The legend of South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney

The New York TimesAugust 23, 2013 

— The legend of Jadeveon Clowney began on Carolina Avenue.

Clowney was never just a baby. He was more than that. He ate solid food, everything but fish with bones in it, at 8 months. He outgrew shoes every other week. He wore a cape in place of a diaper. Or so the recollections go, steeped in a fair bit of hyperbole from the outset.

This established a familiar pattern, as Clowney became more than a football player, more than a 6-foot-6, 274-pound defensive end at South Carolina almost certain to be chosen first overall in the next NFL draft. Clowney, instead, became a superhero, a cartoon character, fast as a cheetah, strong as a diamond, capable of decapitating running backs and traveling through time. Stories of his athletic exploits ballooned into tall tales.

The tallest: a single tackle last season against Michigan, replayed a few gazillion times over the past eight months, where Clowney shot into the backfield and dislodged a helmet from a head. The play resembled a car crash, its impact so forceful, so jarring, it became known simply as The Hit – or less simply as The Greatest Hit Ever Delivered.

His father wanted to name the boy David, but tradition in his mother’s family dictated his name start with a J. She settled on Jadeveon but called him Doo Doo, after her favorite song, its hook, “Doo Doo Brown (Brown); the brand new brother in town; yeah, boy, dope sound.”

“He don’t like it now,” his mother, Josenna Clowney, said. “Back then, everybody just say, ‘Doo Doo, come here.’ He was a little boy. You never knew he was going to be, like, the best player in college football. How could anyone on Carolina Avenue know anything like that?”

The boy grew up in the gray single-story house, No. 764, with the dirt yard in front and the “Beware of Dog” sign in the window. Only an “SC mom” sticker affixed to the back bumper of the red Maxima out front hints at who lives inside.

The living room is crowded with framed newspaper articles, game balls, jerseys and trophies, an accumulation of all the hype. One trophy, a defensive lineman of the year award, weighs around 40 pounds. The Little League All-Star jersey is sized for an adult.

Josenna Clowney’s son will leave this evening, July 16, for Los Angeles, where he will attend the ESPY Awards, where his hit –The Hit – will win the award for Best Play. Of the year. In all of sports.

“He don’t pay this no attention,” his mother said. “He don’t talk about football when he’s home. He just talks about his dog.”

Clowney will accept his award as cameras flash and celebrities offer congratulations. Across the country, his mother will go to work. She started at the Frito-Lay plant outside Charlotte in 1994, and she runs the machines that make Doritos, among other chips. Her shift starts at 3 p.m. and ends eight hours later, and she pushes buttons to turn the heat up, or add water, or check the weight.

She often settles in front of the television in her bedroom and dials up last season’s Outback Bowl, between the Gamecocks and the Michigan Wolverines. She always watches the fourth quarter, the first down gifted to Michigan from the referees, the huddle before the next play, the handoff, The Hit. She guesses she has watched it more than 1,000 times, and yet she never tires of the replay. Not even on this July morning, when she views it once more and says, “Oh, Lordy, look at that. The way he be hitting people, I’m scared he going to hurt himself. I’m like, ‘Do you have to hit that boy like that?’”

His response: “That’s how we do, Ma. That’s football.”

Outsize Descriptions

The legend of Jadeveon Clowney personifies the modern college football landscape. It speaks to critics of NCAA amateurism and NFL draft restrictions. It also speaks to football’s inherent violence, the line straddled between the excitement generated by collisions and the future health of those who collide.

More than anything, Clowney’s story speaks to the sport’s booming popularity and the hype that accompanies such interest. In this climate, Clowney cannot simply be an elite football player set to embark on his junior season. In this climate, Clowney is He Who Cannot Be Blocked.

Ask around. Clowney does not have big hands. He has hands the size of No. 1 foam fingers. He is not fast. He is a taller, thicker, stronger Usain Bolt. “He bench presses 345 pounds like picking up a stack of books,” one teammate said. “He had seven sacks in one half of a scrimmage,” another said. “Offensive linemen would rip out his dreadlocks,” a third said.

