Growing up Clowney

bgillespie@thestate.comAugust 24, 2013 

Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 recruit, is joined by his mother Josenna Clowney and father David Morgan on Feb. 14, 2011 as he announces he will play football for South Carolina.

FILE PHOTO — The State

  • FIVE THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT CLOWNEY

    1. SOUNDS FISHY

    Two of Clowney’s favorite foods are shrimp-fried rice and sushi, which he enjoys at Red Bowl, an Asian chain restaurant in Rock Hill. “If you ask him how he got so big, he’ll tell you: McDonald’s and Chinese food,” says Bobby Carroll, his high school coach.


    2. THE NAME’S THE THING

    Clowney’s first name came when his mother, Josenna Clowney, wanted to combine family names and his father’s name (David Morgan). “My whole family’s names start with J, so I picked Jadeveon because it sounded like David,” she says.


    3. “THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER”

    Clowney is a talented mimic, says former South Pointe and current teammate Gerald “G” Dixon. “He knows how to do impressions of people. He and I both do coach (Steve) Spurrier and coach (Lorenzo) Ward; his coach Ward is the best.”


    4. LEBRON’S THE MAN

    Clowney, Dixon and other friends played marathon card games in high school, often on the hoods of cars under a streetlight after practice, Carroll says. These days, though, their passion is video games, in particular NBA 2K Basketball. “It’s always the Heat vs. the Lakers,” Dixon says. “He likes the Heat. I’m a Lakers guy.”


    5. WHAT’S IN A NICKNAME?

— Bobby Carroll spins around in his office chair to face a desktop computer and reaches for a file of DVDs, a grin of anticipation spreading across his face.

For half a dozen years, Carroll — former football coach at Rock Hill’s South Pointe High, now in his third year at his hometown’s York Comprehensive High — has been taking video tours of the past, at the request of visiting sports writers or for his own pleasure. He never tires of doing so.

A few mouse clicks and Carroll finds what he’s looking for: game footage of South Pointe vs. Rock Hill in 2009. “We (South Pointe) just missed a field goal, and Rock Hill (undefeated at the time) has the ball on their 20,” he explains. “Now watch this.”

At the snap, the Bearcats’ quarterback bounces a pass toward a receiver in the left flat; while the other receiver, who is split wide right, takes off downfield. It’s a trick play, the “incomplete” pass actually a lateral, and now that receiver fields the ball and heaves it to his wide-open teammate.

As the camera follows the play, a second figure enters the frame: a tall, lanky South Pointe player overtakes Rock Hill’s receiver like a cheetah running down an antelope, making a touchdown-saving tackle at the five. Carroll laughs, backs up the video and shows it again.

Welcome to the Chronicles of Jadeveon Clowney: The Early Years. You want more? Carroll’s got plenty.

In the eight months since the Outback Bowl, where South Carolina’s 6-foot-6, 270-pound All-American defensive end made the play heard and seen around the world, Clowney’s de-helmeting of Michigan running back Vincent Smith has gone from viral to iconic. ESPN dubbed it “The Play of the Year” at the ESPYs, where the 20-year-old Rock Hill native exchanged peace signs with LeBron James. One Photoshop creation showed Smith’s maize-and-blue helmet coming to rest on the moon.

“The Hit was pretty cool,” Clowney said during USC’s media day. “Coach (Steve Spurrier) said he had seen nothing like it. … I still get a kick out of it.”

If the world went “Wow,” in Rock Hill fans all but shrugged: Nothing new here, folks.

Carroll has his favorite Clowney moments. There’s a 43-0 trouncing of Fairfield Central in Clowney’s senior season when he scored three touchdowns — two on defense, one as a goal-line running back — highlighted by his one-handed interception of a screen pass (while being blocked) and 52-yard return. There’s his 100-yard, tackle-breaking scoring run vs. Nation Ford High (he took the handoff on the goal line), coming a play after his fourth-and-goal defensive stop.

“There’s play after play,” Carroll says. “I like to just sit and watch sometimes.” He smiles. “The Good Lord blessed South Pointe.”

Long before Clowney arrived at USC, he was making memories in his hometown. Not just highlight-film plays, but also winning friends and fans with his huge smile, approachability and happy-go-lucky demeanor — the same outlook that has made a fan of, among others, Spurrier and every talking head on ESPN.

Today, that approach is reflected in Clowney’s “time to move on” take on The Hit. “At first it was the greatest thing to talk about. I was happy about it and having fun with it,” he said. Two months later, “I was, ‘All right now, that’s enough of that. Something new has got to drop.’”

