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The pursuit of Jadeveon Clowney

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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ROCK HILL, S.C.

Late last Tuesday night, as Jadeveon Clowney lay in his bedroom watching the television sitcom, “The Game,” it finally hit him. He knew which college he wanted to attend.

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So the 6-foot-6, 247-pound defensive end, the nation’s top high school football recruit this year, walked into his mother's bedroom.

“Mom," he said, "I think I’m going to South Carolina."

“OK, that’s fine with me,” Josenna Clowney replied. “If that’s what you want to do.”

On Monday morning, Jadeveon (Juh-DAVE-ian) Clowney celebrated his 18th birthday and Valentine’s Day by announcing he will attend the University of South Carolina. He grabbed a garnet SC cap during a ceremony in South Pointe High School’s auditorium that was broadcast live on ESPN.

Clowney chose the Gamecocks, who won their first Southeastern Conference East title this past season, and whose campus is 70 miles from his home, over bitter in-state rival Clemson. He also considered Alabama.

“I started thinking, ‘Man, who am I going to be really happy with and to be around?’” Clowney told FOXSports.com in an interview two days before his announcement. “I’ve got family up there with my cousin. I was like, ‘I might as well go up there with my cousin and other players I know and hang out with there.’”

The announcement ended the frenzy when Clowney extended his decision by 12 days after not signing like nearly every other recruit on Feb. 2, the first day that binding letters of intent could be signed.

Clowney and his family provided FOXSports.com with an in-depth look at the final weeks of his recruitment. It included him, at one point, deciding he would attend Clemson instead of South Carolina, being tempted by coeds, and admitting for the first time publicly that he has a learning disability after his eligibility for next season was questioned by an article in The New York Times that mentioned his poor grades early in high school. He has yet to qualify academically.

During his recruitment, Clowney said he was never offered anything to attend a school.

“It ain’t really bothered me,” Clowney said of the constant attention surrounding his recruitment. “I’ve been at peace forever. No matter what school I picked, I knew I was going to do OK.”

Touted by some as being ready to play in the NFL now, Clowney is a freakish combination of size, strength and speed. This past season at South Pointe High, he had 29-1/2 sacks and five defensive touchdowns as well as 20 carries for 274 yards and nine touchdowns as a running back.

But Clowney’s rise to stardom has hardly been easy for him and his family. His father, David Morgan, has had several run-ins with police. Morgan served 12 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to robbing a Rock Hill check-cashing business in 1995, and some worry about his influence on his son.

With his father incarcerated for much of his childhood, Clowney was raised by his mother and his maternal grandparents, John and Josephine Clowney, as well as his mother’s longtime boyfriend, Christopher Jones. They watched him when his mother made the 30-minute drive to work shifts at the Frito-Lay plant in Charlotte, N.C., where she has been employed for 16 years.

Despite growing up in Gamecocks country, Clowney was a Texas fan, idolizing Longhorns stars such as Ricky Williams and Vince Young. Texas never recruited him, but he said he would have taken an official visit there if he had ever heard from the Longhorns.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get to play for them, but I like them,” he said.

THE OFFERS BEGIN

As a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, Clowney played running back for South Pointe High’s freshman team before being moved up to the varsity at the end of the season. He had 17 sacks as a sophomore and helped lead his team to a state championship.

Jadeveon Clowney

At home before leaving for his announcement, Jadeveon Clowney watches himself on ESPN.

Thayer Evans

He said his first scholarship offer came the summer before his junior year from Georgia Tech, which left him awestruck. He hadn’t thought much then about which college he would attend, just that he someday wanted to major in business and eventually open sporting goods stores.

Initially, he was interested only in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Florida State. His relationship with the Gamecocks started his sophomore year when their coaches, including defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, visited South Pointe High to recruit his then-senior teammate Stephon Gilmore, a cornerback.

 “They’d talk to him and talk to me every time,” Clowney said.

Gilmore signed with South Carolina, which offered Clowney a scholarship during his junior year. He quickly bonded with Johnson, a demanding coach who repeatedly touted the benefits of staying close to home and being on a team with players from his own area.

“It’s going to be home to you,” Clowney recalled Johnson telling him about South Carolina.

In early November, Clowney, his mother, father and an aunt drove to South Carolina, where they met up with his cousin, Jalavender Clowney. It was the first of three official visits Clowney took during his recruitment, but he had been on campus less than a month earlier and watched the Gamecocks’ upset of then-top-ranked Alabama.

