In the summer of 2009, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia organized informal 7-on-7 passing workouts at the practice fields in Columbia.
Garcia was interested to check out a pair of highly rated recruits who had stayed home to play for the Gamecocks – cornerback Stephon Gilmore from Rock Hill and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from St. Matthews.
Garcia took one glance at the chiseled Gilmore at that first passing session and was certain his new teammate would be a big-time SEC player.
“I knew Stephon (would be a star) right off the bat just with his overall size and ability,” Garcia said. “It was pretty impressive being a freshman and coming in like that.”
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Then Garcia saw the 6-4, softer-bodied Jeffery and wasn’t so sure.
“We get out there and (Jeffery) takes his shirt off and we just start dying laughing,” Garcia said this week. “We’re like, there’s no way this guy is a five-star recruit.”
While Jeffery may not have looked the part during his earliest days on campus, he held his own during the epic one-on-one battles he and Gilmore staged at the so-called “Gamecocks Proving Grounds” from 2009-11.
Gilmore and Jeffery were teammates at a high school all-star game, roommates for a year in Columbia and have remained close through their six NFL seasons. Jeffery was even a groomsman in Gilmore’s wedding in Charlotte in 2014.
But they’ve never been opponents – until now, on football’s biggest stage.
Gilmore, a starting cornerback for the New England Patriots, figures to be matched for much of Sunday’s Super Bowl LII against Jeffery, the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 1 wideout.
The coaches and players who knew the two at South Carolina expect a physical, competitive matchup, much like the practice pairings that would often end with the two of them on the ground fighting.
But good luck getting a scouting report from Gilmore or Jeffery, both of whom are quiet guys even during a normal week. Neither was particularly interested in discussing their friendship, which they put on hold for a week in the cold of Minnesota.
“I haven’t talked to him this week. I’m pretty sure he feels the same way,” Jeffery said Wednesday. “It’s nothing on purpose. I mean, I play for the Eagles. Ain’t no friends, none of that. It is what it is.”
Gilmore had a similar response when asked whether he planned to see Jeffery before the game.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “You don’t get these (very) often. So you’ve really got to focus on what you’ve got to do to help your team win.”
Gilmore passed on Spurrier’s QB plans
Jeffery and Gilmore first met at the North-South All-Star Game, where they were teammates on the South Carolina squad facing North Carolina’s best high school players.
Gilmore was a quarterback at South Pointe High in Rock Hill, although Jeffery wasn’t impressed with his passing skills.
“He couldn’t throw the ball,” Jeffery said, smiling. “He played quarterback in high school and couldn’t throw the ball.”
But Gilmore did everything else, leading the Stallions to a 15-0 record and state title as a senior while winning “Mr. Football” honors in South Carolina and making multiple All-American teams.
Bobby Carroll, South Pointe’s coach at the time, remembers bumping into Gilmore at the junior varsity games on Thursdays and asking him about the varsity’s chances the next night.
“He’d say, ‘We’re going to hang 50 on them, Big C.’ And sure enough, we’d score 50, 60, 70 (points),” said Carroll, now the coach at York. “It was incredible, man.”
And Jeffery’s assessment aside, Gilmore passed well enough that former Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier put in a quarterback package for him his freshman year – and wanted to play him more behind center, according to Gilmore.
“Spurrier kind of wanted me to play offense. But I wanted to play defense. I wanted to get a shot at playing cornerback,” Gilmore said. “So he gave me a fair shot and it worked out for me.”
Gilmore said he would play corner at camps in high school, and his father, Stevie, would put him through defensive backs drills. Carroll said Gilmore understood his best route to the NFL would be as a cornerback.
“He knew there’s only one quarterback that plays on Sundays,” Carroll said, “but there’s six or seven DBs.”
‘We were just so competitive’
Jeffery was a two-sport star at Calhoun County, a small school south of Columbia. He committed to Southern Cal as a junior, but the Gamecocks stayed on him in what became an intense recruiting battle.
“I remember being on the phone with Alshon at 1 o’clock in the morning one night or two nights before signing day,” said Shane Beamer, the Gamecocks’ recruiting coordinator at the time.