“I’ve seen him jump over an entire offensive line to block a field goal,” said Zach Snyder, his defensive line coach at South Pointe High School. “I’ve seen him chase down a receiver from 72 yards away. Picked off a tunnel screen. Numerous big hits, sacks, blocked passes.”

Clowney is at once the reason we watch football and the reason we worry about football players. In mid-July, the latest can-you-believe-he-did-that story centered on his 40-yard-dash time: 4.46 seconds. For comparison, quarterback Robert Griffin III registered a 4.41 at the NFL combine a few years ago. He ran track at Baylor. He does not weigh 274 pounds.

On the day that tale surfaced, Clowney’s high school coach, Bobby Carroll, steered his truck through Rock Hill’s streets, sharing his favorite anecdotes. Like how Clowney once told Carroll he was capable of counting cards in blackjack. Or when he woke up at Carroll’s home and dunked a basketball on a hoop that stood 10 ½ feet. Without stretching. In flip-flops.

As Carroll drops a “he’s just so daggum athletic, man,” Clowney calls. They talk about the 40 time. Carroll wonders whether Clowney will run at the scouting combine next spring.

“I’m going to take my shirt off, run the 40, and I’m out the door,” Clowney tells him.

To explain what he means by “daggum athletic,” Carroll settles into his office and slides a highlight DVD into his computer. There is Clowney, with consecutive goal-line stops on defense, followed by a 99-yard fullback run up the right sideline. “Look at that big gazelle, man!” There is Clowney, with a body slam sack of Everett Golson, the future Notre Dame quarterback. “Bam!” There is Clowney, swatting away three blockers like wayward bowling pins. Carroll extends his arms.

“How do you top that?” he asks.

The more Clowney’s profile soars, though, the more attention he attracts. In August, he seemed perpetually under some sort of investigation. An Instagram post in regard to Jay Z’s new sports agency drew scrutiny. So did the volume of certified Clowney autographs available online. So did the insurance policy he took out, amid suggestions he simply sit out this season to avoid injury. There is always something. Even a minor shoulder injury makes national headlines – and for weeks.

At South Carolina’s media day Aug. 4, Clowney shrugged off all the headaches commensurate with the adulation, after sliding down a banister for a grand entrance to meet with national reporters. He is asked to name something he is not good at.

“I have no clue,” Clowney says. “I’m good at a lot of stuff.”

Football in The Rock

The legend of Jadeveon Clowney grew in the perfect incubator: Rock Hill, population around 68,000, a short drive south from Charlotte; a place where the mayor, Doug Echols, was once a football coach.

The Rock, as the locals call it, once thrived as a textile town, but when that business moved overseas, it was forced to redevelop, reinvent. Sports played a major role, football in particular. In fact, NFL players have become something of The Rock’s chief export, at least six at last count.

“You really want to know what happened?” asked Jimmy (Moose) Wallace, the longtime football coach at Northwestern High School. “The gene pool, son. We’ve been blessed. Like Clowney. My goodness. That kid is the truth.”

Children begin football in The Rock at age 5 or 6. Tackle football. Travel leagues. The youth programs feed into more youth programs, which feed into the middle schools, which feed into three high schools, powerhouses all.

“This ain’t no tag, now,” Carroll said. “These kids will knock the taste out of your mouth at the age of 5. These kids hit.”

Josenna Clowney lived on Carolina Avenue all her life. Her father, John – a J, naturally – moved to The Rock from Maryland to work in a chemical plant. He spent 43 years there before it closed. He would not describe his initial reception as a warm one.

“Couldn’t no black people walk on this street,” he said. “If we came through here, we had to run.”

He eventually purchased several houses on Carolina Avenue, including Josenna’s, although there is some dispute as to whether he paid $700 or $7,000 for it. She moved in when Jadeveon was young, as he grew out of shoes and clothes and employees at the local Pizza Hut refused him the children’s rate for the lunch buffet without a birth certificate.

Football worked the same way. His youth teams kept a copy of the certificate on file. Parents of opponents always complained anyway. He was at least a head taller than the other players.