After touring the campus the next morning, Clowney and his family attended South Carolina’s game that night against Arkansas, a 41-20 defeat, the Gamecocks' worst home loss in five years.

After the game, Gilmore, a junior, and other South Carolina players took Clowney out to a party until 1 a.m.

“It’s wild in college,” Clowney said. “Girls be all on you. They love football players up there. I was smiling and laughing about everything.”

Gilmore and Clowney keep in touch and hang out together when Gilmore visits Rock Hill, but Clowney said Gilmore never pressured him about attending South Carolina.

“Do what’s best for you,” Clowney recalled Gilmore telling him.

Before leaving South Carolina, Clowney and his family met with Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier in his office.

“We’d love to have you down here,” Clowney recalled Spurrier telling him. “Stay in-state. We’ve got to keep our players in-state.”

SABAN CREATES A STIR

Jadeveon Clowney

Jadeveon Clowney gets in the car for the ride to South Pointe High School.

Thayer Evans

In early January, Alabama hired Chris Rumph as its defensive line coach, a curiously timed move by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.

Rumph came from Clemson, where he had coached defensive ends and, perhaps more significantly, had recruited Clowney and established a close relationship with him.

Clowney, who already had good relationships with two Alabama staff members – associate head coach Burton Burns and assistant head coach Sal Sunseri – heard the rumblings that Rumph had been hired in hopes of him choosing the Crimson Tide. But he didn’t believe it.

“They ain’t like that,” he said. “At least, I don’t think so.”

But Clowney wanted to hear Rumph explain why he left Clemson. “They can’t win there,” Clowney recalled Rumph telling him.

“We’re going to win here. I couldn’t promise you that at Clemson, but I can promise you that here.”

In early December, Saban made his home visit with Clowney. The town was abuzz, with vehicles slowly streaming by Clowney’s mother’s house in hopes of catching a glimpse of the legendary coach. Inside, Clowney wasn’t that impressed.

“I don’t see no big deal like everybody else,” he said later. “They’d say, ‘He’s the king of all of football.’ The guy ain’t nothing but 5-5. He’s a short guy. Everybody’s going crazy on Nick Saban.”

During the visit, Saban touted Alabama’s graduation rate, its success in sending players to the NFL and playing Clowney at both defensive end and outside linebacker. Clowney and his family could hardly get a word in.

“Nick Saban’s going to take over and talk,” Clowney said. “He talked the whole time he was there. I was dozing off. He can talk. A lot. He talked for a whole straight hour.”

When Spurrier made his home visit later in the month, Clowney missed most of it because he was getting his dreadlocks twisted. He had spoken to Spurrier earlier in the day at South Pointe High.

“I don’t know what I think of him,” Josenna Clowney said of Spurrier. “I don’t know. I think he’s really business wise.”

TAKING IN TUSCALOOSA

Clowney flew to take his official visit to Alabama in mid-January with his mother and high school coach, Bobby Carroll. After a tour of the Paul W. Bryant Museum and dinner, Crimson Tide players, including some freshmen who had enrolled that semester, took Clowney to The Brick House, a Tuscaloosa restaurant, where they drew plenty of attention from coeds.

“They were all over us,” Clowney said. “We were new faces, I guess. They was lovin’ us. We just had a ball that night.”

Clowney stayed out until 2:30 a.m. and didn’t get much sleep because he had to be ready for breakfast at 8:30 a.m., followed by a campus tour.

After lunch and a nap, he visited Bryant-Denny Stadium, where he marveled at its four high-definition video screens.

“You be looking for the big screen like everybody else, but they’ve got four,” he said.

That night, Clowney attended a dinner in one of Bryant-Denny Stadium’s suites. He then went out again with Crimson Tide players, while his mother went to Saban’s lakefront house with the parents of other recruits.

 There, they celebrated the birthday of Saban’s wife, Terry, and played games. Josenna Clowney partnered with Willie Carl Martin, Alabama’s director of player development, and the two beat Terry Saban and another recruit’s mother in a card game.

During the entire visit, whenever Josenna Clowney got out of a chair, the coaches were there to help her up. Whenever she needed something to drink, they got it for her.

“They’d say, ‘We’re just being gentlemen,’” she said. “They were so nice. All the women were, too.”

