On Jan. 1, 2013, with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl, then-South Carolina Gamecock Jadeveon Clowney burst up the middle, a blazing runaway train, met Michigan running back Vincent Smith just as Vincent hugged the handoff to his chest -- or was it even before?! -- and bulldozed Smith to the ground. Smith's helmet took flight. The ball did too. The Hit was born.
The Hit didn't announce Clowney's arrival on the football scene. Clowney announced Clowney's arrival. ("I got down on my knees and thanked the football gods for sending that kid to South Pointe High School," says Bobby Carroll, his high school coach. "Because he was ... there was no doubt when you looked at him. You said, 'Oh, my god.'") He was the nation's top-ranked recruit in 2011. He was ESPN The Magazine's cover boy before he turned 18.
And The Hit didn't just turn the Outback Bowl back in the Gamecocks' favor -- though it did that, too. One play after Clowney mauled Smith, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw connected with a streaking Ace Sanders in the end zone to put his team back on top, 27-22, and the Gamecocks would go on to seal their 33-28 bowl victory with a 32-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left on the clock.
In the end, it was the hit that launched a thousand takes. LeBron James weighed in via Twitter ("He's the Freak Part 2"). Armchair quarterbacks debated the merits of Clowney playing at all his junior season, if he was the preordained No. 1 pick 16 months before he was eligible for the 2014 NFL draft. So now, on the five-year anniversary of The Hit -- and on the cusp of South Carolina and Michigan's rematch in this year's Outback Bowl -- we talk to the players, coaches and analysts who watched the hit become The Hit in real time.
The play before the play
Mike Tirico, former ESPN broadcaster, called the game: The hit should have never happened. The prior play was, without question, the worst measurement for a first down I have ever seen in college or pro football. Michigan, leading by one, faked a punt from just inside their own 40-yard line. The measurement, right in front of the South Carolina bench, was ruled a Michigan first down. Forget an index card. An entire deck of cards could have fit between the nose of the football and the pole.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina head coach, 2005-15: The ball was obviously three or four inches short. I was trying to tell the ref, "I think you pointed the wrong way, my man!" So in live time, I wasn't watching Jadeveon's play.
D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina defensive back, 2009-12: I told Clowney right after that play, I said, "Since they wanna cheat us, let's just go get the ball. Let's go make a play." Right when I told him that, he said, "Watch this." I remember it like it was yesterday.
Perry Sutton, Clowney's youth football coach: I know him. I said, "He's gonna do something to make a change. He's gonna do something." I didn't know he was going to do that, but I knew he was going to do something.
Tirico: South Carolina deserved the ball on measurement, so justice was served. Deep down, I still believe that is part of the reason the play happened.
Damario Jeffery, South Carolina linebacker, 2009-12: That's exactly what everybody was saying. Ball. Don't. Lie.
Shaw: It was kind of like it was meant to be.
Point: It was the hit heard 'round the world
Jeffery: It was the Open Ram Buster. We loved to send him on the Ram because he was so quick. It was a stunt between Clowney and the defensive tackle. Clowney was going to go inside -- which he did -- and the tackle was going to go outside. Clowney jumped the snap well enough that he goes flying across the tackle's face before the tackle could even touch him. He would run it in practice, and Spurrier would get mad because the offense couldn't get a play off. He'd yell, "Take him out, coach. Our guy's not good enough."
Dylan Thompson, South Carolina quarterback, 2011-14: I remember in his first practice -- literally his first practice in college -- we didn't have anyone who could block him. You knew then that the guy lived up to every bit of hype. Coming out, we literally didn't have anyone who could block him, and he's an 18-year-old kid who's dominating his first day at practice.
Shaw: If there was anyone ready to go in the NFL from high school, it was that dude.
Jim Brandstatter, Michigan radio announcer since 1979: The thing that sticks in my craw, because I'm a Michigan guy, and I come at this from a Wolverine bias, is that we didn't block him. We missed an assignment up front. As good as he is, we made him look a little better.
