Sports

Meet Daddy Potts, the gridiron ghost who started a South Carolina pipeline to the NFL

They called him Daddy.

From a family farm on the far east, disputed border of Fort Mill grew a man of modern build in a bygone day. Daddy trailblazed. Daddy danced. Daddy stood like a brick wall when needed, and burst through other men looking to do the same.

Robert Crockett “Daddy” Potts also twisted the valve on a pipeline that hasn’t dried up since. The rush of NFL talent pouring from a corner stretch of South Carolina into pro football stadiums across the country. The love affair with a rugged game that shapes communities from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.

Older than a leather helmet, Daddy Potts once stood with a square jaw and a straight back. Colorless photos show him towering over teammates.

Yet time largely lost hold of him.

His hometown museum sits mostly silent. League archives offer little.

Fortunate for Daddy, a Columbia civil engineer won’t forget.

‘He was big’

Brian Bates will always make time to talk about Daddy Potts. Bates idolized the man. He wore Daddy’s number playing high school ball. Bates even looks like Potts, lost his hair the same way.

Bates is Potts’ grandson.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t grow as early as he did,” Bates said. “Now I’m built like a tackle.”

Bates played a skinny free safety through high school. Bates’ file on his grandfather, born in 1898, is thick with photos, news clippings, yearbooks. Asked about the name Daddy, Bates points to his granddad’s pictures.

“You won’t have to ask,” Bates said. “He was big.”

Robert Crockett “Daddy” Potts is the first NFL player from South Carolina. He is a native of Fort Mill, and the first Clemson Tiger to go pro.

One stands out from Daddy’s Fort Mill days, even before growing into his 6-foot-1, 235-pound pro frame.

“He’s so much bigger than everybody else in that picture,” Bates said. “Then at the bottom, it points out he’s not wearing pads.”

Bates also recalls the man who shared his love for downing tall glasses of milk by the gallon. Bates tells of a master bridge and poker player, a more than capable golfer. A man who went to Clemson on academic rather than an athletic scholarship. A man who earned an engineering degree and all but the diploma on a law one.

“He loved kids,” Bates said. “Everybody just loved being around him. He walked into a room and he owned the room.”

Daddy Potts died when Bates was in high school. With NFL and other archive sites listing little more than a name and the lone year he played, Bates shares tales of world war and wrestling, barnstormers and business.

“Only a grandson would care this much,” Bates said.

With the National Football League celebrating its 100th season this fall, Bates savors the idea his grandfather kicked off something important — a steady flow of pro football talent succeeding him.

“He’ll live forever,” Bates said. “He was an interesting guy.”

From Fort Mill to the NFL, ‘Daddy’ Potts was the first to go pro.

The football family tree

With Daddy sitting head of the table, they followed. First came York-born fullback Johnny Mackorell in 1935. Chester County added Banks McFadden, Zip Hanna and Bob Gage in the 40s. In all Pro Football Reference lists 42 men born or graduated from some place in York, Lancaster or Chester counties. Several more are likely to join the fraternity this fall.

Since Potts, not a decade passed without at least one NFL player from the area. The list spans eras. Eight active players may not recognize the blocking back position — forerunner to modern fullback — York’s Paul Moore played in 1940. It spans rivalries. Great Falls running back McFadden, a multi-sport star often regarded as the best all-around athlete Clemson ever produced, joins South Pointe and South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney who went No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL draft.

The list spans tenure. Eight players including Daddy Potts logged just one season each. New England Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, a Northwestern High grad, starts his 15th season this fall.

The list is light on linemen. It’s heavy on defense. It’s ripe with oddity, like how all four running backs come from Chester or all four wide receivers joined the league since 2013. The area put 14 defensive backs in the league, more than twice any other position.

Tom Luginbill is an analyst and national recruiting director for ESPN. He sees up to a dozen national level football recruits a year from South Carolina. The past decade, this tri-county area ranks among the top places to find them.

“It’s been interesting,” Luginbill said. “Where you’ve really seen a climb or an uptick there is with the 2009 or 2010 class. You see a lot of talent coming out of South Pointe and York and Northwestern and all those places. You get the likes of Clowney and Stephon Gilmore and all those guys.”

ESPN ranked South Pointe teammates Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman in the top 20 national recruits for 2009. In 2011, Clowney ranked No. 1. All three made the NFL.

