You won’t find this just anywhere.
But Rock Hill isn’t just anywhere when it comes to the pigskin. It has a reputation as Football City USA.
Saturday at Northwestern High School, former Trojan and South Carolina Gamecock Johnathan Joseph held his third annual football camp for kids ages 5 up to the high school level, and it was free of charge.
The theme of the day was local talent and there was plenty. Joseph brought along plenty of his friends to help coach, including former South Pointe Stallion and current Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore; Joseph’s Houston Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who played his college ball for the Clemson Tigers; one-time Rock Hill Bearcat, South Carolina Gamecock, and Buffalo Bill Ko Simpson; and former Bearcat Arkee Whitlock, who played at Southern Illinois and in the Canadian Football League, among others.
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That’s a lot of local talent, with four of those players calling Football City home and Hopkins also hailing from the state of South Carolina. All five of them either currently play or have played professional football. And they all want to see more young kids have the same chance to follow their football dreams as far as they can go.
“I just want the kids to have a chance to come and learn from a lot of the older guys,” Joseph said. “A lot of times they see us on TV but this way they can some see us in person. The community supports us so much we just want to come back and support the community any way we can.”
There are many camps of this nature, but it would be hard to find too many more with this many local stars who have made it to the top of their profession and take part in such a hands-on manner, all without charging an arm and a leg.
“A lot of times money is not the issue,” Joseph said. “The least we can do is come back. Every year I try to bring someone different so the kids can have a chance to meet someone from the NFL they probably never had a chance to meet before.”
All the campers received a Johnathan Joseph T-shirt which made calling somebody “No. 24” a problem since there were over a hundred. The youngsters were split into age groups and took turns doing drills at about six different stations, each manned by at least one or two players-turned-coaches. When the camp was over, every young man was provided with lunch to go.
“You remember these days and wanting to be a football player,” Whitlock said. “We grew up watching guys like Chris Hope and Gerald Dixon. We had a few role models but not as many guys back then. I tell these kids they’ve got it made. And all these kids think they can make it now.”
Professionals like Hopkins have the money now but it hasn’t always been that way.
“The camps we had, you had to pay a lot of money for and we couldn’t afford that,” Hopkins said. “That was a dream to go to one of those, but we didn’t have anything accessible for most of the kids.”
A lot of what these native Rock Hill kids learned just came from each other and playing the game.
“I don’t remember going to any camps,” Simpson said. “I just remember going to the backyard or the neighborhood and playing. These kids have all kinds of resources. And they know a lot of guys like Chris Hope make it from here, so why can’t they make it? I feel like it’s easier now.”
There are other cities with football talent and athletes that go on to college and pro careers, but it’s hard to pin down just exactly how a relatively small city like Rock Hill is able to produce so much talent and so many successful careers. It usually comes back to a passion for the game and a willingness to work at it to be good. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to see guys from your hometown come back that have actually made it.
“I was always happy when people like Ko Simpson and Ben Watson came back home,” Gilmore said. “It gave me something to look forward to as a little kid. People like Johnathan and Chris Hope making it and coming back and showing love; it’s a football town, I feel like, and everybody works hard from the coaches to the players.”
Something about Rock Hill is different and the former Bearcat Whitlock knows one reason.
“I’ve been in a lot of cities and kids in Rock Hill have a different type of hunger,” Whitlock said. “You see guys make it and feel like you can. Stephon is younger than us and he said ‘Why not me?’ All these kids deserve an opportunity.”
There is no one reason for Rock Hill’s success and no one person responsible.
“I think everyone has a helping hand in it,” Joseph said. “From the parents getting them out there at a young age to the coaches staying involved. And I think it carries over. And it has something to do with the talent also. There’s a lot of talent that you have to bring out. The kids are hungry and looking for a different way and a different path.”
The Texans and the Bills seem to collect former Tigers and Gamecocks. It makes for some trash talk but also some camaraderie as well, as they all share a Palmetto-state bond.
“Me and Sammy (former Tiger Watkins) go at it every day,” Gilmore said. “When we do one-on-ones that’s who I go against. We compete at a high level and make each other better.”
They are now working for the same side, but there is always room for some good-natured rivalry.
“It’s a brotherhood first and foremost, but you’ve got to always have a little trash talk to keep it competitive,” Joseph said. “But at the end of the day we support each other like brothers.”
The intra-city rivalry is still real, too.
“I’m breaking out over here at Northwestern,” Whitlock said, laughing. “It don’t even feel right. Only for the kids.”