Andrew Dys

May 3, 2014

Thursday’s NFL Draft: The world’s eyes on Jadeveon Clowney - and Rock Hill

The former South Pointe High and University of South Carolina star is not only among the best but is poised to be selected as America’s best and the first pick in Thursday’s NFL draft.

The yard on Carolina Avenue in the south-central neighborhood where so many of Rock Hill’s black children grow up is plain dirt. There is no sidewalk. A few bricks mark the way to the door.

Some years when it was cold plastic covered the windows to keep the heat in and the cold out. The house is small and walking through the storm door into the living room everywall displays pictures, and plaques, and tributes that say the person who grew up there is the very best, the tops, No. 1 by all measures.

The name on all those tributes is two words that are, in America this week, may be the most famous of all. A name that on Thursday night a few minutes after 8 p.m. will be spoken on all news that night, and Friday, too.

The name on the plaques and footballs is Jadeveon Clowney.

Rock Hill’s Jadeveon Clowney.

The mother, Josenna Clowney, comes to the door of her home, in her 20th year of working all shifts at the Frito-Lay potato chip plant in Charlotte. She is asked if all her hard work, her dedication, her sacrifice, makes her and her family special.

“I think we are just normal,” Josenna Clowney says.

She is humble, and gracious – and wrong.

The Clowney family is not normal. She has raised, in that little house and at her father’s house three doors down, the very best at something. Not among the best, the best player, period, and likely to be drafted first in Thursday’s NFL draft.

“I’m not real comfortable talking about all this,” Josenna Clowney says. “Plus, I have work. I have been there for 20 years. I don’t miss.”

Even with her son, who is on the cusp of making millions, Josenna Clowney works the second shift in the factory that makes the chips. She had to find time to go with her family to Atlanta to buy clothes for the draft night live television special.

“This is really about my son, not me,” she said.

No, Josenna Clowney, the achievements of your son about to culminate in the expected top pick is also about you. A mother working the overnight shift, on her feet, so that her son would have new shoes and football cleats and most importantly, opportunities to dare to be the greatest. A son’s success is always about the mother who has done so much to get the son to the New York stage.

Down the street Jadeveon Clowney’s grandfather, John Clowney, celebrated his 86th birthday April 27. He worked for decades, starting as a custodian, at the old Celanese textile plant, one of the first blacks to break the color line there. His family surrounded him on his birthday, including his famous grandson. John Clowney always brings up his children, his dozens of grandchildren, the college successes in classrooms and more.

“I am so proud of Jadeveon, but I am so proud of all my family,” said John Clowney. “I always wanted them to do their best.”

And the best is what Jadeveon Clowney is.

He even has the best hit. The Hit.

In January 2013 Jadeveon Clowney knocked the helmet from a Michigan running back in a bowl game in what might be the most picture perfect violent tackle in football. It has been replayed millions of times and turned a football player into a national mania.

His career and his exploits, compounded in the past two years by social media, the Internet, and The Hit, have changed him from America’s top high school recruit from Rock Hill four years ago – his signing with the University South Carolina was covered live on national TV – to top college player, to a figure of mythic proportions whose life is picked apart daily. Two speeding tickets, one at more than 100 mph, were national news. A Rock Hill sandwich shop owner who put Clowney‘s name on a marquee with a pun about the speeding spawned hype all over the country.

Jadeveon Clowney, 6 feet, 6 inches tall, 275 pounds, the hair in dreadlocks and the smile incessant, faster and stronger and better for his size than maybe any player to ever play,is now bigger than sports. He is arguably the most famous sports name in America today. Maybe LeBron James is on the same field of notoriety.

But not Thursday.

“Before The Hit Jadeveon was known by football fans, sports fans, but after anywhere I went, and still, people ask me when they find out I am from Rock Hill – ‘Wait, you know Clowney?’ ” said Chip Comer, president of York County’s Gamecock Club. The club is boosters, the biggest fans of all, the USC football fans who had tears running down their face like your kid was just born overjoyed when Clowney chose USC for college.

“Jadeveon Clowney’s name is huge now. It is, well, everybody knows it,” Comer said. “And not just sports people. Thursday so many expect him to be first. I sure hope the name Jadeveon Clowney is called first.”

It is a name unlike any other for a football player unlike any other in 2014, or maybe ever.

When Rock Hill sent its 178th Combat Engineer Battalion Army National Guard soldiers to Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, the deployment bridged the football season. In the middle of the night, on the other side of the world, hundreds of soldiers crowded into a wooden room at 4 a.m Afghan time. These men watched Jadeveon Clowney play football and screamed as if they were from the same patch of earth as Jadeveon Clowney.

“The room would be filled with the diehards watching to see what Clowney would do next,” said Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin.

When York County’s judges travel the state to handle cases, they are in an elite group of just a few dozen men and women in a state of more than four million people. But Judge John C. Hayes III and Judge Lee Alford, both USC grads themselves from Rock Hill, are not always asked about the law. But they are always asked about Clowney. Even judges faced with life and death decisions follow football, and follow Jadeveon Clowney’s exploits.

“During football season and now with the draft looming we do have a lot of dialogue about our football team and its pluses and minuses,” Judge Hayes said. “Clowney, not surprisingly, has been one of the pluses, although not the only one. The excitement the Gamecocks felt when he signed has been realized and we hate to see him go, but certainly understand it is time for him to move to a bigger stage and start his career. Rock Hill has been a good feeder to college football, although USC does not get them all. Looking back to Buck George, Tommy Pilcher, Jimmy Pope, Dee Feaster, Rick Sanford and many others I think Clowney can be added to the long list of local football players who have done our city proud.”