“There were some programs that have established themselves as being premier programs on the national level,” Luginbill said.

ESPN broadcast high school games for several of those future NFL players. The network streamed or televised Northwestern against Byrnes in 2013 and 2014, along with Northwestern against South Pointe in 2010. One player featured for a national audience in those games could add to the pro ball legacy Daddy Potts began all those years ago.

When second-year Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and Northwestern alumnus Mason Rudolph takes his first game snap, it will leave only one position on the field — kicker — someone from around here hasn’t played.

It may not be long. Clemson sophomore kicker B.T. Potter arrived on campus last fall with top five national rankings from several major scouting groups. He’s a South Pointe grad.

Lost to history

Stump Mary Sue Wolfe on Fort Mill history, and it’s an accomplishment.

Born in 1927, Wolfe offers first-hand account of the schools and mill and town life that aren’t around anymore. She volunteers with Fort Mill History Museum.

“I’ve never heard of him,” Wolfe said, perusing old photos and spotty schoolhouse timelines. “I do know a lot of history, but not enough.”

Wolfe smiles. It isn’t often someone asks about local happenings before her time. She rightly infers Daddy Potts must be from the Indian Land area. Wolfe reels off generations of Potts who lived there. She returns to the timeline.

Many details from a century ago aren’t easy to find, if they exist at all. It’s clear Potts didn’t go to Fort Mill High School as it’s now known. That school, three locations ago, came in 1930. Fort Mill schools go back to a field schoolhouse in 1808. The first public school arrived in 1854. More than a dozen sites since range public to private, segregated to modern.

Best she can tell, Wolfe points to the old Central School built in 1910. She called it grammar school when she went there in 1933. It was later and better known as the Carothers school.

“He had to, if he lived in Fort Mill,” Wolfe said.

A museum newspaper clipping shows the first graduating class in 1911 had five students. Another clipping Bates has shows a 1915 football team. Players wore nose guard masks, before helmets. The only backups are starters standing second row — the photo shows 11 players, one coach, one manager/treasurer.

The article details the ballfield near Springs Street, how the team rode a train for long trips like Winnsboro but took wagon and buggy for shorter rides to Rock Hill, Clover and York. The team left early morning and got home close to midnight for afternoon games. A few years after it was outlawed letting school principals play, teams routinely brought in ringers. The best Fort Mill found, the article states, were the Johnson boys from Pineville, N.C.

The 1915 team photo shows Potts as a senior. Later write-ups note his freshman team in 1912 was Fort Mill’s first. That team lost its opener 72-0 to Winnsboro. Nobody on the Fort Mill team knew how to play. Few even saw a game before. Play improved, and Fort Mill won a rematch later that season.

That senior team photo is a snapshot into town history beyond football. Sitting first row is Tom Hall. Killed while advancing on a machine gun post on a French battlefield in 1918, Hall earned the Medal of Honor for his service in World War I. Standing in the team photo is manager and treasurer A.O. Jones, Jr. He became the town’s first public high school principal in 1930, and later superintendent.

Both men have roads in town named in their honor.

“All the old folks are dying out,” Wolfe said. “There’s so much history here that people don’t know about. We’re the only source for a lot of this. A lot of Fort Mill people don’t even know.”

Nothing on display in the history museum mentions Potts by name — at least for his football career. A slender hallway in the former home connects exhibits on war heroes and cotton mills, Main Street shops and school sites. There, new displays list the names of every known Fort Mill participant from every war this country fought to date. A dozen of the 191 names on the WWI display carry asterisks marking men killed in battle.

None of the four Potts listed there do, including the last — Robert Crockett Potts.

A Tiger original

In August 2016, Clemson launched the first of two national championship seasons in three years. That same month, Sam Blackman and Tim Bourret published “If These Walls Could Talk: Clemson Tigers: Stories from the Clemson Tigers Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box.”

Part of the book focuses on Potts, the first Clemson player to go to the NFL.

“It was more a book of stories about different personalities,” said Bourret, who spent four decades in Clemson sports information. “They were stories either we’d heard from people or that had been documented.”

Information on Potts meant relying on “Taps,” the Clemson yearbook dating back to 1908 when the now football powerhouse was a military school. Copies show a checkerboard collegiate career. Freshman didn’t play, and many juniors including Potts were off training for war. Playing as a sophomore and senior, Potts twice made All-State and in 1919 earned All-Southern status.

