Editor’s note: This story originally published on Feb. 11, 2013.
With the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft the Kansas City Chiefs do not take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The NFL has a rule, agreed to by the NFL Players Association and tested in court. It stipulates that a player must be at least three years removed from high school before he’s eligible for the draft.
Clowney is two years removed from Rock Hill’s South Pointe High. He turns 20 on Valentine’s Day.
The Chiefs might not select Clowney even if he were eligible. But he’d be a contender.
If he played basketball or baseball, if he specialized in golf or tennis, if he boxed or fought in a steel cage, he’d already be a pro.
I understand the league’s argument. The damage the NFL does to brains and bodies is horrendous. Doctors know more about concussions than they ever have and commissioner Roger Goodell has assessed penalties for blows to the head, or with the head, more than any commissioner has.
If grown men can’t remember their middle names 10 years after they leave the league, what do you think will happen to those 160-pound, teenaged tailbacks who thrive in college? The NFL plays hardball. As dominant as Alabama was last season, the Crimson Tide would lose by double figures to the NFL’s worst team.
But Clowney is 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds. If you believe in free enterprise, on what grounds do you tell a player physically ready to compete that, for his own good, he won’t be allowed to?
Clowney had a teammate, tailback Marcus Lattimore, who was as good at his job as Clowney is at his. In his second start as a freshman, Lattimore rushed for 182 yards.
As a sophomore, Lattimore shredded his left knee against Mississippi State and as a junior he shredded his right knee against Tennessee. He will not return to South Carolina for his senior season. Lattimore, 21, is going pro.
Before the injuries, he was a first-round talent and a joy to watch, a tough runner who always seemed to have the wind at his back. Because of the injuries, he will not be a first-round pick and he might not be drafted. (But if I’m an NFL general manager, I gamble on him.)
There are college defensive linemen who are more consistent than Clowney. But none of them can undo an offense with a virtuoso move, hit or tackle the way he can.
The most talked about play in college football last season was Clowney’s Outback Bowl hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith. No matter how many times you’ve seen the play, you react, usually out loud.
Clowney reached the backfield so quickly it was as if he was expecting the handoff. He popped Smith and Smith lost the ball and his helmet. The helmet rose in the air like a chip shot and landed at least 3 yards away.
Clowney alertly recovered the fumble.
He finished the game with only four tackles, but he made the tackle everybody remembered. Had Clowney been eligible for the draft, the sound he would have heard upon impact was cha-ching.
If you’re Clowney, what do you do? Give the school everything you have and try to upend the Crimson Tide?
Play not to get hurt?
Or sign with an agent, get assigned coaches and trainers and spend the season pumping up and preparing for the pros?
If Clowney doesn’t return to Columbia, South Carolina would be cheated.
At the moment, only Clowney is.