Jon Gruden, ESPN broadcaster, called the game: If you are going to blow a blocking scheme, do it against somebody else. Everybody's got to know where Clowney is.
Smith: I was just doing my chop steps, come up, splat. Everything happened fast. I couldn't do anything -- fall or dive or anything. It was just like quicksand.
"You ever heard a car wreck? That's what it was. Just ... boom." Byron Jerideau, South Carolina DT, 2009-12
Spurrier: It was the hit heard around the world.
Thompson: I was 20 yards away, and I heard it pretty loud and clear.
DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina linebacker, 2009-12: It sounded like a gunshot.
Byron Jerideau, South Carolina defensive tackle, 2009-12: You ever heard a car wreck? That's what it was. Just ... boom.
Swearinger: I was covering my man, heard a car crash and turned around.
Thompson: You hear a lot of hits. You have scrimmages, camp, spring ball. You're around hitting a lot. That one was different. Even in the few seasons that I played professionally, I never heard anything like that.
Brandstatter: For the most part, all day long, [Michigan left tackle] Taylor Lewan did a nice job. But that one play, obviously, superseded everything because it was so visually spectacular.
Jerideau: I've never seen a helmet pop straight up like that except on a video game, like Madden 2008.
Gruden: I thought the ball carrier's head was in his helmet when it popped off after the hit.
Brandstatter: Pick up a helmet. They're not light. They're not like feathers. They're hard plastic. They've got padding inside. They've got a face mask on it. They're substantial. And when it flies eight feet in the air, I'll tell you what, that's a pretty strong hit to get that above the ground -- what, six, seven, eight feet? It was so odd and unexpected that a helmet would fly straight up in the air that everybody sort of thought, "What was that?! Oh, that's the ball." Then you look at it, and it's not the ball.
Holloman: Everybody just stopped. The receiver stopped running. Everybody stopped and turned around and looked back to find out what happened.
Jeffery: Have you ever seen the Flash comics, and he does something or he catches the bad guy, and the bad guy's like, "What happened?" That was kind of everybody's reaction. Like, "Damn, what happened out there?"
Thompson: It was one of those things when you witness something that's rare -- you look around you and make sure someone else saw it. I think everyone was doing that. Did we really just see that?
Counterpoint: It was the hit overhyped 'round the world
Smith: It felt like a normal hit. A normal, regular hit. I've been playing football a long time. It's hard impact. Crushing blows.
Brandstatter: I don't want to say Jadeveon didn't affect the game. Clearly he did, because that one hit and fumble recovery was a key part of that game. But on balance, overall, from beginning to end? I thought it was a wash, to be quite frank.
Spurrier: Clowney wasn't having a particularly great day at all.
"It felt like a normal hit. A normal, regular hit. I've been playing football a long time. It's hard impact. Crushing blows." Vincent Smith, Michigan RB
Brandstatter: It wasn't as if Jadeveon dominated the game. If you're wondering why Jadeveon got up there that quickly and how he was able to do what he did, it's because somebody up front missed an assignment.
Phil Savage, executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl: That hit got a ton of hype. But within the NFL scouting circles, all those guys sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, I mean, he was unblocked." You'd expect a guy who's 6-foot-6, 270 to blast the running back who was smaller in stature. So from an NFL standpoint, people were like, "OK, we see the explosiveness, but he was unblocked and it doesn't really tell us much."
Counter-counterpoint: C'mon, did you see that hit?
Tommy Suggs, longtime South Carolina color analyst and former Gamecocks QB: It's just like a running back. You can stop a great running back four times, and the fifth time, he breaks it for 60 yards. And Clowney was the same way.