He’d have made the all-nickname team, too, were there such a thing. Potts played with fellow Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame enshrinees Bertie “Stumpy” Banks, Frank “Boo” Armstrong and James “Susie” Owens. His 1919 All-Southern Team had Auburn and Georgia Tech standouts “Fatty” Warren, “Dummy” Lebey and “Ham” Dowling — just among fellow guards.

“Half of them had nicknames and they would list them that way on the program for the games,” Bates said. “There’s Doc, Tex, Two-Bits.”

In his four years at Clemson, Potts helped the team to a 20-12-2 record. It’s only losing season was his freshman campaign, when he couldn’t play. The Tigers won or shared three state championships. They went undefeated against South Carolina.

Old Taps editions tell of an early game, Potts’ arrival coinciding with that of coach Edward “Jiggs” Donahue at a school desperate to compete with former coach and Georgia Tech Golden Tornadoes head man John Heisman. The influenza epidemic cost Donahue three weeks of the 1918 season. There were the remarkable forward passes Potts caught from his starting left tackle position against Auburn in 1917.

A shocking tie against Furman his senior year cost Potts and the Tigers a third outright state title. It also highlighted a changing game.

“In the last round Furman scored again by the forward pass method, but the bird who caught the pass stepped outside of the line and the score was nix,” reads the game-by-game account common to Clemson yearbooks then. “Furman was trained by the air method and nearly ran the Tigers wild with those fool passes.”

In that senior yearbook, historian H.C. Walker gives account of the ’20 class from its being thinned to the limit by World War I and training camp service across the country, to its return.

“Just before Christmas, the Kaiser quit, and the soldier-students and the college men in the camps were returned to their homes,” Walker wrote. “After the holidays, the old class was reorganized, and the junior year was successfully completed in spite of the interruption.”

Potts served in E Company, 2nd Batallion at Clemson. He was secretary and treasurer of his sophomore class. Potts was part of a dancing club and literary society. He once appeared in a baseball write-up. It’s also at Clemson where the first “Daddy” reference appears. The ‘20 edition of Taps calls it a well-earned term of endearment given for his strength and leadership.

“He is tactful, enthusiastic, impulsive and adventurous,” the yearbook reads, “and out of those traits of character has grown his love for association with members of the other sex. He is a lover of sports, especially of sleeping and dancing. The lady visitors say he is very proficient in the latter art.”

There was no time for sleeping on the football field. His senior year saw 6-2-2 Clemson outscore opponents 152-55. The Tigers shut out Tennessee, Citadel, Erskine and Davidson. Georgia Tech and Auburn returned the favor. Clemson beat Presbyterian College and tied Furman. Neither team scored when Clemson played Georgia.

The Tigers beat the Gamecocks, 19-6.

Potts would suffer from unfortunate timing that the man who wrote about him understands. Potts died in August 1981. That fall the Tigers won their first national championship. Bourret’s book came out after a 14-1 season and title game appearance — right before Clemson twice won it all.

“We figured, well, things can’t get much better than this,” Bourret said, now laughing at the thought. “Let’s do it now. Since the book came out we won two national championships.”

A Real Barnstormer

Daddy Potts didn’t move to Florida for football. He did leave a law degree because of it. After Clemson, he went to Washington and Lee. Eligibility rules not what they are now, Potts played football and wrestled heavyweight. He left with a semester to go. Why? Football season ended.

Potts took a job with the highway department in Florida. Back then pro players added income by barnstorming. They toured Florida picking up games to prep for the upcoming season, similar to how baseball teams hold spring training. The same two teams back then might go by different names in different towns.

“They would find some local guys to kind of flesh out the teams,” Bates said.

Which is how Daddy Potts began his gallop with so many ghosts of the game. He played with or against Jim Thorpe, Red Grange and Curly Lambeau. He played against the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, but also the Akron Indians, Dayton Triangles and Duluth Eskimos.

It started when a barnstorming team Thorpe brought through Florida picked up Potts. Five players on that squad played falls with the Frankford Yellow Jackets, a precursor to the Philadelphia Eagles. They asked Daddy to join.

In one constant the past century of football, stats for linemen aren’t an easy find. Daddy played tackle.

“Back then that was both ways,” Bates said.