That attitude isn’t a surprise. Clowney the media mega-star is the same player, and person, he’s been for years, friends say. Clowney says it, too. “I don’t think (the hype) should change me,” he said. “I’ve been playing football since I was younger and doing the same things, but nobody ever noticed.

“Now they notice it, but I’m just going to continue playing the way I’ve been playing.”

Not the way he’s played since becoming the nation’s No. 1 recruit and, now, likely No. 1 NFL draft selection next spring. Not only since his stellar high school career. Since the day he first discovered football.

YOUTH LEAGUE TERROR

Clowney was not a huge baby — his mother, Josenna Clowney, who raised him along with boyfriend Chris Jones and her parents, John and Josephine Clowney, says the future All-American arrived at 8 pounds, three ounces — but at 22 inches, he figured to be tall. “The pediatricians said he was above the charts at each age,” she says. “All my mom’s and dad’s brothers are big. It’s a big and tall family.”

David Morgan figures his only child got some of that size from him. Morgan, 43, says he is 6-4½ and 225; photos of the two men together show a definite family resemblance. “Yeah, people tell me we’re twins. I’m the older twin,” he says, laughing.

Morgan played sports — street basketball, softball, two-hand touch football — but wasn’t around to impart that experience to his son; he spent nearly 12 years in jail for robbing a Rock Hill check-cashing business in 1995. Released in 2006 and employed at Continental Tire for two years, Morgan returned to Rock Hill when Jadeveon was 13, “but his mom kept me up” on his athletics achievements.

Those began when he grew to be a foot taller than his peers by the time he was 7 and, after playing backyard football with cousins and neighborhood children, his mother signed him up to play in city league pee wee football. “He was already good when he started in pee wees,” Josenna Clowney says. “He was always bigger than the other kids.”

In fact, that introductory level was Clowney’s first “recruitment” for football.

“I knew him when he was growing up,” says Anthony “Bay Bay” Aldridge, who coached the Sylvia Circle Demons’ 7- and 8-year-old teams. “We were looking for players, so I asked his mom and she said, ‘Sure. How much does it cost?’ ”

Josenna Clowney, a second-shift processing technician at a Frito-Lay plant in Charlotte since 1994, came up with $250 for helmet and uniform, and Aldridge got first crack at a future star. “The average kid was maybe 4-foot-5, and he was 5-foot-5 and already pretty athletic,” he says. “Sometimes before games, I had to get his birth certificate to show the other coaches. Some kids were scared of him.”

Josenna Clowney learned that early. Typical for a young mother, she worried when Jadeveon began playing football. “That’s my baby,” she says. “But the other mothers would be saying, ‘Don’t let him hit MY baby.’ ”

For good reason because, despite a happy-go-lucky nature that still shows today — “he always liked to joke around and have fun,” Josenna Clowney says — Jadeveon, playing both ways, dominated games. “We had him at tailback, and he’d drag four or five kids 15 yards down the field,” Aldridge says. On defense, “no one could block him. Kids would try to run the opposite way, but he’d still run them down.” Clowney often spent time on the bench once the score was out of reach; “(recreation officials) didn’t want you to run up the score.”

The Demons were 15-3 in Clowney’s two seasons, his mother attending every game and helping raise money through the team booster club. Around town, coaches at the two high schools, Rock Hill and Northwestern, “knew about him from the Demons,” Aldridge says.

Eric Mitchell knew, too. He coached the Demons’ 9- and 10-year-old teams. The day Clowney and his mother showed up at practice, “I thought they’d put him with another (older) group.” When the big kid became his, “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ ” Mitchell says, laughing. “He was bigger than any lineman we had, more speed than most kids, and was already hitting harder, knowing the game. And if you told him something one time, he’d catch on.”

Clowney again excelled on both sides of the ball. “Like a gift from God,” Mitchell says. “Most big kids at that age are clumsy, but not him. That first season, no team got within 20 points of us.” No wonder, with Clowney chasing down foes and sacking them one-handed, or carrying would-be tacklers for 10-15 yards a clip.

“I was sorry to see him leave (for the 11-12 age group), but they were still on the same field, so I got to watch him practice,” Mitchell says. So did coaches from around the city, who would show up to film Clowney.

“Sometimes he’d goof around like kids do,” Aldridge says, “but everyone loved him — he had that big smile — unless they had to run against him.”

CHANGING POSITIONS

Some people remember everything about the moment they first met their future spouse. Bobby Carroll can recite details about the first day Clowney literally walked into his life.