Ex-Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin reportedly told Jeffery, who also was a talented basketball player, he would end up “pumping gas” if he signed with South Carolina. But that’s what Jeffery did.
And despite showing up to campus a little doughy, Jeffery quickly showed Garcia what all the recruiting fuss was about. The players who made fun of Jeffery at the start of that first throwing session weren’t laughing minutes later when he soared for a pass.
“He went up and out-jumped three or four guys,” Garcia said, “and we were like, oh, now we get it.”
Beamer, now an assistant at Oklahoma, was equally impressed.
“The one thing with Alshon that stood out throughout recruiting and once he stepped on campus is he had unbelievable ball skills and size,” Beamer said. “When the ball was in the air, he had a gift of being able to come down with it.”
Jeffery and Gilmore started a wave of some incredible recruiting classes for the Gamecocks, featuring homegrown players who chose to stay in-state. Running back Marcus Lattimore arrived from Spartanburg the following year, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney – another South Pointe grad – came to Columbia the year after that.
Garcia, who is a private quarterbacks coach in his Tampa hometown, says Jeffery and Gilmore established the tone at practices with the way they would go at each other.
“There were some definitely some intense moments. I loved it, we all loved it,” Garcia said. “We were just so competitive and those guys were the forerunners for that competitive nature.”
Who has the edge?
As juniors Gilmore and Jeffery shared a four-bedroom apartment near Williams-Brice Stadium that was like a fraternity of future NFL stars. Their other roommates were Melvin Ingram, a linebacker with the San Diego Chargers, and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger.
Jeffery said no one did much cooking at the apartment, but there was plenty of talk about their post-college plans.
“We all just had a good time, just living with each other. That’s all it’s about, the college experience,” Jeffery said. “Also just knowing that we all were trying to go pro. Our dreams did come true.”
Added Gilmore: “I think we were talented then. I think we all had (draft) grades to be in the NFL and be successful. So it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Gilmore was the 10th overall pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 2012 draft. Jeffery, who had worked himself into much better shape, went in the second round (45th overall) to the Chicago Bears.
Both spent five seasons with their original teams, each going to one Pro Bowl but never playing in a postseason game. They’ve also never played each other; Gilmore missed the Bills’ win vs. Chicago in 2014 with an injury.
But after signing lucrative free-agent contracts last offseason, here they are in the Super Bowl after making big plays in their conference championship games.
Gilmore stretched out to knock down a fourth-down pass from Blake Bortles in the final two minutes to preserve the Patriots’ 24-20 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jeffery caught two touchdown passes in the Eagles’ 38-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, including a 53-yarder that Garcia said was evidence of Jeffery’s football savvy.
The play called for Jeffery to run a square-in. But when a Vikings defender established inside leverage, Jeffery took off deep, threw his hand up to signal to quarterback Nick Foles and was wide open for an easy score.
Game within a game
Garcia is looking forward watching his former teammates go head-to-head in the Super Bowl. And while he respects Gilmore’s physicality and coverage skills, he’s giving the edge to Jeffery because “even when he’s covered, he still makes the play.”
Gilmore makes his offseason home in south Charlotte, near where his wife Gabrielle, who ran track at South Carolina, grew up. They have two children – 2-year-old son Stephon Sebastian and 11-month-old daughter Gisele Sienna, who was born the same day Gilmore signed with the Patriots last March.
Garcia keeps in touch with Jeffery and saw Gilmore last winter at Swearinger’s charity basketball game. The former Gamecocks QB appreciates that the two “didn’t let these big contracts get to their head.”
And though they were determined to keep their focus squarely on the Lombardi Trophy this week, Gilmore and Jeffery conceded in quieter moments that their Super Bowl matchup is something special.
“I think it’s a testament to just being from South Carolina and carrying a chip on your shoulder. We don’t get a lot of respect,” Jeffery said. “But if you look at it, South Carolina’s got some of the top players in the NFL.”
Gilmore was asked whether he would appreciate his game-within-the-game with Jeffery more in the future.
“I appreciate it now,” he said. “It’s great to see people you know being successful or playing in the Super Bowl or making plays. I see him on TV all the time. It’s just good seeing him.”