Clowney carries on town tradition

ROCK HILL, S.C. -- For much of the football world, NFL draft day is nothing short of a national holiday.

But in this former textile and mill town of about 66,000 people, some 25 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina, it's become just another day.

In these parts, they do a few things religiously.

They go to church on Sunday mornings and still say "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am." The high school kids cruise up and down Cherry Road, and they produce world-class football players.

The latest is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who's projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, which begins Thursday night with the first round.

Clowney will become the third straight player from one of the three Rock Hill high schools to hear his name called in the first round, a distinction no other city or town in America can claim.

Not Miami. Not Los Angeles. Not Dallas. At least not during the past three years.

"When you're from Rock Hill, it's really sort of the expectation now," Clowney said. "I know a lot of kids who play football grow up dreaming about being drafted. But in our town, it's more than just a dream.

"A lot of great players have come before me, and a lot more are coming."

When Clowney bursts out of the green room later Thursday evening to shake hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he will become the fifth player from Rock Hill to be drafted in the past three years.

"You carry that with you everywhere you go. It's like a brotherhood, something that a lot of different people played a part in," said Clowney, who's known simply as "Doo Doo" to those who know him best in Rock Hill.

It's the nickname his mother gave to him as a youngster when he used to dance to the old "Doo Doo Brown" rap song.

"That's how he knows if somebody's from Rock Hill, when they call him 'Doo Doo,'" joked Perry Sutton, who was Clowney's youth football coach with the Sylvia Circle Demons. "To everybody in the neighborhood, he's always going to be 'Doo Doo.'"

Sutton, 50, is coming up on his 27th season as a youth football coach in Rock Hill. He also coached Chris Hope, who was a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002.

"I've heard people say there's something in the water here," Sutton said. "I think it's more a commitment to doing things right, getting these kids into football at a young age, developing that talent and then turning them over to outstanding high school programs."

But 11 NFL draft picks in the past 13 years? For a town the size of Rock Hill, that's staggering.

To put that number in perspective, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research, that's more NFL draft picks since 2000 (players who played their high school football in Rock Hill) than nearby Charlotte has produced, and Charlotte is 10 times the size of Rock Hill.

Heck, it's more draft picks than Oakland, California; Compton, California; Nashville, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; Pensacola, Florida; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas -- all larger cities -- have produced in that same span.

"It might not be a big town, but we're on the map," said Minnesota Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who was a first-round pick last year and played at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill.

"As a kid growing up there, you looked up to guys like Jeff Burris and Chris Hope and Gerald Dixon. They showed you that it was possible, and I also think back to all the talent that came out of Rock Hill that never got a chance to make it to the NFL for whatever reason. The word's out now, though. People around the NFL know. When they hear you're from Rock Hill, they're like, 'Man, y'all got some serious players down there.'"

Clowney went to South Pointe High, the third high school in town that opened in 2005. His former high school and college teammate, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, started the recent run of first-rounders when the Buffalo Bills selected him with the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft.

Patterson's alma mater, Northwestern, opened its doors in 1971 and was the second high school in town after splitting off from Rock Hill High. Northwestern alone has produced five first-round picks.

Rick Sanford was the first in 1979. The South Carolina defensive back was drafted by the New England Patriots. Burris, who was an All-American at Notre Dame, came next in 1994 and was taken in the first round by the Buffalo Bills.

New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (2004) and Houston Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph (2006) are still playing in the league along with Patterson.

"I was sort of adopted into the whole football culture in Rock Hill when I moved there in the 10th grade," said Watson, whose father, Ken, still pastors a church in Rock Hill. "There's such support there for football, going all the way down to the youth level and extending to the high schools, and people are so willing to give back. It's very much a pride thing.

"I'll hear guys in NFL locker rooms talking about all the talent that came out of their towns in Florida and Texas. But per capita, I can't imagine that any city in America has put out the kind of talent we have."

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier knows a thing or two about hotbeds of talent. He coached at University of Florida for 12 seasons, and the Sunshine State has always been bursting at the seams with great football players. But the Head Ball Coach isn't sure he has seen anything quite like the recent run in Rock Hill.

"Not for a town that size," Spurrier said. "It's pretty incredible when you think about it. I can remember Belle Glade down in Florida used to churn 'em out, but they're doing the same thing now in Rock Hill."

One of the neat things about all the players who've come out of Rock Hill is that they all come back and give back, whether it's conducting their own clinics, speaking to their old youth teams or participating in free youth camps.

Hope, who played at Rock Hill High, won a Super Bowl championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005 and was later a Pro Bowl safety with the Tennessee Titans. But even with that kind of success, he still gets chills thinking about his football roots in Rock Hill.

"It's a blessing that so many guys from our town have been able to realize their dream," Hope said. "It's a credit to the kind of raw talent we have, but it's also a credit to the kind of people we have there. The coaches in Rock Hill are fully invested, going all the way back to pee wee ball. They're not trying to live their childhood through you. They're there to create men and not just football players."

Hope said Burris and Dixon reopened that door to the NFL for Rock Hill kids.

"When they got drafted, it wasn't like a foreign language anymore," Hope said. "They sort of showed us the way."

And like so many others, Dixon has also reinvested in his hometown after being selected in the third round of the 1992 draft by the Cleveland Browns and playing 10 seasons in the NFL. His two sons -- Gerald Jr. and Gerald -- are now defensive linemen at South Carolina, and the elder Dixon coached them in youth football.

"You're taught to respect the game in Rock Hill, and it's just kind of handed down," Dixon said.

While helping coach his boys in the youth leagues, Dixon remembers seeing a 10-year-old Clowney flying all over the field like a helicopter and making plays.

"Even then, he was everywhere," said Dixon, who's now living in nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. "You knew he was going to be somebody. He hit one kid so hard that I know it would have been a fine in the NFL. I just remember my running back never came back on the field."

It's probably no coincidence that football in Rock Hill really began to take off in the late 1980s. At the time, it was a two-high school town, and the Northwestern-Rock Hill rivalry was as fierce as any in the country.

Jimmy Wallace, 64, coached high school football in the Rock Hill area for 40 years as an assistant and head coach before retiring in 2010. He won three state championships at Northwestern and helped to create a culture of football success that has endured.

"Success breeds success, and intense competition forces people to be accountable," said Wallace, who coached four first-rounders and countless others who went on to play big-time college football at such places as Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee, Clemson and South Carolina.

One of Wallace's longtime assistants, Bobby Carroll, credits Wallace and former Rock Hill coach Jim Ringer for going out and drumming up the kind of financial support in the community and from the school district that it took to put football in Rock Hill on a par with anybody.

"With the competitiveness of those two schools, it got to be on a national scene," said Carroll, who coached Clowney and Gilmore at South Pointe and is now the coach at nearby York Comprehensive High School.

"Go back and see how many from Rock Hill were drafted before 1990. Not many. It's the same gene pool in Rock Hill, but what happened is that the competitiveness of the two high schools took off, and the attention that drew nationally brought in college scouts from everywhere."

While there's no official meeting place for Rock Hill's NFL club, Platinum Cuts Barber Shop on Saluda Street -- mere minutes from where Clowney grew up -- is a good place to start.

"If you catch it at the right time, you might see four or five NFL guys in there hanging out and just talking to kids," Hope said. "I've been around a lot of impressive people and seen a lot of impressive things in my football career, but that's about as good as it gets.

"None of us have forgotten where we came from, and there's about to be another member in the club."