Judge Alford echoed the pride that Rock Hill peoplehave in Clowney’s exploits and fame.

“I was very pleased that Jadeveon Clowney brought attention to York County and that he chose to stay in state when he selected a university to attend and play football,” Judge Alford said. “I have truly enjoyed watching him play football. I hope he is selected No. 1 in the pro draft and look forward to seeing him play in the NFL.”

Linda Gilmore knows what Thursday will be like. Her son Stephon, a friend of Clowney’s who also went to South Pointe and USC a couple of years earlier, was picked in the first round in 2012; the 10th pick. She and her husband and family were there on that big stage on national television and she has talked several times with Josenna Clowney about what to expect.

“That feeling truly is a great feeling for a parent – the pride is unbelievable,” Linda Gilmore said.

With Clowney likely the top pick overall, the event and spotlight will be even larger, she said.

“Rock Hill should be so proud of what Jadeveon has done, how hard he has worked, and what he means to this community,” Linda Gilmore said. “This week, the name Clowney, and Rock Hill – what people used to call little old Rock Hill – it is just huge. It is national.”

Rock Hill has had great successful players in the NFL, and still has plenty, but Clowney’s stature and fame at such a young age already is more pervasive than others. Hecould be the first-ever top pick from here.

His is the name that people ask Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols – a former football coach – about as he travels the state and country. When it comes to Rock Hill, even the mayor is told: ‘Rock Hill? That’s where Clowney is from!”

“The possibility of Jadeveon Clowney being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft is huge for Rock Hill,” Echols said. “It is a big deal. His success reflects well on our city, our county. We as a community should celebrate with him, and be proud of him.”

Thursday night, there will be a community party during the draft at Clowney’s alma mater, South Pointe High School. It will be a huge event and should be, said Sam Foster, an old football player who lives in Rock Hill.

Foster is not just another guy. Foster is a legendary black leader and leader of any color in York County, South Carolina, and the United States. He is a former teacher and school principal during integration and was later a state legislator. The exit on Interstate 77 that leads to South Pointe High is named for Sam Foster.

Sam Foster went to college six decades ago with $5 and a dream. Just like Jadeveon Clowney.

Foster will be the first to say that he is not nearly as well known as the name Jadeveon Clowney

“Everybody asks me about young Mr. Clowney,” Foster said.

Clowney’s success, Foster said, is the culmination of what parents such as Josenna Clowney have done for so long: sacrifice all so that their child may soar. Jadeveon Clowney’s father spent years in prison. That is a fact, but it will not define Jadeveon Clowney, who has defined himself by his achievement and potential supported by his mother and grandfather and others.

“Dedicated people, teachers, a mother and grandparents and support as Jadeveon Clowney has received, communities that support young people who dare to dream and achieve, bring greatness,” Foster said.

What Fostertells people who ask about Jadeveon Clowney is what he told sixth graders at Rock Hill’s segregated Sunset Park Elementary school 50 years ago.

“If you do your best, you work hard, you will be no less a man than any other man,” Foster told students at that school that included Clowney’s aunts and uncle and older cousins.

Carolina Avenue has no mansions or even big houses. Homes there have sold in recent years for less than $20,000. There are potholes and a few sagging porches but many homes are well-tended, too. There are roses and azaleas and across the street from the Clowney home, a sign knocked into a yard that states simply: “Jesus Saves.”

From this street have come college-educated tax preparers such as Lashanda Davis, USC grads such as Clowney’s first cousin Jalavaender Clowney, and so many more.

There is always more on Carolina Avenue, where Jadeveon Clowney grew up.

From this street came greatness. Greatness rubs off.

There was excitement this week on Carolina Avenue as people prepared for the NFL draft. Men walked and talked and jawed. Clowney’s success, his being on the cusp of being the No. 1 pick in America’s most popular sport, made everybody walk a little taller.

“We always called Jadeveon Doo-Doo, that’s his nickname, from the time he was a little child,” said Dale Hoyles who still lives two doors down. “Always a good kid, respectful. Nice. Great family.”

The success of Doo-Doo from Carolina Avenue is the success of everybody on Carolina Avenue.

“The whole world knows our Jadeveon Clowney from right here on this street,” Hoyles said. “Proud? Darn right we are proud. Rock Hill should be proud. The whole country should be proud.”

For some reason, some have questioned Jadeveon Clowney’s work ethic. Sure his season at USC last year was not as good as the year before. Clowney battled injuries. But if Clowney, considered the best prospect in years , does not destroy the opposition every play, then the jocks say he must surely not try as hard as others.

Tell Josenna Clowney, on her way out the door of her Carolina Avenue home to work in the potato chip factory, that she has not instilled a work ethic in her son.

Tell the Hoyles family and the Davis family and others on this street, where Jadeveon carried in groceries for the ladies, that Jadeveon Clowney does not try as hard as anybody else.

Tell Nicole Love, who lived across the street so long with her disabled daughter, Nyla. Nyla died last year at 11 years old after cerebral palsy. Jadeveon Clowney always had time for little Nyla.

Clowney’s success, and the attention Rock Hill has received, is “an American success story,” Sam Foster said. “If he is chosen No. 1 , at the top of what he does, he will be recognized for his exploits in his field. He will be recognized as being thought of as the very best. The ideal of achievement is universal. It is not black or white. It is an American ideal. And Jadeveon Clowney has shown that the ideal can happen right here, in Rock Hill.”

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