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February 15, 2011

The Clown Prince

Editor's note: Clowney enrolled at South Carolina on July 5. This feature was originally published on Feb. 15, 2011.

ROCK HILL -- The smile.

Jadeveon Clowney couldn't stop the wide grin from stretching across his face, again and again, as he stood at the podium on Monday and gathered in all of the people that were there to see this tiny moment in time. In just a few short moments, he would announce his college decision to the world -- with almost quite literally the world tuning in, as ESPN's "SportsCenter" sent a camera crew to South Pointe High School to cover the event live -- and knew this would be the end of almost a year of intense scrutiny played out among every media outlet covering almost every Division I college football team in the nation.

The actual moment was rather straightforward -- no mystery, no suspense, no tricks as he calmly pledged to South Carolina and tugged a ballcap over his mass of braids -- but the saga that led to it was anything but. Ever since Clowney was named the country's top-ranked recruit, he has faced the unrelenting pressure of constant updates on what he was thinking, what he was planning and how every move he made seemingly tipped the scales in favor of one school.

How could any 17-year-old handle it? While many grumbled and thought they saw a window to what Clowney was truly thinking in his actions, like delaying the decision 12 days after National Signing Day so he could announce on his 18th birthday, it was all part of the master plan.

Clowney wanted to enjoy the ride, one he would almost assuredly never have again. And as he said over and over again after first announcing that he would wait a few extra days, he really had no time to sit down, away from the whirlwind, away from his constantly buzzing cell phone, and think about where he wanted to be for the next three or four years.

"I really didn't," he said on Jan. 25, as he was about to suit up for a basketball game. "I was going all around the country to do all of these things."

In the relative quiet of the South Pointe basketball locker room, Clowney opens up a bit, but not much. As he tries to adjust to sitting on the narrow tile step, he leans back for one quick second, exhales and closes his eyes.

Opening them, he says, "It should be an honor. I should be happy I got all these college coaches coming after me. Some don't get any."

"And I am happy about it," he insists, before again casting his eyes skyward. "But I'm ready for the end."

Even then, he manages to smile. Perhaps because he's known all along that he would be at South Carolina, and he's kept all but a handful of people around him guessing.

Coming to school wearing apparel of the schools on his list, cycling through each pullover or hat but not favoring one. Talking to media outlets almost up until the day of his announcement, pontificating on what makes the school they cover great. Drinking in the sight of the South Carolina, Clemson and Alabama sweatshirts in the stands at his basketball games, the owners of them standing up and waving, hoping to catch Clowney's eye during a timeout so they can point to the message on their chests.

Some have been put out by the attention paid to Clowney, and that he postponed his announcement until well after National Signing Day. The popular opinion seemed to be that a player supposedly sick of attention was doing an awful lot to bring more on himself, such as having a documentary crew -- led by Academy Award-winning producer Fisher Stevens, who is directing the film -- follow him around his hometown for two weeks.

"I ain't good at saying no," he admitted on the day of his decision.

Clowney's acquaintances and family back up the player's actions. The massive amount of time-consuming activities -- recruiting visits, weeks out of school to play in All-Star games, a trip to film an ESPN piece and a magazine cover, among others -- have made it difficult for Clowney to concentrate on what he wants to do. As soon as football season was over, the Stallions falling in the state championship game, Clowney turned to basketball. Hoops and school are all he wanted to have on his agenda; had he had time to really sit down and peruse the college choices in front of him, perhaps he would have pledged on Feb. 2.

"He's a 17-year-old kid," South Pointe principal Al Leonard said, during a basketball game in February. "He'll go on these official visits and he'll come back wearing the attire of that particular university, keeping everybody guessing. Look at his schedule -- he played in the state championship, went to the Shrine Bowl and did all the practices there, went down to Orlando to practice for the Under Armour game, then got on a plane to go to ESPN for a photoshoot. But he really is a kid that you can talk to him all the time."

Leonard has watched Clowney around his school for four years and says he hasn't seen a personality shift in the bigger-than-most 9th-grader that turned into the nation's most coveted player. What he credits as an influence on Clowney now is that as a sophomore, Clowney watched two of his teammates go through the same process.

Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman each signed with South Carolina as well, but rather than knowing right then that he would eventually do the same, Clowney matured almost overnight. He knew what was about to come, receiving his first piece of recruiting interest as a high-school junior, although even he probably couldn't have guessed it would become this big.

The Rock Hill Visitor's Bureau, at South Pointe's request, took over the details of Clowney's announcement. While closed to the public, the high school's auditorium was full of media representatives who jostled for space with Clowney's family.

"We've sent out invitations to Columbia, the local media, the Charlotte market and Greenville," spokeswoman Sonja Burris said the Friday before the event. "We don't know how many people will attend, although ESPN will carry it on SportsCenter and our local media (The (Rock Hill) Herald and Rock Hill's WRHI) will be there."

Leonard foresaw none of it affecting Clowney.

"He's handled it in a manner that he won't allow it to be a distraction," Leonard said. "He understands that a lot of people are after him. He doesn't take it too seriously."

That seems to be the most dominant trait of Clowney, away from the physical exploits on the field that placed him into the spotlight. He's always smiling.

* * *

The South Pointe cheerleaders took their positions in twin rows, waiting to clap and usher the starting five onto the court, but Clowney wasn't starting that night. So he took his place at the end of the line, high-fiving his teammates as they went by and jumping up and down as well, braids flying about his head and his baggy basketball shorts flapping.

Back in the starting lineup two weeks later at Chester, Clowney jumped for the tip and never laid a finger on it. He smiled. On the re-try, he got the ball in the paint, backed into his man and laid the ball in. He smiled. He was fouled, knocked hard to the floor, and smiled while on his back. He got up to shoot a free throw, airballed it.

And still smiled.

"It's fitting that his name is CLOWN-ey," athletic director Mike Drummond says, turning in his seat to offer the one-liner with a wry grin.

His facemask prevented seeing it during football season, but there's no doubt the smile was in place as Clowney was rampaging past overmatched high-school offensive linemen. Her son's constant demeanor has helped make the process easier on Josenna Clowney.

"He's always been that way," Clowney's mother said, offering her own smile even in the midst of the cacophony of noise surrounding her at a South Pointe basketball game. "Even when he was a little boy. He was always laughing and joking, trying to pull some kind of prank."

There were the obligatory swats when Clowney was having too much fun, but not many, she says. A bit concerned that even as a toddler, her son seemed to be having too much fun, Josenna discovered that Clowney had an outlet in the rampant neighborhood football leagues.

That was when he would turn serious. Progressing through the ranks, from middle-school linebacker to ninth-grade running back, Clowney was already the proverbial man among the boys. Told he had grown too much to play tailback, Clowney switched to defensive end -- he brought with him the same intensity he had learned while watching Rock Hill High School's defense play every Friday night when he was growing up, patterning himself after another revered prep headhunter, former Bearcat standout Donkay Degraffenreid.

The smile became affixed to him as much as the recruiting kudos. To see her son laying waste on the football field every evening was pleasing and vexing to Clowney's mother.

"She never wanted me to play football because she says I'm going to get hurt," Clowney said. "She hates to see me on the bottom of the pile, screaming all the time, 'Don't hurt my baby!' But I usually be doing all the hurting."

There's the smile again.

* * *

In several instances since August, there has only been one time Clowney didn't have the smile. Just three days before his decision, Clowney came out of the basketball locker room refusing to take questions, saying, "The paper printed a bunch of lies about me!"

The piece was the now-infamous New York Times story questioning Clowney's academic credentials. While it never said that Clowney would definitely not qualify, it cast doubt on whether he would, when it was revealed his transcript contained several low marks during his freshman year.

Clowney has repeatedly said that he will be fine, something his coach, Bobby Carroll, has repeatedly backed up. Another source outside the two said that Clowney only needs to make two B's and a C this semester to be fine, which the source said should be no problem, and Clowney again stressed that he would be eligible for school on Monday.

The smile returned to his face when he said it. The process was over.

"I wish now I had done it on Feb. 2," he joked.