“It was 2007, in the weight room at South Pointe,” Carroll says. “We were having summer workouts, and in walked this kid — I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ And then: ‘Is he just cutting through (South Pointe sits between two neighborhoods, College Downs and Carnegie) or is he here to work out?’ ”

In fact, a year earlier, there would have been no South Pointe there. Clowney’s home on Carolina Ave. was originally zoned for Northwestern High, but fell into the new high school’s zone instead. Zach Snyder, a former Northwestern assistant and that summer the defensive coordinator at South Pointe, laughs at what he calls “right place, right time.”

“I was still in spring drills at Northwestern, and Clowney came over there, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a big eighth-grader,’ ” Snyder says. “That next fall at practice at South Pointe with the ninth graders, someone said: ‘You ought to see this tailback, he’s the biggest you’ve ever seen.’ I went over and told him, ‘I remember you, what’re you doing here?’

“I knew he’d be outstanding, but I had no clue what we were getting.”

His freshman year, playing primarily at running back, Clowney scored 31 touchdowns for the junior varsity. Defensive end was his “second position.” South Pointe’s varsity that fall finished 9-4 and would return a pair of outstanding seniors, future USC stars Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman, both four-star recruits.

“We pulled (Clowney) up to the varsity to see how he played with the bigger boys,” Carroll says. “He worked extremely hard (in spring practices), and we knew pretty quickly he was a college prospect.” To motivate Clowney academically (“like a lot of kids, he didn’t take grades seriously until he figured out what was out there,” the coach says), Carroll asked where he wanted to play in college.

“Michigan,” Clowney responded.

That was never going to happen — Clowney early on ruled out teams in cold climates — but plenty of others discovered the big 13-year-old defender who in spring drills often disrupted South Pointe’s offense with his speed off the edge. “We had coaches coming to see Gilmore, but they’d see Jadeveon and ask, ‘Who is he?’ We’d say, ‘He’s going to be the best in the country.’ ”

That fall as a sophomore, Clowney recorded 17 sacks as the Stallions rolled to a 15-0 season capped by a 35-14 win against Northwestern in the Class 4A, Division 2 championship. That success was despite playing with a bone spur in his foot, and despite giving up offense to focus on defense.

“We had two talented tailbacks, and I said, ‘This kid has got to play defense, he can start at defensive end,’ ” Snyder says. Clowney wasn’t sure. “I was so mad they moved me to defensive end, I was about to quit,” he said. “(I said) ‘I ain’t playing no more football (if) I can’t run the ball no more.’ (But) actually, it was the best thing ever for me.”

Indeed. His junior season, South Pointe went 10-4 (losing to Northwestern in the 4A Division 2 semifinals, 24-6) as Clowney racked up 144 tackles and 23 sacks; his senior season, he ramped his numbers up to 162 tackles, 29.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, 11 forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. “After one season, another coach said they found (Clowney) on every single play and checked into a play going the other direction,” Snyder says. “We came to understand that whatever we saw on (scouting) video would be completely different (in the games). We saw inside runs, screens, draw plays; (opponents) tried to eliminate him from the game.”

Fort Mill coach Ed Susi confirms that, recalling his own “Clowney moment.” Said Susi: “We’re an option team, and our philosophy is if he’s hard to block, he’s easy to read. Well, I ran at him once in three years; he tackled the dive back (Max Simon) and the quarterback (Danny Till). I never ran at him again.”

Even that approach didn’t always work. “We’d go away from him and he’d chase you down,” Susi said. “They absolutely murdered us; his junior year, it wasn’t even close. He’s a freak; he could play wherever he wanted.”

Sometimes, Snyder had to pull his star back for self-preservation. Once, Clowney was on the Stallions’ punt team and collided with a Lancaster player with such force, “he almost knocked himself out. They hit dead-on, the kid hit the ground, tried to take a step and fell out, unconscious.

“JD came to the sideline and he was wobbly. ‘Coach,’ he said, ‘that hurt me.’”

At this point, Clowney’s reputation was nationwide. “After that season, we created a highlight film of him — ungodly plays, all over the field — for two reasons,” Carroll says, “one, to help him, and two, to put South Pointe on the map.”

Certainly, it put the school on the post office’s map. “You could’ve filled a pickup truck with the (recruiting) mail,” Carroll says. Josenna Clowney says that, starting in the 11th grade, she filled four large plastic storage bins with recruiting letters; she still has them all because “he wants to keep them, show them to kids.

“People would tell me, ‘This is going to get big,’ and I’d say, ‘He’s just playing football,’ ” she says. “When all those letters started coming in … that’s when I started realizing what they were talking about.”