Jeffery: If you ask Taylor Lewan, and if he says he blew an assignment, he's lying. He turned out to block Clowney, and Clowney did exactly what he's supposed to do, which was go inside. He went inside and blew past, and Taylor Lewan didn't see it coming. Yes, it was a blocking error, because he was supposed to block him, of course, but Clowney really made that play. What I would say to people is really just stop hating. That is greatness at its best.
Thompson: Sure, the guy missed a block. But at the same time, Clowney did what he did, and I don't think there are very many people who would do that that quickly, that violently.
Shaw: Thank god I've never gotten hit by JD. I can remember his first spring practice when he came to South Carolina -- or maybe it was fall camp -- but they taught the D-ends to tag off from the quarterback. And I go in the showers after practice, and I just had these slap marks all over my ribcage and back. I was like, "JD, man, really? You're going to have to learn just to run by me, bro."
Jeffery: He didn't even run straight. The quickest way to the ball is always a straight path. His path was actually about two or three yards to his left. Then he got back up and still hit the running back as he was getting the ball. You have to understand how fast you have to be to do that.
Gruden: Clowney crawled over the running back like a great big bear afterward and put the ball in his paw.
Swearinger: He fumbled his helmet. His helmet came off. His mouthpiece came out. Hip pads came off, and the ball came out. And he just picks up the ball with one hand, like it's nothing.
Spurrier: He plucked the ball like it was a baseball in one hand.
Suggs: Had the helmet not come off, it may not have been as impactful. Had he not fumbled, it may not have been any more than just a good hit. But all those things came together at one time.
Jeffery: That play really changed the whole scope of the game. Without that hit, I don't think we would've won that game.
Holloman: As soon as we were in the locker room, it was playing. It was everywhere. It was already being called "The Hit."
Jerideau: After the game, you're sitting there, eating dinner, and you see it on TV. A few months later, it's still No. 1 on ESPN's top-10. You're like, "Holy moly." I didn't understand it was gonna be that big of a hit until it was on ESPN for the next year.
Shaw: From that point on and into next football season, I saw it maybe 200 times. And so did everyone else.
McVay, president and CEO of the Outback Bowl: That didn't get him the No. 1 spot in the draft, but it sure helped to raise additional exposure around what a special athlete the guy was.
Spurrier: He was projected to be the first pick. And some people even suggested he not play his third season. He could've not played and probably still been the first pick. So if he got any kind of little injury or pulled muscle or something like that, he pretty much took himself out of the action. But we worked through it. And certainly, as the coach, he deserved to be treated a little bit differently because he did not have to play that year. It was sort of a bonus to all of us he was out there playing.
Tirico: The season after the hit, Clowney was under a different microscope and seemingly trying to preserve his draft standing. It is hard for a college player to be labeled as the No. 1 player in the next draft for an entire season and receive the full attention of everyone on the opposing offense, let alone observers around the nation. No matter what Clowney did, we were expecting the Outback Bowl hit on every play. It was unfair to him.
Savage: I think the downfall anytime you're tied to a singular play is that it's such a spectacular moment that it's hard to live up to that on a down-to-down basis.
Spurrier: Seems like all over the country, all over the world, people watched that video.
Holloman: I'm sure he goes back to watch that play. I still like to go back and watch my highlights. If I had one like that, I'd probably have it replaying in my house all the time.
Clowney: [I've watched it ] so many times for the last four years, five, it's been a while. ... I don't think I get tired of it.
Suggs: If you lined up 10 Carolina supporters and asked them to name an iconic play, they would name that one. I bet 9 out of 10 would name that one.
Carroll: A sporting goods salesman gave me a Michigan helmet, and I got Clowney to sign it. This is long after he was out of college. He had already been drafted. It sold for $1,900 at an auction we had as a fundraiser.
Thompson: They joked that they found the Michigan helmet from the game, that it finally stopped rolling in his hometown.
Jerideau: People say, "You're playing Michigan again. Uh-oh. Last time ..."
Jeffery: Of course, the first thing everybody is going to say is, "Y'all remember that hit?"