With sister Ella ‘watching over me,’ Bryan Bresee delivers for Clemson football

Ella Bresee loved Sweet Babe’s ice cream and Starbucks. She loved basketball and scary movies. She loved watching the “Survivor” TV show with her dad and taking long car rides with her mom.

She also loved “everything about Clemson,” as her obituary published last week noted, and especially “watching her big brother play football and bragging about who he was.”

So no, there wasn’t any hesitation on the part of Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee when it came to playing against Wake Forest on Saturday, just over a week after Ella, his 15-year-old younger sister, died after a 17-month battle with a rare form of brain cancer.

“I knew that’s what Ella would want me to do,” Bresee said.

That’s what he did, playing Saturday and recording two tackles as No. 5 Clemson toppled No. 21 Wake Forest 51-45 in double overtime on the road to stay undefeated and maintain control of its destiny in the ACC Atlantic Division.

Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) runs past Wake Forest defensive lineman Kendron Wayman (35) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) runs past Wake Forest defensive lineman Kendron Wayman (35) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

The junior defensive tackle also had a hand (literally) in one of the biggest moments of the afternoon for a Clemson defense that struggled mightily against a veteran Wake Forest offense.

With Clemson leading 51-45 in the second overtime, Bresee combined with teammate Tyler Davis to bat down a pass from Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman on second and 10 from the 25-yard line. It was a rare stuff from a unit that, to that point, had very few of them.

Clemson won the game two snaps later when cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up Hartman’s pass to the end zone on fourth and six, securing a double overtime win and sending Clemson fans including Bresee’s family — father Richard, mother Meghan and sisters Bailey and Kendall — into a joyful frenzy at Truist Field.

“I mean, it’s just one play in a long game,” Bresee said, “but in those dire moments when you need it, it felt good to come up with it.”

Bresee was playing for the first time since Sept. 10, a home game against Furman during which Clemson had planned to honor his younger sister amid her fight with medulloblastoma.

Ella had been diagnosed with the rare form of brain cancer in early 2021, and her perseverance and positive attitudes through months of treatment became a rallying cry for Clemson football.

She was “Ella Strong,” as the long white strips of athletic tape on the back of her brother’s arms and the Sharpie markings on his cleats reminded viewers of every Clemson game.

The Tigers planned to honor Ella in their home opener, but she had to return home to the Washington, D.C., area two days before the Furman game. Bresee played in that game before traveling home to join his family. The following Thursday, Sept. 15, Bresee wrote in an emotional Instagram post that his sister had died that morning.

He wrote, in part: “I want to thank you for bringing happiness to not only me but so many people. You are the best sister a brother could ask for and I know for a fact heaven has gained a beautiful angel today. Love you forever and always Ella bear.”

Bresee missed Clemson’s Sept. 17 game against Louisiana Tech, a contest that drew national attention after LA Tech coach Sonny Cumbie had his entire team write letters to the Bresee family and delivered them to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney postgame.

A large contingent of Clemson players and coaches traveled to Ella’s funeral on Tuesday – she’d specifically requested guests wear bright colors, so there was lots of orange – while welcoming Bresee back into a normal practice schedule, something he said was a welcome distraction.

Then they knocked off Wake Forest in epic fashion, with Bresee chipping in late, to deliver a win that Swinney hoped reached outside of the field and into the first row of the bleachers behind Clemson’s bench, where the Bresee family had been sitting.

“I’m really glad they were here,” he said. “Nobody deserved to lose this game, but that’s another reason I’m thankful that we were able to win it. Hopefully they can just have a little more joy tonight and something to smile about and celebrate.”

They certainly will, Bresee said. Ella included.

“It’s been my role through this when it started 17, 18 months ago: just playing football and bringing joy to my family,” he said. “That was what my purpose was so I’m just continuing to do that … I know she’s still watching over me, so I knew what I had to do.”