The questions are always met with a laugh.
How can a South Carolina city with a population of 68,000 and change claim 21 NFL players as its own — including eight who were on active rosters in Week 1 this season? How can that same city have 24 players in either the FBS or FCS — including one of the leading candidates to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft?
Rock Hill, S.C. — known as “Football City, USA” to the locals — is a southern textile town turned football factory. Three high schools — Rock Hill, Northwestern and South Pointe — export a new wave of talent to the next level each fall.
“You can spend six dollars and see these kids every Friday,” longtime local radio broadcaster Gene Knight said. “Or you can wait a few years and spend $600.”
The numbers back up that assessment. The city of Miami has the most players in the NFL at 24, but that’s a rate of one per 17,254 people. Rock Hill produces one NFL player per 8,512 people. The headliners are easy to recognize. University of South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney likely will be the third consecutive first-round pick. He follows Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore (2012) and Minnesota wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (2013).
Names and numbers pile up in other high-school havens too, but Rock Hill football brings its own distinctive sauce. This isn’t Texas, where multi-million dollar high school stadiums are becoming the norm. Rock Hill’s proving ground stage is District Three Stadium, an 8,738-seat institution nestled in the city’s core at the end of a dimly-lit neighborhood on Cherry Road. It’s a venue that has seen more than its share of standing-room only affairs.
The visitor’s side bleachers are ironically carved into a hill, the hill NFL alumni such as Chris Hope, Johnathan Joseph and Ko Simpson shuttled up and down countless times together, chasing their dream.
That dream is being realized more with each generation. Why? That’s where the laugh kicks in, a ticklish chuckle that suggests, “We’ve been seeing this for years. Where have you been?”
“It’s just part of the city,” Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson said. “There are athletes all over this town, and they are split between the three schools. You talk about freakish talent. It’s a freakish city when it comes to that.”
There’s “SEC speed” and “Sunday speed.” Perhaps “Rock Hill speed” deserves its own classification.
Patterson provided a glimpse of that home-grown speed with the Vikings this season. He had a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 2 and tied a NFL record with a 109-yard kickoff for a score in Week 8.
Patterson, who starred at Northwestern, ran a 4.42 in the 40 at the NFL Combine. Gilmore, a South Pointe product, ran a 4.40. Clowney, all 270 pounds of him, reportedly ran a 4.5 during workouts last summer. Now imagine watching Patterson and Gilmore on the same field — or Gilmore and Clowney on the same team.
“It was a rivalry,” Patterson said. “(Gilmore) is a great guy. He’s a competitive guy. I’m a competitive guy. It’s really a great thing, and now we’re here.”
Here, of course, is the NFL, a popular destination for Rock Hill defensive backs since safety Rick Sanford was taken in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. Jeff Burris, a two-way standout at Northwestern, was next. He starred at Notre Dame before a 10-year NFL career from 1994-2003. Burris now is the assistant defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins.
Hope, Simpson and Derek Ross were among those who followed Burris’ lead. Of Rock Hill’s current NFL players, four — Gilmore, Joseph, Phillip Adams and Jonathan Meeks — are defensive backs.
Burris touches base with any Rock Hill native once they arrive in the NFL, and he’s quick to point out that many of those defensive backs played other positions in high school. Gilmore played quarterback. Hope was a Parade All-American running back at Rock Hill.
It still boils down to that freakish attribute that only gets better.
“The speed is ridiculous,” Burris said. “If Stephon runs a 4.4., then the next guy wants to run faster. It’s competitive, and it’s really amazing to watch.”
Former Northwestern High School standout Cordarrelle Patterson has two kickoff returns this season as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings. (AP Photo)
EVERY DAY IS FRIDAY
Of course, talent needs cultivation. There’s no shortage in that regard.
Burris played for legendary high school coach Jimmy “Moose” Wallace at Northwestern in the 1980s. “Moose” is a southern-fried Madden clone; friendly, fiery and forever-talking football philosophy. He coached for 40 years and won four state championships. Wallace retired in 2011, but doesn’t stray too far from District Three Stadium. He does color commentary on the radio every Friday night.
Wallace watched it all unfold in Rock Hill. Northwestern High School was founded in 1971, and immediately formed a cross-town rivalry with Rock Hill, a game that’s played on the last week of the season ever since. The city added South Pointe to the mix in 2005. At least one of those schools has played for a state championship each of the last five years. Northwestern and South Pointe are each one game away from playing each other in the state championship this season.
