ROCK HILL — For Tim Warner, explaining the concept of a reverse out of the Wing-T formation to a gaggle of eighth graders was akin to revealing the inner workings of an iPad to a band of gypsies.
Especially vexing was the blank stare he was getting from No. 22. What good is having a 6-foot-2 middle linebacker with a 6-foot-9 wingspan if he had no idea what he was doing?
Now, understand, No. 22 was a ridiculous athlete. In seventh grade, he had run track and wrestled because … well, just because. Later during that eighth grade year, he would dabble in basketball. In all sports, he would excel.
But this reverse business was going to ruin the start of Sullivan Middle School’s season. Clover ran it with aplomb and Warner was fretting an 0-1 start to the season.
“We have coaches running reverses on the scout team and all that,” Warner said, recalling that season. “And it’s not working. Sure enough, the first play of the game, Clover runs a reverse and gets eight or 10 yards.”
Warner called a timeout and gathered his defense.
“That’s a reverse,” he said.
“That’s it?” said No. 22
“That’s it,” Warner said.
“They run that again and I’m going to take it to the house,” No. 22 responded.
Warner laughed at the memory.
“Next time they did it, he took that ball from the quarterback before he handed it to the running back, went right by him and laughed for about 80 yards,” Warner said. “He called his shot.”
No. 22 had been playing football in recreational leagues since second grade. That first game against Clover during his eighth grade year at Sullivan was his formal introduction to the sport that would shape his life.
Hello, world … this is Jadeveon Clowney.
College coaches were beating down Bobby Carroll’s office door for film of Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman. He gave them everything they wanted.
All eventually returned with one question:
“OK, we know Stephon and DeVonte,” they would say, “but who in the world is No. 90?”
When Clowney first stepped on the field for South Pointe High, Carroll said he had seldom seen anything like it.
“It was like looking at a herd of deer with a giant buck standing in the middle with a rack that reached the sky,” he said.
Clowney’s physical prowess was immediately evident. But what would become clear during his four years at South Pointe was his makeup and personality. Great players, for all their impressive physical gifts, often are more than the sum of their parts.
“He’s just got a lot of God-given talent,” Carroll said. “But he also has a truly competitive nature about him that is almost unexplainable.
“A pick-up basketball game out of the blue, at a drop of a hat? He wants to win,” Carroll continued. “Even if he’s playing LeBron James, he wants to do that in every single aspect. Checkers or crossword puzzles? He wants to be the best in anything he does.”
At Sullivan, Warner played Clowney at middle linebacker because, “he could see everything and run everything down.”
At South Pointe, Carroll said, “he could play wherever you wanted him to. In high school, there was no doubt he could do something like that.”
So Carroll stuck Clowney at running back during his freshman season.
Result: 31 touchdowns.
Clowney would continue to play fullback on occasion as the years went by. A YouTube collection of his senior season highlights shows him running over, past and through hapless high school defenders time and again.
But of course, Clowney’s future has always been on defense. Carroll and his coaching staff worked him hard on that side of the ball and the results of that work have become the prologue to his legend.
“You know, there were times we would get on him in practice because it didn’t look like he was going hard,” Carroll said. “Five minutes later, we were calling 911 to have them come get somebody.”
The ball was a few inches short on the measurement, but the official signaled a first down, anyway.
When No. 7 lined up in front of Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, the All-American tackle knew something was askew. He called an audible, tethering himself to the guard and the tight end to him.
The tight end never heard the audible. Two seconds after the ball was snapped, a Michigan helmet was bouncing on the turf.
For the next several hours, Twitter recorded an average of 9,000 tweets per minute about the hit heard ’round the world.
How ubiquitous had “The Hit” become? Moments after Alabama won the national championship, ESPN’s SEC blogger Edward Aschoff wrote an entry stating, “it’s totally unfair to Clowney that he has to come back for one final year with the Gamecocks, instead of playing with the big boys in the big league.”
Ever the contrarian, ESPN’s Skip Bayless tweeted the hit was “slightly overrated.”
Whatever. Brian Feaster knew what he saw.
Feaster smiled broadly Thursday afternoon while relaxing at his barber shop. Platinum Cuts on Saluda in Rock Hill has been Clowney’s go-to for more than a year now. Clowney’s father is a long-time patron of Feaster’s.
“If it wasn’t for the dreadlocks, they’d be twins,” Feaster said. “His dad calls him his baby. But put a dreadlock wig on his dad and they’d be twins.”
Feaster said virtually everyone who has come through his door since New Year’s Day has said something about “The Hit.”
“That hit? That’s going to be the talk of the town, probably until he retires from the NFL,” Feaster said. “That was one heckuva hit.”
Feaster, just as Warner and Carroll, knows the man behind the jersey number. Just as much as his drive to succeed resonates, so, too, does his happy-go-lucky nature.
“He’s humble,” Feaster said.
“Just such a humble young man,” Carroll said.
“You only have to be around him five minutes and you’ll laugh and smile,” Warner said.
“Only thing he wants to do is laugh and joke,” said Feaster.
Can he tell a joke?
“Nah,” Feaster said, laughing.
Few towns in South Carolina carry a football pedigree as pure as Rock Hill. All three of the town’s high schools have won state championships in the 2000s.
“Rock Hill is where it’s at,” Feaster said. “This is football country. Nobody talks about basketball.”
The roster of NFL talent reads like a who’s who of Palmetto State gridiron greats: Chris Hope, Ben Watson, Jeff Burris, Gerald Dixon, Ko Simpson, Gilmore, and on.
“He’s the biggest name around here,” Warner said. “When you look at all the kids out of Rock Hill, there’s a long list of guys playing on Sunday.”
The only number that matters now for Clowney is No. 1, be it the top pick in next year’s NFL draft or winning the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player.
Feaster said he was happy the NFL’s rules force Clowney to return to the Gamecocks for one more year. Considering Clowney played most of his sophomore season with nagging foot and knee injuries and still recorded 13 sacks, it is downright frightening to think what he could do to the college sport as a 20-year-old.
That’s right … until next month, Clowney remains a teenager.
“Not even 20 yet,” Carroll said. “Just amazing.
Perhaps the next time Clowney changes his uniform number, it should be the symbol for infinity.
“The sky is the limit,” Carroll said. “Sky’s the limit.”