“He was scared of tackling kids,” said Anthony Aldridge, one youth coach. “When he ran, he would carry three or four of them. On defense, he was knocking helmets off. They were crying after he hit them. Woo, that rascal Doo Doo could hit.”

On the tour, Carroll drove by Clowney’s elementary school. The field next to the playground actually has goal posts, a juxtaposition typical of The Rock.

For years, Northwestern and Rock Hill staged a rivalry as intense as any in high school football. Some of their games were shown on ESPN networks. They often met in the playoffs, sometimes in the state championship.

In 2005, a third school opened to ease crowding at the other two. This was expected to dilute the football talent pool. It did not. In the summer between Clowney’s eighth- and ninth-grade years, the district lines were redrawn. Instead of Northwestern, Clowney would attend South Pointe, which caused some consternation among the locals.

South Pointe hired Carroll, Northwestern’s longtime defensive coordinator, the guy who turned a small office deep in the local stadium into the defensive meeting room, which he christened The Pentagon. No offensive players were allowed inside. Defenders would shut the door and paint their faces and scream and bang and chant. They ran onto to the field with tears in their eyes.

So Carroll ended up at South Pointe, with Stephon Gilmore, a future first-round NFL draft pick, and DeVonte Holloman, a sixth-rounder. Then he added Clowney.

“It’s hard to describe what happened with him,” Carroll said. “He got so big. Heck, man, I think he’s bigger than Elvis.”

Tailback to Defensive End

The legend of Jadeveon Clowney did not begin at defensive end. Clowney played tailback. He stood 6-foot-3. He carried defenders down the field like small children in need of a piggyback. Some ran away from him, or ran slow enough toward him to avoid contact.

He was in ninth grade.

Snyder, the defensive line coach, wondered what to make of all the fuss. So he went to watch Clowney run, not hit. Afterward, he told Clowney he looked forward to coaching him – on defense. Clowney balked. He was a tailback. “Son,” Snyder told him, “you’re going to play defense, and, if all goes well, you’re going to be the best that’s ever played.”

Clowney started at defensive end the next season, on a state championship team that boasted, by Snyder’s estimate, 17 players with Division I-caliber talent.

In the spring before Clowney’s senior year, more than 90 college coaches visited South Pointe’s campus. Nick Saban, the Alabama coach, spoke with Clowney and his parents via Skype. A Texas Tech assistant begged Clowney just to visit, because even if he had no plans to attend there, his presence alone would boost the Red Raiders’ profile.

Snyder recalled one Alabama assistant who sent a text message after midnight.

“Did he say anything about us today?” the coach asked.

“I’m asleep,” came the response.

The hype never ended. It only worsened. Even Clowney grew sick of hearing about himself, of the ceaseless attention, of the reporters who dropped by unannounced, of the opponents who asked for autographs after games. And yet, he did not say no to anyone who asked for anything, a violent player who also happened to be too nice.

With one exception.

“He don’t have a problem saying that to me,” his mother said.

Ultimately, Clowney took three official visits, to South Carolina, Clemson and Alabama, although he promised many more. Saban told Clowney he planned to coach at Alabama forever, unless his health deteriorated. He told a story about his 77-year-old mother, who Saban said had recently recorded her first hole in one in golf.

“Let’s me and you play basketball,” Clowney said, in way of a response, as he had heard that Saban played three-on-three pickup to stay in shape each off-season. Saban laughed.

“That experience changed the way I look at athletes,” said Dr. Al Leonard, the principal at South Pointe. “Crazy is what it was.”

Someone asked Clowney at South Carolina’s media day the last time he went out in public unrecognized.

His response: 11th grade.

‘No Athletic Weakness’

The legend of Jadeveon Clowney almost includes a plane crash. Brad Lawing is happy that it does not. He was South Carolina’s defensive line coach before he left for Florida this season, and on the first day that colleges could talk to Clowney, he requested the university’s private plane for a trip north. On the way, though, one of the engines went out, which forced an emergency landing, which scared the stuffing out of Lawing.

It was worth it.