“The intensity manifests itself into an extremely high level of performance and a high standard,” Wallace said. “I think the area within a 25-mile radius produces some of the best high school football in the United States, and that’s a great thing for us.”
The results are real-life stories that put the contrived TV plotlines of “Friday Night Lights” to shame.
—Gerald Dixon Sr., a Rock Hill graduate who played linebacker at South Carolina before a 10-year career in the NFL, is an assistant coach at Rock Hill. He has two sons — half brothers who share the name Gerald. One played for Northwestern, the other played for South Pointe. Both now play at the University of South Carolina.
—Former South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll, a longtime assistant for Wallace at Northwestern, coached Clowney in high school. Carroll’s son Spencer played quarterback at nearby York at the time. In other words, Carroll had the top recruit in the country at his disposal, and he was sending him at his son.
—Richardson runs the “Air Raid” at Northwestern — a sophisticated no-huddle passing attack complete with those poster-boards college teams use to call plays. The Trojans are ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 14 in the USA Today Super 25.
Benjamin Watson, a veteran NFL tight end now with New Orleans, saw the town from the inside-out when he transferred to Northwestern from out of state.
“I moved to Rock Hill from Norfolk, Va., and I was able to see Rock Hill from the outside,” Watson said. “I’m telling you when I moved there, the emphasis was on football. It’s a smaller town, and the support you get is amazing. On football Friday nights the entire town shuts down. You look even down to the little leagues, and the people take it very serious.
“I remember my first Northwestern-Rock Hill game being like a small college game. There were 6,000 people down there; a lot of them were standing on the hill. It was a playoff atmosphere. I do remember being a little overwhelmed the first I time I played in that game.”
Friday nights aren’t immune to the occasional on-field brawl, like when Rock Hill and South Pointe players had to be separated when punches — and a few helmets — were tossed after a game in 2011. Still, the overall temperature of racial tension in Rock Hill runs lower than most cities. According to the 2012 Census, Rock Hill has a 54.6 white population and 38.3 black. It’s affluence, inner-city toughness and rural strength smashed into a three-school grinder. In this case, however, football will always trump race, and an overall sense of family prevails.
“We all want to beat each other,” Watson said. “But if just one of us is in the state championship we want the champion to be from Rock Hill.”
Perhaps that measures Rock Hill’s success more than any 40 time ever could. Who is responsible for that?
People like Barry Byers.
New Orleans tight end Ben Watson transferred to Northwestern High School from out of state. (AP Photo)
“EVERBODY KNOWS BARRY”
Byers started covering high school sports for the Rock Hill Herald in 1981. He coined the term “Football City, USA” in 2008, when Northwestern and South Pointe met in the Class 4A state championship game.
Everybody knew the short, stubby man with a bristling mustache and coke-bottle glasses. Like Wallace, Byers lived as a walking, talking encyclopedia of South Carolina high-school football knowledge. Byers didn’t Tweet or use Facebook, and it took him 20 minutes to figure out how to connect to wireless Internet.
None of that mattered, however. Byers helped organize a scrimmage — or in these parts, a jamboree — that became Rock Hill’s premier social event every summer. He fostered close personal relationships with the players, notably Hope, who grew up riding his bicycle a few houses down from Byers. Some sportswriters might see that as a no-no, but Byers made this arrangement work. Byers’ life-long mission was to cover Rock Hill football, and almost every former and current NFL player from the area recognizes that.
“He was the one that knew everything,” Watson said. “He wrote about the guys in middle school and high school and watched their transition to college and the NFL. He’s really the one that helped put some of us on the map. He cares about you as a person and not just an athlete, and as an athlete you can tell the difference.”
Byers passed away after a lengthy bout with cancer on Oct. 18. A ceremony honoring Byers was held at South Pointe two weeks later, and the décor included helmets of all the local high schools. Guests were encouraged to wear their favorite team’s colors. Chris Hope was among those who spoke, and he called Byers, “A great man, a great friend and a great father.”
— Chris Hope (@Ichope24) March 17, 2012
While the Byers anecdotes are too many to count, perhaps one stands above the rest. In 2010, Byers was admitted to a local hospital because of heart problems and ordered on bed rest. Three days later — on the first football Friday night of the season — he snuck out after his wife Dawn went to bed. In Byers’ words, the South Pointe concession stand had, “One of the biggest damned turkey legs you’ll ever see.”
