- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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JADEVEON CLOWNEY IS hiding out. Though a week earlier he'd gone on a rare cross-country media blitz, in demand from Birmingham to Los Angeles, the nation's best college football player is now in full retreat -- back in his off-campus apartment with the shades drawn.
His two phones buzz nonstop. One caller is a buddy from back home in Rock Hill, S.C., checking in. Another is someone from the South Carolina football office, asking if Clowney would mind fitting in one more photo shoot before the start of fall practice. And a third is ... hell, he has no idea who that is.
The TV is tuned to ESPN. Just a few days ago, Clowney was the toast of SportsCenter, recounting The Hit for what seems like the hundredth time. You know the one: New Year's Day, Outback Bowl, the de-cleating and de-helmetizing of Michigan running back Vincent Smith. The official ESPN YouTube posting is nearing 4 million hits. Fans use pictures of the play as their avatars. A framed poster of The State's sports page, headlined "The Hit," sells for $99.99. That one tackle launched #Clowney to the top of the worldwide trending chart -- and shot the then-sophomore to the top of the NFL draft board. The 2014 NFL draft board.
But now, not even a week after Clowney accepted the ESPY award in LA for Best Play, the same talking heads who couldn't stop praising The Hit, saying it might help win him the Heisman Trophy this season, are now tearing it down. They wonder if the contact was even legal, if the same hit -- the one featured on SportsCenter's Top 10 so many times it had to be retired -- would earn him an ejection under the new targeting rules that punish intentional helmet contact.
Exasperated, Clowney reaches for one of his phones and goes to Twitter, typing just his 25th tweet of the summer (a glacial pace for a 20-year-old): "Come on ESPN just playing football." A few minutes later he posts a follow-up -- "Ready for the season love the game" -- and decides he's going to park his account for a while. Again.
Welcome to Clowney's refuge. It's a fortress of solitude that would seem to be the only thing capable of containing the 6'6", 274-pound defensive end -- he of the Predator dreadlocks, disarming smile and 4.46 40. He has built it year by year, experience by experience, and he hasn't done it alone. We have helped him.
Walls are a response common to young stars caught in the glare of intense attention and scrutiny. Fellow Heisman candidate and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel can relate, and he also serves as an example of what can happen when those walls aren't as fortified as they could be. For Clowney, though, the tactic might be more successful merely because he's had more time to learn how fame can simultaneously boost and bite. His star began its ascent much earlier.
Recruiting hawks first caught wind of Clowney as a high school sophomore, beginning a wave of hype that built with every sack, every magazine cover, every signing-day rumor. The wave ultimately crested with The Hit, and the boom that rolled out from Tampa on Jan. 1 hasn't softened since. "It's been crazy, even crazier than before, and it was plenty crazy before," Clowney says of life post-Hit. He tries to play it cool but finally surrenders to a big, broad smile. "But yeah, that was a good hit."
"That play proved that when JD sets his sights on you, no one is safe," says Clowney confidant Bobby Carroll, his coach at Rock Hill's South Pointe High School. "There are people who say that's the tackle that put him on top of the NFL draft chart, and he was a junior in high school."
Wait ... that was in 2009? Then you're not talking about The Hit?
"Yeah, I am," counters Carroll, glossing over his abrupt gear change. "Around here, to a lot of people, that's The Hit."
IT WAS A regular-season matchup, South Pointe vs. crosstown rival Rock Hill. Stuck at its own 20, Rock Hill threw a late-game two-pass bomb, eager to rattle a South Pointe team that a year earlier had won a state title with three future Gamecocks starters (seniors Stephon Gilmore, now a Buffalo Bill; DeVonte Holloman, now a Dallas Cowboy; and skinny sophomore Clowney). The D shifted in reaction to the first pass, a backward screen that was nothing but deception, and the Rock Hill receiver was wide open. He damn near had the field to himself, catching the second pass in stride and quickly picking up steam toward the goal line. But Clowney, playing linebacker, turned and ran 77 yards diagonally, finally catching the receiver from behind at the 3-yard line. He picked the kid up and threw him to the turf to prevent the score.
"Yeah," Clowney says, smiling when asked about the hit. "That was a good one too."
There were a mound of good ones, as high as the pile of quarterbacks he stacked up throughout the state. At 6'6" and 240 pounds playing varsity, Clowney stood out even when he wasn't windmilling running backs into the turf (which he did a lot, moments that live in perpetuity via YouTube). "What grew the Clowney legend with talent evaluators wasn't what he did at his best, it's how he looked at his worst," explains ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill. "His mediocre plays were still far superior to what other players were doing at his position nationally. It accentuated just how gifted he was."