In more than three decades in coaching, for all the future NFL players he tutored, Lawing can remember only one who could have jumped straight from high school into a professional camp. Not John Abraham, Julian Peterson or Melvin Ingram. Just Clowney.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Lawing said. “There’s no athletic weakness with him.”

Clowney draws those sort of comparisons the way he draws double teams. He is a meaner version of Julius Peppers. A bulkier Jevon Kearse. The next Lawrence Taylor. The next Mario Williams. A football Superman with dreadlocks.

Last season, Clowney captured several awards for the nation’s top defensive end. He set South Carolina records for sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23 ½) in one season and sacks in a game (4 ½, against Clemson). The Gamecocks have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time behind their greatest strength, their defensive line.

For opponents, sadly, there remains room for improvement. Clowney worked this spring and summer on his conditioning. He is faster, stronger. Hopefully the next thing he knocks off is not a head.

Gil Brandt, a longtime NFL personnel evaluator, said that only off-the-field issues would prevent Clowney from landing in the top slot next spring, adding that Clowney is projected as “one of the greatest pass rushers we’ve ever had.”

“The lasting image of him is that big hit in that bowl game,” said Bucky Brooks, a former player and scout turned NFL Network analyst. “That enhances the myth he built for himself. That plays into, I’m Superman. I can jump over tall buildings and offensive tackles.

“He is both a great player and a mythical figure at this point.”

Enough of the Talk

The legend of Jadeveon Clowney is wearing thin. In some quarters, at least, but especially in the offices of Steve Spurrier, his coach. Spurrier barred Clowney from doing one-on-one interviews. He chafed at suggestions that Clowney should play some on offense. At media day, he seems especially tired of The Hit.

“He and Johnny Football, those are the only two guys in America everybody’s talking about, it seems like,” Spurrier said, referring to Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback. “Jadeveon’s hit and Johnny’s adventures all over the country. Jadeveon is tired of everybody talking about him.”

Clowney stood on a stage upstairs, surrounded by a mass of microphones and television cameras and tape recorders crammed up near his face. The new normal, as it were. A university employee reminded him to take his hat off. Someone asked Clowney if he ever impressed himself.

“The Hit was pretty cool,” he managed. “Ain’t nobody had a hit like that.”

Did he feel sorry for the running back?

“Ah, no sir,” he said.

Some 7 million viewers watched that Outback Bowl, but that is a small sliver of those who have viewed The Hit through ESPN’s replay bonanza afterward. The Gamecocks called for a corner blitz on that play, and when Michigan shifted its protection, a tight end whiffed on his block of Clowney, who nearly grabbed the quarterback before the handoff. The running back, Vincent Smith, would wish that Clowney had.

Clowney’s teammate Devin Taylor turned and saw a helmet flying through the air. Lattimore thought a gun went off. Ace Sanders said the contact sounded like a car crash, as Clowney scooped up the football, which looked like an orange inside his hand.

The Hit changed everything, catapulting an already oversize level of attention into another stratosphere. It made Clowney bigger than he already was, bigger than Bigfoot. Every step, every Twitter message and every tackle now seem to qualify as news.

The State Assembly honored Clowney with a resolution (he wore a dress T-shirt, which made headlines). Fans stopped Clowney in the airport and replayed The Hit on their cellphones. Analysts debated whether it would still be legal under new contact rules.

So it went. Clowney, Clowney, Clowney. Hit, hit, hit. Hype, hype, hype. Family members worried about Clowney’s trusting nature, his inability to say no. Pundits speculated whether he could win the Heisman Trophy this season. Clowney tried to remain grounded. He told Carroll that no matter how much money he made, “I’m still going to buy fake earrings.”

Josenna Clowney laughed when Carroll relayed that story at the house on Carolina Avenue.

“You would never think he would grow this big,” she said. “I still don’t think like that, because he’s my baby. He’s always going to be my baby, my little Doo Doo.”

A visitor reminded Josenna that little Doo Doo is now 6-6. That he is scary. That he is feared.

“That’s right, honey,” she said, her voice syrupy, her eyes wide. “That boy seems to get bigger all the time.”

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