* * *

That day in August previewed what was about to happen during his senior year. Knowing full well that because of NCAA restrictions, he couldn't actually speak to Clowney, Southern Cal assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron journeyed to South Pointe to watch Clowney practice. All he could do was stand and perhaps wave, but mostly had to settle for catching Clowney's eye.

"When I was at Tennessee, we signed the No. 1 recruit in the country (Bryce Brown)," Orgeron told GamecockCentral.com. "Last year at Southern Cal, we signed the No. 1 recruit (Seantrel Henderson, who later switched to Miami when it became apparent the Trojans were about to face massive NCAA probation).

"This one," Orgeron said, motioning to Clowney while sporting a big grin, "is going to make it three straight."

That boast didn't come true, although Southern Cal compared favorably tradition-wise to one of Clowney's other finalists. Alabama was in the picture until Clowney didn't like the distance from home, where his father might not be able to travel to see him play, and the defensive scheme the Crimson Tide ran.

There was talk about possibly sticking Clowney at linebacker, a decision he didn't like. "I'm no linebacker, haven't played that since Sullivan (middle school)," he said in January, and the decision seemed rather set from that point on.

Then came the fateful Clemson visit, where Clowney really lived up to his last name.

He fully enjoyed the Clemson experience, liking what Dabo Swinney told him, and his mother was even more enthused. "Coach Swinney just made us feel like we were right at home," Josenna Clowney said two weeks before the announcement; similar proclamations found their way into the mainstream, touching off a run of concern among USC supporters.

Clowney said he only slightly considered signing with the Tigers, mentioning that it was a choice due to how his mother felt about them, but ultimately decided it wasn't for him. "We wanted to decide as a family, and talk it over," Josenna Clowney said the Friday before the announcement. "That was very important to us. But it's his decision and we'll go with what he says. He knows how I feel, but I'm going to support him no matter where he goes."

Clowney played his crowd. He had on an orange pullover during the visit, the white paw on his chest seeming to be a sign. He kept his true feelings about Clemson mostly to himself, only informing a select few; even the weekend before his announcement, he showed up to a game in a USC jacket before saying, "It don't mean nothing. I wore some Clemson stuff to school today."

"That's the way he handles it," his father, David Morgan, said in the stands that night. "I've never had to speak to him about getting a big head or nothing because he's having so much fun with it."

* * *

Carroll also took a similar amount of abuse from the misinformed, who accused him of deliberately trying to steer Clowney away from USC. Carroll said and repeated throughout the process that he was only there to guide Clowney through the recruitment, without pushing him anywhere; again on Monday, he mentioned his personal track record of players he's sent to USC (Clowney is the 10th, from Carroll's days an assistant at Northwestern High and then the head coach at South Pointe).

"I congratulate coach Spurrier and coach (Ellis) Johnson," Carroll said. "They're getting a great player, despite all the Internet banter and stuff where people are blasting me. South Carolina recruited him totally different than the other schools in the rest of the country.

"It worked, because they landed the number-one prospect in the country."

One that could continue Rock Hill's run of success at USC and into the NFL. Clowney spoke throughout his recruitment of how much he wanted to play in the big leagues someday, mentioning another of his heroes, former Rock Hill High standout Chris Hope. Barry Byers, high-school guru at The (Rock Hill) Herald for 30 years, saw some of the same comparisons.

"It's hard for me to say that somebody's number one, but if he's not the best, he's up there with a lot of them," Byers said. "I've seen Jadeveon, I've seen Chris Hope, I've seen Derek Ross, I've seen Stephon Gilmore.

"The thing about saying somebody's the best you've ever seen is you've got to consider the position that they play. You look at Jadeveon on defense, my goodness. He dominates football games."

* * *

Spurrier, Johnson, Brad Lawing and Lorenzo Ward spoke of their new prize on Monday, saying that Clowney would definitely have the opportunity to come in and play right away but nothing was a given. Spurrier already had some detailed plans, saying Clowney could line up all over the field, able to rush in different directions and get to the ball-carrier, much like career sack leader Eric Norwood.