The stellar plays poured jet fuel into the recruiting-coverage machine, a now-massive business created by America's seemingly insatiable need for college football. By the time Clowney was a senior, he was a full-on national sports celebrity -- the heir to the throne of can't-miss program saviors previously occupied by A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Matt Barkley. "Every city, state or region has one guy who everyone is anxious to see where he's going," explains former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, who recruited Clowney hard. "I think about a guy like Tim Tebow. He was a high school legend in Florida, and within the game, we all knew who he was. That was what, eight years ago? If he was coming along now, it might break the Internet. Clowney nearly did."
Perry Sutton has witnessed generations of Rock Hill football talent, most of it long before the advent of the Internet. He knows what Clowney means to this community. "We've had so many great players come out of this town, folks around here can be hard to impress," Sutton says. "So you knew it was a big deal when JD made that hit, the one that made folks jump up out of their seats and go crazy. They still talk about it. And this was in 2004."
Wait ... 2004? So you're not talking about The Hit?
"I'm talking about the time he really learned how to hit," Sutton says.
IT WAS THE first evening of summer tackling drills in Rock Hill's YMCA Gray-Y league for elementary and middle schoolers. Sutton coached the Sylvia Circle Demons, who played on a rocky school field a few blocks from Clowney's house on Carolina Avenue. It's tradition in the neighborhood for folks to attend these football baptisms. Even in this era of ever-increasing concerns about concussions, Rock Hill's parents, grandparents, looky-loos and Gray-Y grads still spread blankets and unfold lawn chairs to watch kids experience their first head-to-head tackling via the old Oklahoma Drill.
Nearly a decade ago, the first time Clowney heard the whistle, he blasted right through his opponent. On defense, while his teammates wrestled their way through tackles, Clowney immediately launched, wrapped and flattened the kid across from him. It even sounded different -- a crack instead of a thud. Then Clowney did it again. And again. So Sutton started double-teaming him, and Clowney wrecked that too. At some point, Sutton stopped running him because he was breaking too many helmets and the Gray-Y equipment budget could handle only so much.
"He loved it from the start because it just came so natural to him," explains Clowney's mother, Josenna. A former athlete at Rock Hill High, she had Jadeveon on Valentine's Day in 1993. She was 20 and essentially raised the boy herself (his father, David Morgan, did a stint in prison for robbery), with some help from her parents. From the moment she signed up 7-year-old Jadeveon for peewee ball, four years before that infamous Oklahoma tackling drill, many parents in the church were already praying that her son wouldn't injure theirs. "One of his very first games, he hit the running back, caused a fumble, picked it up and then dragged like five other kids hanging all over him into the end zone. A lot of people wanted him to move up to the next age group."
Clowney fondly remembers that play too. "I still have guys in the neighborhood joke with me about that. They remind me that they rode on my back into the end zone."
That was just the beginning of all kinds of people hitching their wagons to the superstar in hopes of being towed to somewhere better. Some of them were merely looking for a memory, others for their alma mater to win more games. A few were seeking to gain significance, basking in their proximity to the rocket trail left by the granite-hard frame of No. 7.
"It's a lot for one kid to handle," explained Gerald Dixon during Clowney's senior year at South Pointe. Dixon played at Rock Hill High, then South Carolina, and put in nearly a decade as an NFL linebacker. One of his sons played with Clowney at South Pointe; both of his sons have played with him at South Carolina. "There are a lot of us from here that played in the NFL. JD has been the big payoff of two decades of hard work in this town. He's proud of that, but it can wear him out too. He's always been a great kid and a great learner. He only has to make a mistake once and he learns from it and moves on."
CLOWNEY LEARNED A lifelong lesson on Feb. 14, 2011, his 18th birthday. Surrounded by his mother, father, grandparents and coaches -- all the folks who call him JD -- Clowney stood waiting onstage in the South Pointe school auditorium. A South Carolina cap sat alongside Alabama and Clemson lids on a table nearby, and he was ready to yank it onto his head. Yet he was staring silently into an ESPN camera, earpiece in, with a SportsCenter producer telling the teenager to hang on, they would get to him shortly.
National signing day had come and gone nearly two weeks earlier. As the nation's undisputed No. 1 prep prospect, Clowney was already on the cover of The Mag -- the first high school football player ever to have that distinction. But instead of announcing his college selection on the same day as everyone else, he'd decided to wait until his birthday.