It still came as a shock to Dwayne Hartsoe, then South Pointe’s basketball coach and, after Carroll’s postseason departure for York, interim football coach. As such, he inherited the job of running interference for Clowney. “It was insane,” Hartsoe, now athletics director at Fort Mill, said. “It was like being with a rock star — the kids, the autographs, the pictures.”

As Clowney’s basketball coach, Hartsoe cleared a New York film crew doing a documentary on his player to ride the team bus for a road game. “Coaches wanted to see him practice basketball — just to let him know they were there,” he said.

For the most part, Clowney handled the spotlight with aplomb. “He was a free spirit; he never let it affect his personality,” Hartsoe said. “I’d say, ‘Whatever I can do to help,’ and he’d say, ‘It’s all right, it’s all good.’ ”

There was one day, though, near the end of the process, when Clowney showed up in Hartsoe’s office. Asked what he needed, Clowney replied, “Ah, I’m just trying to get away from everyone.”

Carroll says Clowney early on liked USC’s proximity to Rock Hill, and was fond of then-defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. “I think in his heart he knew where he wanted to go all along.” And Clowney did enjoy parts of recruiting. At Alabama, a school staffer tipped him off to challenge the often-reserved Saban, a recreational basketball player, to a game of one-on-one. “Then the ice broke and they started talking like old friends,” Carroll says.

Carroll’s favorite memory is from an unofficial visit to a game at Georgia. “We walk into where we’re eating before, and several coaches come over,” Carroll says. “One assistant tells JD, ‘See that guy? He’s the No. 1 defensive end in Georgia. That guy is the No. 1 defensive end in Florida, that one’s No. 2 in Alabama.

“And JD looks at him and says, ‘Coach, then y’all don’t need me.’  ”

LET’S GET STARTED

When USC’s season ends, the NFL will come calling to fulfill Clowney’s long-standing dream. Soon enough, everyone will sleep better: Clowney, his mother, father and grandparents, his support group of coaches and friends.

Meanwhile, the ride continues.

“I’m ready for this season, for Thursday (USC’s opener vs. North Carolina),” Josenna Clowney said. “Seem like I’ve been ready since December, because everyone’s been talking about it. His name is in the paper every day. I’m ready to get it over with; I hope he has a good year and doesn’t get hurt.” She laughed. “I can’t wait.”

Clowney knows what to expect this fall. He’s had two seasons at USC and, really, four years leading up to that — all of that time filled with attention and expectations and demands – to figure it out. “I’ve been playing football for a very long time … that’s what I do,” he said. “I’m going to continue playing the way I’ve been playing. Just living up to the hype and play in the NFL – I’m going to do that.”

For those who know him, the next step is exciting, too. But even if Clowney never plays a down of professional football, those around him will have memories from those past years to last a lifetime.

Snyder says he’ll remember most how Clowney was before games: loose, joking, relaxed. “Then at game time, his switch flips,” Snyder said. “We decided if he wants to act (loose) before a game, let’s go with it.”

Before one game, in fact, it was Snyder who was nervous. Not Clowney. “He said to me, ‘Coach, don’t worry. We got this.’

“And we did,” Snyder said, “because we had him.”

Visit our Jadeveon Clowney page this season for stories, photos and videos of South Carolina's mega-star

FIVE THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT CLOWNEY

1. SOUNDS FISHY

Two of Clowney’s favorite foods are shrimp-fried rice and sushi, which he enjoys at Red Bowl, an Asian chain restaurant in Rock Hill. “If you ask him how he got so big, he’ll tell you: McDonald’s and Chinese food,” says Bobby Carroll, his high school coach.

2. THE NAME’S THE THING

Clowney’s first name came when his mother, Josenna Clowney, wanted to combine family names and his father’s name (David Morgan). “My whole family’s names start with J, so I picked Jadeveon because it sounded like David,” she says.

3. “THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER”

Clowney is a talented mimic, says former South Pointe and current teammate Gerald “G” Dixon. “He knows how to do impressions of people. He and I both do coach (Steve) Spurrier and coach (Lorenzo) Ward; his coach Ward is the best.”

4. LEBRON’S THE MAN

Clowney, Dixon and other friends played marathon card games in high school, often on the hoods of cars under a streetlight after practice, Carroll says. These days, though, their passion is video games, in particular NBA 2K Basketball. “It’s always the Heat vs. the Lakers,” Dixon says. “He likes the Heat. I’m a Lakers guy.”

5. WHAT’S IN A NICKNAME?

Josenna Clowney says Jadeveon’s childhood nickname “Doo Doo” came from a song called “Doo Doo Brown, The Baddest Boy in Town.” She says he doesn’t like being called that. She says the tune accompanies a You Tube video of Clowney’s high school highlights.

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