Jadeveon Clowney on Thursday will almost certainly become the third Rock Hill NFL first-round draft pick in as many years, following in the footsteps of Stephon Gilmore and Cordarrelle Patterson. How many other cities of around 66,000 people can say that?
In the previous two first rounds of the NFL Draft, only one city has had more selections than Rock Hill's two: Houston, with three. Detroit and St. Louis also had two. Houston's borders encompass a population of nearly 2.1 million people, while Detroit (roughly 713,000) and St. Louis (roughly 320,000) are also very large metropolitan areas.
Rock Hill, which would nestle nicely in the suburbs of any of those major cities, didn’t always have so much success guiding its talent to the NFL.
Rick Sanford became the city’s initial first round draft choice in 1979, when he went 25th overall to the New England Patriots, but there wasn’t another until Northwestern Trojan Jeff Burris was picked 27th by the Buffalo Bills in 1994. Fifteen years elapsed between those two news-makers, and another 10 passed before Benjamin Watson, a Rock Hill resident originally from Norfolk, Va., was snapped up by New England with the final selection of the first round in 2004.
But since Derek Ross and Chris Hope were picked during the third round in 2002, Johnathan Joseph, Ko Simpson, Phillip Adams, Jonathan Meeks and Devonte Holloman (South Pointe graduate, Charlotte native), and now Gilmore, Patterson and Clowney, have also joined the NFL ranks for varying lengths of time. Eleven players in 12 years is pretty good for a smallish city like Rock Hill, especially given the odds. The NFL Players Association states that only 0.2 percent of the 100,000 high school senior football players in a given year ever reach the NFL.
“I think it’s incredible,” said former longtime Northwestern High School football coach Jimmy “Moose” Wallace. “At the end of the day, we’ve been blessed to have some tremendously talented kids.”
“Vertical teaching progression”
What caused this sudden bump in NFL talent?
The roots lie partly in a 1984 decision by the Rock Hill school district to take its football investment to a higher level. Rock Hill principal Eric Lessmeister attracted coach Jim Ringer from Conway with the promise of an increased number of assistant coaches and improved weight room facilities, while the school board and superintendent Joe Gentry earmarked funds to purchase and upgrade the city’s Municipal Stadium, later renamed District Three Stadium.
Ringer had initially turned down the Rock Hill job because he thought the Bearcats, and Northwestern, wouldn’t be able to compete with the likes of Spartanburg or Gaffney. But the school district’s efforts began to bear fruit when, in 1989, Wallace’s Northwestern Trojans won the city’s first state title since 1953.
Ringer and Wallace’s impact didn’t end there. They were able to put aside their cross-town rivalry to better football for everyone in the city.
The pair decided to gather all of the city’s youth football coaches and hold a clinic around 1990. Wallace called it a “vertical teaching progression” from the lowest level up, starting with the biggest basics, blocking and tackling. They showed the coaches from the Pee Wee, Small Fry and Gray-Y leagues how to teach their kids football fundamentals, which in turn gave the high school coaches a more polished player when he became a ninth grader.
For years the coaching clinics were an annual event, and they weren’t just limited to Rock Hill; the city’s youth coaches went all over the state and the Southeast. The level of instruction in Rock Hill’s youth system far surpassed what most youth football teams nationwide received from less knowledgeable parent coaches. And Ringer and Wallace didn’t have to waste instruction time with their ninth graders showing them how to strap on their pads.
“Just putting your pads on is a big deal,” said 27-year Gray-Y football coach Perry Sutton, chuckling. “We spend a whole day on that. I’ve seen some kids that didn’t play youth ball and they get to high school and you hand them the pads, and they look at you like ‘what is this for?’”
Sutton, who coached Clowney as a spindly youngster, maintains that there was always talent in Rock Hill, but college coaches just didn’t come through. Once Ringer and Wallace started reaping the benefits of their improved facilities, coaching staffs and a unified youth football league, the Bearcats and Trojans won ball games and college scouts started making their way to town. Rock Hill’s Gerald Dixon (South Carolina), Northwestern’s Cookie Massey (North Carolina), and brothers Pat (Arkansas) and Jeff Burris (Notre Dame) were four of the first big names to head off to major colleges. Northwestern’s Dee Feaster made his way to Florida State, to later be followed by Rock Hill standout Chris Hope; Northwestern’s Derek Ross turned up at Ohio State; and Rock Hill natives began filling out the rosters of South Carolina and Clemson on a regular basis.