"That was probably a mistake," Clowney admits now. "I had one more campus visit to make, and I kind of wanted a day to myself. But I learned the hard way about people coming at you. There was nobody left to talk about but me, and it got a little crazy." Crazy as in having to change his cellphone number. Crazy as in the home phone ringing so much, day and night, that the family just stopped answering it. College coaches and fanatics -- from Alabama, Oregon, Clemson and South Carolina -- were all making one last desperate push. Many callers were friends, reaching out to help. But he says now with a sigh, "Even they would throw in a little, 'So, where you playing, man?'"
Beyond the attention, the most scarring part of the signing experience was a Feb. 11 story in The New York Times that raised questions about his academic eligibility. The family still smarts over the fact that some of those around the inner circle -- "friends" talking to recruiting bloggers or a South Pointe English teacher who spoke to the Times -- betrayed Clowney's trust. Josenna, who accompanied her son on every campus visit and acted as his de facto media relations director, thought the family had done all it could to help Jadeveon have as normal a senior year as possible. They were all wrong.
That spring, not long after signing day, Clowney made the 70-mile trip down I-77 to Columbia and hit Five Points, the school's just-off-campus partying epicenter. No matter where he went, people went nuts. In one club, the music stopped and he received a standing ovation. Phones were held aloft, pictures were snapped. Eventually the police showed up, tipped off that an underage kid was the toast of places he shouldn't have been. (Says a South Carolina coach, "You know it was some pissed-off Clemson fan.") At one point Clowney was handcuffed, but he was never arrested. Instead, the humiliated kid was sent home to Rock Hill.
Once again, he learned from his mistake. "You won't see him out," says Marcus Lattimore, his former South Carolina teammate and now a 49ers running back. "If you need him, he's either at his place playing video games, at the stadium working out, sitting in class or back home in Rock Hill. That's it. He knows what his goal is. He doesn't want to put himself in a position to mess that up."
This cautiousness now extends to his contact with the media. And that's a shame. Those closest to Clowney describe him as a prankster who used to terrorize the South Pointe locker room, waiting around blind corners and smacking victims with impromptu pies of wet paper towels. When he does allow himself to show glimpses of that personality, it leaves fans and writers wanting more. At SEC media days in July, he talked direct smack to rival quarterbacks ("Tajh Boyd is scared every time we play Clemson") and sent some thinly veiled advice to Manziel: "Stay out of clubs and stay off Twitter."
He also laughed off a Charlotte Observer column suggesting he take it easy or sit out the 2013 season in advance of the 2014 draft. Boyd should be so lucky. He's heard Clowney's deep-throated laugh as he removes his knee from the QB's chest. "Yeah, I've heard it," acknowledges Clemson's signal-caller. "Any quarterback who's ever played against him and tells you he hasn't heard it is lying."
To be clear, Clowney laughs on the field because he's having fun, because it's the last oasis where no one can get to him or ask him for anything. It's the chuckle of a man who knows he's better than you and knows that you know he's better than you. It's not a mean laugh; it's truthful. "He was the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, and they all say he's going to be the No. 1 NFL pick," explains his coach, Steve Spurrier. "That pretty much tells you all you need to know, doesn't it?"
So yeah, Clowney is going to play; he's just going to do it his way. He intends to stick to his 2012 routine of postgame comments only and once-a-month press sessions. He will continue to spend his time in the fortress, guarded, surrounding himself with those who don't expect anything from him. "I just want to play football," Clowney reiterated at the close of his media tour, just a few days before stories began to swirl that he'd had contact with an agent -- not just any agent, but Jay Z. (An internal investigation by the school found no wrongdoing.) "Once practice finally starts, things will get normal again. As normal as they can be."
ON A MIDWEEK summer day in Rock Hill, the Clowney home on Carolina Avenue is empty. Josenna is nearly 30 minutes away in Charlotte, at the Frito-Lay factory where she's worked as a processing technician for more than 18 years. Jadeveon is on the road.
The old mill house, as usual, has the blinds pulled shut and the gate closed. There's a beware of dog sign in the window. A truck that has slowly eased by the house multiple times finally stops by the gate, its back window wallpapered with go cocks bumper stickers. A man emerges, maybe 60 years old. He walks to the front porch, rolled-up poster of The Hit in hand, knocks on the door and waits. A dog barks, but undeterred, the man peeks into the windows.
"Excuse me," he shouts to a neighbor walking by. "Is this the Clowney house? I want him to sign something for me."
2dKevin Stone, ESPN.com