Rick Sanford played college and pro football in front of many thousands of people at Williams-Brice Stadium and Foxboro Stadium, but his football life began as a barefooted child scampering around a dusty field behind the Rock Hill YMCA.
Sanford who later starred at Northwestern High School, the University of South Carolina, and for seven years in the NFL, was slotted into the offensive guard position at his first practice with the Sylvia Circle Spiders in 1963. Sanford wasn't feeling it and told his mother, Mary, afterward that he wasn't going back, that he didn't like football.
"She looked at me and she said, 'you'll be here tomorrow,'" Sanford said, laughing. "I always give my mom credit for saving my football career."
Sanford's youth football jersey will be retired June 15 at Sylvia Circle's football field, during the eighth annual Sylvia Circle Demons Football and Cheerleading Skills Camp. His fellow Gamecock and Rock Hill football legend, Stephon Gilmore, will have his youth football jersey retired the following day, Saturday, June 16.
At the next practice after Sanford's fledgling football career nearly ended, the team's coaches, Ralph Mauney and Harry Isom, put the kids through some running drills and after seeing Sanford's quickness, moved him to tailback.
"Life in the backfield was a lot more illustrious," Sanford said last week. "You actually got to hold the football."
Sanford and many of his teammates literally played football barefoot, almost unfathomable these days. But even as youth football has changed and the uniforms and equipment have improved, it's still fundamental to Rock Hill's success turning its kids into NFL players.
"That's where it all started. That's the great memory of it all," said Sanford. "It brings back such great memories. Who can say they played barefooted in a uniform?"
Sanford was the first Rock Hill product to have a lengthy NFL career, from 1979 to 1985, and in some ways put down a path for many from the town to follow to pro football, including Gilmore.
"It's such a cool thing," said Sanford, who was an All-American at South Carolina and the school's first NFL first round draft pick in 1979. "It's really such a distinct honor, especially in a town where you spin out these type players over and over again."
Sanford and Gilmore join seven others that had youth football jerseys retired by the YMCA. Six are former or current NFL players -- Jadeveon Clowney, Chris Hope, Benjamin Watson, Gerald Dixon, Johnathan Joseph and Jeff Burris -- and the seventh was an 8-year old former youth football player that tragically passed away in the Ramah juco bus crash, Darice Lamont Hicks Jr.
The camp, which is free, runs from Thursday, June 14 thru Saturday, June 16, culminating in a 7-on-7 tournament. Call 803-372-8929 for more information, or visit the Sylvia Circle Demons' Facebook page. Clowney's HIT Foundation and Rock Hill's YMCA sponsor the three-day event.
Demons' camp will double as Youth Shrine Bowl combine
The Demons' camp will also double as one of the year's final Youth Shrine Bowl combines.
The event is very similar to the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, the nation's oldest high school football all-star game played each December in, as of late, Spartanburg. Proceeds from that game go to help the Shriner's Hospital of Greenville, S.C., which treats child burn victims.
Perry Sutton, a longtime backbone of the Demons program, is now the South Carolina director for the Youth Shrine Bowl. He watched from the sidelines the first year of the game but one experience convinced him to take a bigger role.
"The thing that really got me was when we went to the hospital and I saw the incredible things the Shriners are doing at the hospital, how they're not charging people," Sutton said. "We can use football to help take care of that and I just jumped at the chance."
The Youth Shrine Bowl, in its third year, has separate games for sixth, seventh and eighth graders that will be played at the Matthews Sportsplex in late December, 2018.
During the Demons' camp on Thursday and Friday (6 to 8 p.m.), Youth Shrine Bowl scouts will peruse the talents on display. Kids will be measured, then participate in several combine drills, including the 40-yard dash. The teams will be selected in Charleston in late June.