Carolina Panthers

How ‘hometown’ motivation helped Rock Hill’s Stephon Gilmore have career year with Pats

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a Rock Hill native and former South Carolina Gamecocks star, isn’t a stranger to big games.

Especially not now, in his second season with New England.

Gilmore signed with the Patriots in 2017, after five seasons with the Buffalo Bills — the team that drafted him 10th overall in the 2012 NFL draft.

Now, he’ll appear in his second consecutive Super Bowl when the Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII this Sunday.

“This doesn’t get old,” he said Monday night, during his podium media appearance. “This is a great opportunity. It’s hard to get to this position, but it doesn’t get old for us.”

Last year’s game didn’t quite go as planned — for New England, anyway, after a 41-33 loss to Philadelphia.

Gilmore saw the loss as an opportunity to grow.

“I think mentally I’m stronger than I was a year ago,” he said. “I can take anything, good or bad, and put it behind me and make the next play.

“Playing in New England, you have to be mentally strong. That’s what the coaches put on (the players).”

That is a type of pressure under which Gilmore has seemed to thrive. In 2016 he started all 16 games, which matched the career high from his rookie season in Buffalo, and recorded two interceptions with 20 defensed passes and 45 tackles.

“For me, in my second year here, it was getting used to everything, knowing my teammates better and getting used to the coaching,” said Gilmore. “I feel like we have a talented team. We play together as a team. We’re brothers out there, we’re not just teammates. We play for each other.”

His performance earned him first team All-Pro honors this year for the first time in his career.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, man,” Rams cornerback Aquib Talib told reporters in Atlanta this week. “He’s definitely playing with a bunch of confidence, and he’s executing the game plan. Whatever they ask him to do. Whether it’s guarding the No. 1 guy, No. 2 guy, tight end, whatever they’re asking him to do, he’s getting it done.”

Gilmore also said this week that he feels the support from his hometown and from South Carolina alumni.

“That’s the place that made me who I am today,” said Gilmore. “I love my Gamecocks obviously, and I thank them for supporting me during Super Bowl week.”

And he’s motivated by what his continued platform, especially on the NFL’s biggest stage, can do for his Rock Hill community.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I’m from a small town. ...A lot of people don’t make it from where I’m from. A lot more people are starting to make it, they’re seeing me be successful and they’re believing in themselves. I couldn’t have done it without their support and it makes me go harder every day.”

He also has had a little extra hometown motivation on the roster with him in New England all year: Fellow Rock Hill native Cordarrelle Patterson, who played for Northwestern, a rival high school in Rock Hill. Gilmore played for South Pointe, about 6 miles south.

Patterson, a wide receiver, was acquired by the Patriots from Oakland last spring.

“I wouldn’t say I hated Cordarelle in high school,” laughed Gilmore, “but we went to rival high schools, so we always competed against each other.

“The minute I knew he got traded to the Patriots I was super excited. ...We’ve competed all our lives, and now that he’s my teammate. I’m very happy about it.

“In practice, we go at it every day. He pushes me every day. I still talk trash to him, tell him we beat him in the state championship (in 2008). It’s always fun and games.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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