First there was the hit.
Then there was the wait.
Thursday night, the wait took a little longer than expected as the Houston Texans used almost all of their allotted 15 minutes to make Jadeveon Clowney their NFL pick and the top selection in the 2014 draft.
As the announcement was made from Radio City Music Hall in New York City, those who knew Clowney best – his former teachers, principal and fellow students at South Pointe High School and those that knew him since youth football – erupted into cheers and waved draft day towels.
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South Pointe, where Clowney began his career as a running back and ended as one of the top defensive high school football players in the nation, was the place to officially celebrate Clowney’s success. The city held a draft party in the school’s cafeteria Thursday evening and more than 200 people gathered to watch, many wearing Clowney jerseys.
The talk was about Clowney, a one-of-a-kind football player.
But football talk was often followed by conversations about Clowney the man, a happy-go-lucky person, one who is well-grounded and humble.
“The Lord touched this guy,” said Gerald Dixon, the 1988 Rock Hill High graduate who went on to play nine years in the NFL.
Dixon, Clowney’s former defensive coordinator Strait Herron as a Stallion, and South Pointe Principal Al Leonard all said Thursday’s No. 1 pick was an event they saw coming years ago.
Clowney’s talent was overwhelming even at the youth football league level, they said. As a running back, he looked for people to hit and as a defender, “he hit one of my running backs so hard once it would have been a penalty in the NFL,” Dixon said.
“He’s the best defensive player I’ve seen in 40 years of football,” said former Northwestern coach Jimmy “Moose” Wallace.
Even with the immense talent, “Clowney wasn’t a rock star at school,” said Leonard.
Because of people such as Clowney, success has become an expectation at South Pointe, Leonard said. “This will put school spirit through the roof.”
Herron, South Pointe’s current head football coach, said Clowney has few equals on the football field.
“He’s a freak,” Herron said with a smile. “He so laid-back, so ferocious ... The chances are slim to none that there will ever been another player like him here.”
Joshua Brice, a senior running back at South Pointe, was a freshman on the team during Clowney’s senior year. “He was always humble and he took it easy on us freshmen.”
Jeffrey Crockettt, a freshman defensive end at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, was one of several people at Thursday’s event wearing a No. 7 jersey autographed by Clowney. He met Clowney at the Platinum barbershop on Saluda Street. Clowney not only autographed the jersey, Crockett said, but offered this advice: “Stay positive, stay in school and if I wanted the big stage, it would come.”
South Pointe was 38-6 with Clowney in the lineup, winning the 2008 state title with a 35-10 win over Northwestern.
On his 18th birthday, Clowney held a nationally televised news conference from South Pointe to announce he would play for the University of South Carolina. He helped the Gamecocks to three straight bowl games, competing for such prestigious honors as the Heisman Trophy, Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award. He was a two-time, first-team All American.
And then there’s the hit.
In the waning moments of the 2013 Outback Bowl, Clowney separated Michigan running back Vincent Smith from his helmet and the football – and recovered the fumble. It has become one of the most replayed college football plays and earned Clowney an ESPY for Play of the Year.
“The hit, I’m glad it wasn’t me,” Brice said.
Herron recalled the Northwestern-South Pointe game that was televised by ESPN from District Three Stadium in 2010. On a crucial fourth down play, Clowney slid inside on the defensive line, shot the gap and stopped the running back.
“We got the ball,” Herron said.
The play, though, barely touches the potential Clowney will show on the biggest football stage, Dixon said.
Rock Hill, Dixon said, has been a steppingstone to the pros. With Clowney’s selection, 14 York County athletes have been drafted by NFL teams and several others made the pros via free agency.
The bar moved higher when those players were named to the Pro Bowl and garnered other honors.
How far could Clowney go?
Dixon said all the way, to becoming the league’s MVP and induction into pro football’s Hall of Fame.
“He hasn’t reached his potential yet and his potential is past the moon,” Dixon said.