Easier path to tread
Like a Cherry Road repaving job, the path from Rock Hill to the NFL smoothed during the early 2000’s. The city’s youth coaches continued to learn, while still loving and raising the players as their own. As Pat Burris said, the coaches do it for “the love of the sport, not the recognition.” Many of them don’t even have kids playing in the league.
Ron Hutchison, who Sutton calls “The Guru,” annually covered every expense for his Ebenezer-Northside Raiders, which happened to include a boy named Johnathan Joseph. With the help of Hutchison, who bought his players meals, covered their registration fees and picked up players in his van, Joseph would go on to a successful career at Northwestern, the University of South Carolina, and then become another of the city’s NFL first rounders when Cincinnati took him 24th in 2006.
“I know what it meant as a kid to have someone like (Hutchison) around,” said Joseph. “He gave up a lot of his free time and hard earned money just to see us succeed and have fun in life. Any time I see Ron I always thank him for that because all those guys back then, they instilled the right principles in us as football players and individuals, for a lifetime.”
Success beget success. Where previous generations of talented high school football players from Rock Hill had squandered football potential because of academic issues, homesickness or other problems, the importance of getting qualifying grades finally started to sink in during the 2000’s. NFL role models like Chris Hope, who graduated with an A/B average from Florida State, and mentors like Pat Burris were part of the reason that message finally started to take.
Burris was a star defensive back coming out of Northwestern in 1989, but didn’t qualify academically at Clemson, where he had signed. Instead, he shipped out to Arizona Western Junior College - “it was 109 (degrees) the first time I got off the plane” - before transferring to Arkansas.
Burris played there for two years, but was essentially dismissed from the team after his second season for a perceived bad attitude. Burris still disputes that characterization, but realizes that the fact his attitude was questioned at all was a problem. A coach at South Pointe since the school opened in 2006, Burris alone can provide two good lessons to Rock Hill’s youth athletes; handle your grades and you won’t have to go to far-flung junior college outposts in Arizona or Kansas, and always present an attitude that can never be questioned.
In the flesh
Another factor that kept the pipeline out of Rock Hill busy was Sutton, Hutchison and the other members of an army of youth football coaches made sure to bring their NFL alums back to the neighborhood. Rock Hill’s NFL stars weren’t a fleeting mirage or “Mr. Sasquatch,” as Hope said; two or three of them came back every summer.
The Gray-Y coaches were everyday role models for the kids; but seeing Hope, Joseph, and the others return gave the youth of Rock Hill a living, breathing example that the highest level of success was in fact attainable.
Hope said “the National Football League felt so far-fetched” for previous generations. “Now, with guys coming through consistently, it’s like the next thing to do,” a natural progression after high school and college football.
All of these factors contributed to the sudden outpouring of NFL talent. Increased investment in football, better youth coaching, and positive role modeling helped the city begin to wring the most out of its athletes. Because if there is one thing that Rock Hill has never lacked, it’s “ genetics,” said Wallace, accentuating the word. “I think it’s the gene pool. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re strong and they’re quick and they’re dedicated and committed.”
There is reason to believe the NFL pipeline that put Rock Hill on America’s football map isn’t just a statistical outlier or a golden generation that will soon end. Sutton laughs any time scouts or coaches always tell him there will never be another Clowney.
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I got some guys playing with me that are coming. When Jadeveon played with me, he was decent. His last year he was one of the best, but I’ve got some guys that if they get the size, they’re gonna be better than him. The kids will tell you they’re gonna be better than Jadeveon!”
When Clowney’s name is called Thursday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, it will be yet another feather in Rock Hill’s ever-growing draft cap. The Sylvia Circle Demon that morphed into a 6-foot-6, 265-pound archetype-defier will hug his mom, other family members and probably high school coach Bobby Carroll, shake agent Bus Cook’s hand, then stride toward Goodell, standing at the Radio City Music Hall podium beneath blindingly bright lighting.
Millions of national viewers will Google “Rock Hill” on their phones and computers. A gathered crowd at a South Pointe viewing party will go nuts. Perry Sutton will probably flash a grin and high-five someone. And in a living room somewhere in Rock Hill, a small child will stare bright-eyed at the television, his head already filling with ideas.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T