When David Clowney was 12, the New York Jets wide receiver was enrolled in Eagle Academy, a boot camp and school in Palm Beach County, Fla. Operated by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, the Academy stipulates that boys and girls be at least 13 to come to the residential facility, surrounded by cane fields and swampland.
In Clowney's case, an exception was made.
"I was so bad, they still let me in,"Clowney said. "I was just a little knucklehead, hardheaded, didn't want to listen."
After eight months of getting an earful from the drill sergeants, Clowney got it. He's made donating his time to help kids a part of his life ever since. This past March, the wide receiver drove back to the boot camp in Belle Glade to talk to the kids there. Clowney, 24, still has South Florida in his bones. His background in the area gave him instant credibility with kids in the same situation he was in when he was their age.
"I've seen certain things firsthand that not even my mom knew I was seeing or a part of," Clowney said. "Just knowing that my family is still in that area, I want to do everything I can to try to make that area better."
You could say that Clowney's life is about trying to make things right. In July, he will bring clothes and supplies to the west African nation of Ghana after an eye-opening trip in March to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. While he could sit back and enjoy the lifestyle of an NFL player fighting for a slice of playing time, he is spending this offseason visiting some of the poorest places in the world.
It's probably not what people thought he'd end up doing when he was a kid.
"Nobody thought that at all, not even a little bit," Clowney said.
Seeing the devastation in Haiti caused by the horrific earthquake in January, Clowney knew what he wanted to do. Not looking for attention, he waited for all the celebs and politicians to make their cameos and photo-op appearances before going to Haiti on a mission with teammates James Ihedigbo and Vernon Gholston. Clowney has a ton of energy and his foundation sends out shoots in different directions. He got together with Ihedigbo, and his Hope Africa foundation, and they recruited Gholston to go along to Haiti. They coordinated their effort with musician Wyclef Jean's group, Yele Haiti, and spent days delivering boxes of such supplies as diapers, clothing and food.
Clowney got tears in his eyes as children made orphans by the earthquake sang a song to welcome them. He stayed in a house powered by car batteries strung together. There was no potable water. He saw people using a sheet and pole as a shelter, choosing to keep out the mosquitos and sleep on the bare ground underneath. He played soccer with kids who had no idea what American football was.
"Sometimes you wonder if [celebrities] do it for publicity," said Marco Katania, a Passaic County narcotics officer and friend who made the trip. "Then you see guys like David and James who aren't the big contract guys and do it out of the kindness of his heart."
Clowney is not a high-profile player and he has yet to land a big contract. He is in the final year of a four-year deal with the Jets. He stands to make $545,000 this season. That may be a lot for an average person, but by NFL standards it's middle class.
"I've never seen a million dollars in an account before," Clowney said.
Clowney thought 2008, the year of Brett Favre and his second season with the Jets, might be the one to pad his bank account. He got off to an impressive start in training camp and had a solid preseason. His blazing speed had the Jets thinking they had a deep threat for Favre. But Clowney broke his collarbone and was sidelined for much of the season. He didn't produce much last year, finishing with 14 catches and a touchdown.
Clowney will enter camp this season facing some stiff competition. He already has history with one newcomer. Clowney used to run track for Atlantic Community High School and remembers going against Santonio Holmes of Glades Central in events like the 200 meters and the 400 relay. He admitted to mixed feelings when his old friend ran into the team locker room. Holmes joins Jerricho Cotchery, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith in a crowded wide receiver group. Clowney knows just performing well in training camp is not enough. He needs to prove that he isn't just a preseason player, that he can deliver when the points count.
In case it doesn't work out, Clowney is preparing himself to be successful off the field. He is working toward a master's degree in criminal justice at the College of St. Elizabeth. Clowney said earning a degree is important because it will show his 12-year-old brother, Jordan, who lives with Clowney during the season, that getting an education is just as important as sports. Clowney sees himself in Jordan, but he also sees a difference. He said Jordan is light years from needing the Belle Glade boot camp. He is a good student, and Clowney teases him for reading the paper at the table in the morning even though he is intensely proud of how smart his younger sibling is.
Clowney is still a bit of a kid himself. His outgoing personality is one of the reasons he connects with children so well. That demeanor also helps in his charitable endeavors. He is in the process of raising money for his July trip to Ghana, where he hopes to distribute some of the same kinds of supplies he delivered in Haiti to people who need them in Ghana. The Africa trip serves two purposes. Clowney has always wanted to see Africa, and going to Ghana will allow Clowney to help people who are in need. He will choose that environment over an all-inclusive beach vacation any day.
"That's traveling, but that's not traveling,"Clowney said. "I want to see the world and actually get something done while I'm seeing it."