going to sit back, hope and pray and watch his kidney, and watch Aaron start to grow and get back to normal," Jeremy says. "And just pray that everything works out the way we hope it does."
I tell the Ritz family that they're forgetting something really important. What about the football? Will they be watching Clemson in the postseason?
"Oh, yeah. That's a no-brainer," Jeremy says.
"Yeah!" Aaron adds with a chuckle.
I finish my chat with the Ritz family and ask Aaron what he’ll be thinking about as he watches his new friends defend their national title on January 13.
"Whenever they’re on the field, I'll think of that and say 'Hey, ... I know him. I've met him before. He's a really nice guy,' " he says.
Dean “The Hat” Cox will be in New Orleans to attend the championship game. Aaron Ritz will stay home in South Carolina. He’ll watch the game on TV.
But, wherever they are and regardless of who wins and who loses, they’ll always be a pair.
This segment aired on January 4, 2020.
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