"He doesn't act like a big shot when you're just hanging around," Spurrier said, mentioning Clowney's electric personality. "I think he'll be ready to get to work, contribute whatever he can as much as he can, all the time that he's here."

As enthusiastic as they were about the signing, Spurrier seemed to be stressing the point -- come the summer, Clowney will be just another face in the crowd, albeit probably more talented on the football field than a hefty portion of the others. But he and Clowney feel they can handle it, although Clowney illustrated the point a little better than others.

"Soon as I step in there, I'm going to start," Clowney said, again with the smile.

* * *
To see Clowney relaxed in a non-cluttered environment throughout the recruiting process was almost impossible. There was one moment, though.

Before one basketball game, Clowney walked around the stands at South Pointe as the JV teams battled on the floor. He stopped to chat with several, high-fiving others, before taking his takeout box of food to the top step of the bleachers to eat.

The question was whether he was completely oblivious to the three reporters tracking his move in the gym, or whether he just didn't mind. It seemed to be the latter -- informed by one reporter that they desired to speak with him, Clowney held up both arms and shouted a loud hello to the other two standing down the sideline.

"He is a playful kid," said his basketball coach, Dwayne Hartsoe, who also coached Clowney on the ninth-grade football team. "He likes to play a lot. But when it comes to crunch time, you go between any lines, he's ready to play.

"At times, most of the time, Jadeveon knows when it's time to be serious. Occasionally on the bus, he likes to play around. Even in practice, he likes to goof off a bit. But for the most part, when it's time to get serious, it's time to get serious."

That's how it was in basketball. Most wondered why the No. 1 football recruit in the country would risk an injury by playing basketball, especially when Clowney was going to be in the lane and have people running into or over him all evening. The entire gym gasped in late January when Clowney rose from the floor grimacing, his ankle slightly twisted; but Clowney returned in the next game and played through it.

"He's always had that mentality that he's going to go out and he's going to make the play, he's going to win it for us," said his assistant coach, Melvin Watson, himself a former Gamecock and someone who watched Clowney's talents grow through the years. "I haven't seen a guy make plays like that since John Abraham, when I was in school with him."

* * *

As the process drew to a close, Clowney seemed to tire, dealing with the unrelenting spotlight but still battling barbs that he was extending the decision simply to milk it. Yet his personality never wavered.

"A lot of people think he eats that stuff up," Watson said. "I think he's aggravated with it right now. That's one reason why he came out here to play basketball, to sort of give him an outlet away from all that."

"I do not know of anybody who doesn't like Jadeveon," Leonard said. "You can imagine all the publicity that's come into the school here. In a lot of ways, he's the face of the school. No behavior problems at all. He's a good kid."

The videos of Clowney's football exploits kept getting viewed. The sports networks and fan boards kept frantically discussing him, even pleading with him through direct messages to choose their school. Clowney had the power to ignore phone calls from Spurrier, Swinney and Nick Saban, something he chose to do because he wanted to simply have some time to think.

While his access or charisma never wavered, one could tell the drain the process played on Clowney as it wound down. Reporting to practice in August, shaking hands and hugging anyone who wanted to speak to him or get him on camera; a simply tired 17-year-old in January, slouched with his back against a locker, fidgeting with his sneakers and barely able to look anybody in the eye.

Again, just a crack in the veneer.

"I am happy about (the attention)," he said. "Really, I am. I should be. Not a lot of players get to go through this. I need to be by myself or with my friends sometimes."

He has tried to do it, tried to be just Jadeveon Clowney for quite a while. Nine times out of 10, that was impossible. He is now, and forever will be, No. 1 recruit Jadeveon Clowney, program-changing Jadeveon Clowney, NFL-bound Jadeveon Clowney.

As the minutes ticked toward time to suit up for that night's game, Clowney again rested his head against a locker. He never thought it would get this big, this intense.

But then again, he thought he would be big. The recruiting just followed.

"It has been, at times," answering if the entire process, from the attention as a sophomore until now has been wholly fun. "Not always. Had to stop sometime."

So what happens now?

"Now?," he answers, lifting his head. "Now I'll go be me."

His smile matched the other one in the room.

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