There’s reference to an interception Daddy nabbed against the Giants. He returned it for what would’ve been his only career touchdown. The Giants tackled him at the 2-yard-line.

Where record of individual achievement fades, team accomplishment shines. Those Yellow Jackets went 14-1-2. Their only loss, a 7-6 Halloween eve home defeat against the Providence Steam Roller. Frankford avenged the following day — the day Harry Houdini died — with a 6-3 win in Providence.

“They played Saturdays and Sundays,” Bates said. “They played a ton of games.”

The NFL started play in 1920 and didn’t hold a championship game its first 13 years. The team with the best regular season record won the title. In that span, the Yellow Jackets won two more games than any other team. Daddy’s squad would hold the league record for regular-season wins until the 1984 San Francisco 49ers went 15-1.

The Yellow Jackets outscored opponents 236-49 in 1926. Winning the championship earned Daddy a silver pocket watch. He started nine games and played in all but one of them. Potts was 28, with only player-coach Guy “Champ” Chamberlin older at 29.

In height and weight, Potts ranked among the biggest players on the team.

“He was built more like somebody would be built today,” Bates said. “Had hands like a bear.”

Potts was just a tick smaller than current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Potts was 100 or more pounds lighter than some modern tackles. The roster measurements offer another detail into an evolved game. Last season began with Sebastian Janikowski on an NFL opening day roster at 6-foot-1, 260 pounds — as a kicker.

The 1926 Yellow Jackets don’t have kicker listed.

In Daddy’s footsteps

Panthers owner David Tepper isn’t moving his team’s practice site to York County for a nickname. But he’s aware of the nickname. Former Herald sports editor Barry Byers popularized Rock Hill as “Football City, USA” more than a decade ago. This summer Tepper joined state and city officials at a downtown pep rally celebrating an intended facilities move from Charlotte.

“They’re going to know Rock Hill for more than Football City, USA,” Tepper told a crowd of thousands.

Area business experts say hotels, medical facilities and more coming with the Panthers will create prosperity yet unseen here. A century after this area sent a farm-grown road engineer to the NFL, the NFL sends a whole team back.

The connection this area has with NFL football and its players goes beyond money. When the mills closed, communities went in search of a new social fabric. Rock Hill has sports. Fort Mill and Clover have strong schools. Plenty of places boast small-town values.

Football brings them all together.

Luginbill saw it broadcasting those high school games.

“We’ve been in that area quite a few times,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s great about doing those games. When the storefronts are painted up and the marquees are excited, welcoming ESPN into town. There’s no question that the community passion and the interest gets ramped up.”

Daddy Potts wouldn’t recognize streaming high school broadcasts or major recruiting services. A young Daddy Potts barely recognized the football itself. Unlike his pro team, that Fort Mill squad hadn’t even become Yellow Jackets yet. They were local kids trying out a new sport.

“They started it when he was there,” Bates said. “Nobody knew how to play, really.”

Some injury kept Potts from playing past a year in the NFL. He lined up for teams outside the league. He’d go back to engineering. He married at 40. The couple had a daughter, Sarah. After World War II he moved his family to Loris, where he’s buried. Daddy ran Potts Jewelry Store for years, surveying on the side.

Potts and his wife, Blanche, were members of the Baptist church in Loris. He went by Bob. She volunteered with the elementary school PTA, Girl Scouts and garden club. Details of a later life that hardly reflect a gridiron star older than his alma maters and fight songs, pioneering and proud.

Maybe it would’ve happened without him. Maybe the train cars of top talent would still come. Maybe the game’s grip would’ve taken hold without the Indian Land boy who blocked and tackled his way into history.

For many, new to the story and old, the world will never know.

“Fort Mill wouldn’t be Fort Mill if it weren’t for way back,” Wolfe said, “when it started.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we write this story?

Researching a separate story idea, we learned the first player from South Carolina to play in the NFL is someone from our York, Lancaster and Chester counties coverage area listed as Daddy Potts. Curiosity got the better of us. We had to know more about him.

How we did this story

Player data came from Pro Football Reference and NFL sites. Some league information also came from the Pro Football Hall of Fame site. Once we had the name Daddy Potts, we used old obituaries and online searches to track down a living relative in Columbia. We also interviewed experts and authors in college football and the NFL. We also used information from the Fort Mill History Museum and Clemson archives.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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