Not to mention the biggest damned defensive end.
Byers died the day before “his boys” squared off in a SEC showdown at Tennessee. That’s what he called Clowney and former Northwestern quarterback Justin Worley.
Clowney was the No. 1 recruit in the country at South Pointe. He had 29.5 sacks as a senior and was a YouTube sensation long before he authored “The Hit” in the 2013 Outback Bowl. Across every press box in the state, the first question was, “Have you seen that defensive end from South Pointe?”
Worley, meanwhile, was the National Gatorade Player of the Year at Northwestern. He passed for 5,315 yards and a state-record 64 touchdowns as a senior. When both local legends were seniors in 2010, Worley also led the Trojans to a 42-20 win against Clowney and South Pointe in a game televised on ESPNU.
One year later, Worley and Clowney faced off again, only this time Worley was starting for Tennessee and Clowney at South Carolina. Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman — another South Pointe grad and now a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys — also started for the Gamecocks. Patterson later joined Worley with the Volunteers, and the Dixon brothers and kicker Landon Ard — yet another South Pointe graduate — are teammates with Clowney. Tennessee-South Carolina games have become a Rock Hill reunion.
“It’s crazy to see that amount of guys in the NFL and college, and it’s an honor to be a part of that tradition,” Worley said. “It’s humbling to be a part of that prestigious of a group.”
Clowney’s next move is the NFL, but it’s a move that likely will come with the same scrutiny he’s faced since his senior year at South Pointe. Rock Hill players have had success at the next level. Burris and Hope were All-Americans. Hope and Watson have Super Bowl rings. Clowney, however, has the potential to be a franchise player. He already has the support.
“With all my heart I hope he’s the first pick,” Gerald Dixon Sr. said. “He’s just getting a lot of negative publicity now because everybody is double-teaming and triple-teaming him. If you block him one-one-one; you can’t do it. In the NFL, he’ll get those one-on-one opportunities.
“A team would be crazy to pass that up in the first round.”
THE NEXT WAVE
While Clowney is the next NFL player from Rock Hill, another line is on the way to college. In other words, the pipeline isn’t stopping.
Northwestern senior quarterback Mason Rudolph is an Oklahoma State commit, and South Pointe senior defensive tackle Zeek Rodney is a two-star recruit getting looks from several ACC schools. Yet 5-foot-6 junior athlete Dupree Hart, a touchdown-catching machine who is arguably the most exciting high school player in South Carolina, might just be the next Rock Hill freak.
Rock Hill players will continue to stick together. Worley and Clowney are friends. Burris still calls Hope “his guy.” When Rock Hill natives cross each other’s paths on Sunday, it makes the moment more special.
“I have pictures of me and Johnathan Joseph from a preseason game because it really is rare to see so many guys from one small town in the NFL,” Watson said. “It’s definitely a fraternity, and we care for each other.”
There’s also an outward awareness to give back. Watson runs a summer camp with a local church for youth football players. Simpson and Dixon are assistant coaches at Rock Hill. Patterson said he plays every week knowing the people back home are watching.
“It’s our work ethic,” Patterson said. “We make sure we do the right things because we got a lot of little kids who make sure those guys try to give back to them.”
Those are the kids tagging along on the jaunt up the visitor’s side bleachers. It’s players blessed with incredible talent, coaches with forward-thinking schemes and media personalities like Knight and the late Byers who continue to chronicle that hometown success. That’s the recipe for a football factory. In this case, seeing how it’s made is its own reward.
“I think when you get into this player development stuff the speed, strength and conditioning stuff, but at some point it’s genetics,” Wallace said. “God has given you ability, and therefore you have to use it. You have a highly, highly competitive area. Not that it’s more competitive than everywhere else, but there’s a high standard here and there always will be.”
Perhaps that’s the reason for the laugh. For all the attempts to come up with a plausible explanation for those questions, Rock Hill’s success can be quantified with one simple sentence.
It’s in the people.
Source Article from http://www.sportingnews.com/ncaa-football/story/2013-11-25/rock-hill-south-carolina-high-school-college-nfl-jadeveon-clowney-stephon-gilmore
Football City, USA: Few places can match Rock Hill’s success – SportingNews.com
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