Sylvia Circle Demons retire Chris Hope’s jersey

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJune 21, 2014 

Every time a skinny little kid made an astonishing interception amidst a sea of arms, or another one rocketed away from the chasing pack Saturday during the Sylvia Circle Demons’ third annual Skills Camp 7-on-7 tournament, you had to wonder to yourself, was that the next Chris Hope?

Hope, the former Rock Hill Bearcat and later NFL Super Bowl champion, was honored Saturday during the camp’s third and final day. His Sylvia Circle Demons jersey, like the one he would have worn roughly 25 years ago, will be kept at the Upper Palmetto YMCA. Longtime Demons coach Perry Sutton plans for Hope’s jersey to be the first of many, from all of the city’s youth football teams, that will be retired to help celebrate Rock Hill’s football legacy.

“They call us Football City USA, but there is not one place that recognizes all of the guys that are in the NFL,” said Sutton. “Each school individually recognizes them but there is not one central location. What we’re doing now is we’re setting up a central location. We want to get everybody involved.”

To get it started, Hope was the obvious first candidate. Incredibly, Hope played Gray-Y football (11 and 12-year-olds) as a seven-year-old, such was his ability. Hope’s father Randy remembers his son running over seven-year-old opponents, and leaving more than a few tearful and shaken. When the decision was made to move Chris up to play with his older brother Rodney, the favor was suddenly returned to Chris, who would get knocked over like a fallen leaf. Randy taught his youngest son to duck his shoulder and take a hit and in the very next game, he did just that, bracing himself with an arm to the ground and racing away for a 60-yard touchdown.

“He never looked back after that,” said Randy, giggling as he remembered the story on Saturday.

Randy Hope, like many parents, was a busy man with work. He couldn’t coach, but he did round up all of the team before every practice, the little Demons piled up in the back of his 1981 GMC Sierra pick-up truck. Randy Hope, and many other parents, trusted youth football coaches like Sutton, Pat Kennedy and Buck Schwing to do the coaching. All the parents asked for was respect from their children, and full reports from the coaches any time the kids offered anything otherwise.

Respect has always been a cornerstone of the Sylvia Circle program, as it has been with many of the other Rock Hill youth teams. Hope remembered one practice where Schwing, who has a limp in his gait from an injury suffered during military service, getting overly excited and jumping up, only to land on a tire embedded in the field behind him and flopping backward. The practice fell dead silent. The kids respected their coach too much to laugh. But Hope remembers that a five-minute walk home that day took about an hour because he and his teammates kept falling out with laughter at their coach’s mishap.

Respect is still readily evident from Hope, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who shook more hands than a congressman on Saturday.

“That’s why everybody’s coming out here,” said Sutton, “because they watched him grow up and he’s still respectful to them.”

Schwing, who coached peewee football for 25 years, recalled having a sophisticated offensive plan with Hope as his quarterback. Schwing would send in the play-call, but told Hope, “if he ever seen any daylight, to get in it, because he could fly.”

Hope started as a 13-year-old freshman for Jim Ringer at Rock Hill High School, the platform for an award-littered prep career. He was a Parade All-American as a senior, before opting for Florida State over a slew of suitors.

Hope would have been a role model regardless of occupation. Hope never missed a day of school from elementary through high school and his brother Rodney recalled Chris never getting less than A’s on his report card. That trend continued at Florida State where Hope graduated with a communications degree and a 3.87 grade point average.

“Great student,” said Schwing. “Never had a moment’s trouble out of him.”

After four sterling years in Tallahassee, including three years as a starter and two appearances in the national championship, Hope was a third round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. Two years later, Hope was the team’s starting free safety, and in 2006 was a key defensive cog as Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl. He went on to play for the Tennessee Titans and the Atlanta Falcons, but hasn’t suited up for anyone the last two seasons.

Hope hasn’t officially filled out the paperwork to retire from the NFL, but he basically is done playing football after a 27-year career that started at Sylvia Circle Elementary School.

“I don’t think I’m going back,” said Hope, who lives in Nashville with his family. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to retire. I gave it all I had while I played. Football has been great to me; it’s allowed me to travel the world and do things I never could imagine, and it’s allowed me to always have an impact on people I come into contact with, young and old. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

That impact continued to be felt Saturday at Sylvia Circle. Shaded from the sun, Randy Hope took in the scene: grill smoke wafting across the field, little kids scurrying everywhere with footballs, and a field once littered with rocks and that dang tire, now green and flat as a fritter. He looked on as his son took pictures with admirers, at home in the setting where his football career launched.

“It’s just amazing and a blessing to see where it led my son and some other ones that were fortunate,” Randy Hope said in his deep grumble of a voice.

Never one to thump his own chest, Hope told Sutton he didn’t want all the attention of having his jersey retired. Sutton told him flatly, “I’m not doing this for you; I’m doing this for the kids of Rock Hill. Remember how you would’ve felt when you were out here at 11 and 12 years old and I would’ve brought an NFL player out here. We’re using you to give these kids some pleasure.”

Hope provided plenty of delight for his youth football coaches. Schwing remembers telling Randy Hope after Chris left his team that he’d “had Rodney Hope and Chris Hope. Now he had no Hope.”

Saturday, Chris Hope, the former Demon, Seminole and Super Bowl champ, his face a commingling of sweat and tears, asked the 300 kids sitting before him, “who will be the next Hope?”

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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