On Sunday morning, Clowney ate breakfast at Saban’s house with other recruits and drove all-terrain vehicles. Later, he met with Saban in his office.

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“We’d love to have you,” Clowney recalled Saban telling him. “You’d help our team out. You’re going to play as a freshman.”

But Alabama’s 3-4 defense was a problem for Clowney. He believed he didn’t fit in the scheme.

“If Alabama ran a 4-3, I would have committed a long time ago,” Clowney said during a Jan. 24 interview at his grandparents’ house. “They run a 3-4 and I’m thinking, ‘They expect me to stay 265, 270 (pounds).’ If I get up to 280, 290, I’d be playing defensive tackle up there. That ain’t my position. I like playing on the end and rushing the passer.”

MAKE THEM WAIT

With that in mind, Clowney said in the same interview that he planned to attend South Carolina but didn’t plan on telling his mother of his decision until his announcement. He was also sticking to announcing his college choice on Feb. 14.

“I want to make people wait,” he said. “The longer I make them wait, I see who really wants me to come there.”

Told during a Jan. 24 interview that her son said he wanted to attend South Carolina, Josenna Clowney started clapping and said, “Good, because he won’t tell me.”

“It’s easy and it’s convenient and that’s where I probably want him to go,” she added.

Josenna Clowney’s birthday was Jan. 26. She planned to celebrate it but didn’t get to because of visiting coaches from Clemson and South Carolina. The next day, she hoped to have a belated birthday celebration, but two Alabama coaches were waiting for her when she got home from work.

The last weekend of January, Clowney and his mother got up at 5:30 a.m. and made the approximately two-hour drive to Clemson, his last official visit.

At first, Josenna Clowney hadn’t been excited about going to Clemson with her son. That was until Tigers coach Dabo Swinney’s home visit on Jan. 18, which left quite an impression on her.

“I really liked the way he talked me to me and the things he said,” she said.

During the meeting, Josenna Clowney said, Swinney looked her in the eye when he talked with her.

“I don’t recall the other two doing that,” she said of Saban and Spurrier. “They talked good, too, about their school and their program. It just seems more sincere from Dabo.”

'CLOWNEY! CLOWNEY! CLOWNEY!'

After arriving at Clemson for their official visit, the Clowneys watched the Tigers’ men’s basketball team play Florida State. During the game, they sat in the front row behind the Clemson bench with Swinney and his wife, Kathleen.

Clowney generated more buzz than the game simply by what he wore to it – an orange Clemson fleece pullover that the Tigers coaches let him borrow during his visit.

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Soon after he sat down, a photograph surfaced of him in the Clemson attire, sending shockwaves across social media and recruiting websites.

“He looks good in orange, don’t he?” Josenna Clowney said.

At halftime, some Tigers fans chanted, “Clowney! Clowney! Clowney!” It was a valiant effort, but not even close to the reception he got on an unofficial visit at a South Carolina basketball game earlier in the month when the arena boomed with chants of “We want Clowney! We want Clowney!”

After the basketball game, Clowney visited the Tigers’ Memorial Stadium, where he performed the school tradition of rubbing Howard’s Rock and running down the hill onto the field. He also met Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jacoby Ford, a former Clemson star and a fourth-round pick in last year’s NFL draft.

After dinner at a steakhouse, the Clowneys, other recruits with their families, and Clemson assistant coaches along with their wives ate dessert at the Swinneys' house. Josenna Clowney was impressed by the home’s swimming pool and the Swinneys’ “adorable and very smart” sons, with whom Jadeveon played.

Over cheesecake and cookies, Dabo Swinney reminded his guests that Josenna Clowney hadn’t been able to celebrate her birthday because of visits from coaches. He then led the group in a resounding rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“I was shocked,” Josenna Clowney said. “Coach Dabo remembers everything.”

That night, Clowney and some Clemson players went to the apartment of Tigers’ junior safety Jonathan Meeks, a graduate of rival Rock Hill High School, before going to a house party. There, Clowney was the center of attention and Clemson’s coeds fawned over him.

“All the girls came up to me,” he said. “They would do anything just to get me down there. I was laughing, but I didn’t really mess with anybody.”

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Of the coeds at Alabama, Clemson and South Carolina, Clowney said he liked the Crimson Tide's the best. "They're just my type," he said.

 

A CHANGE OF MIND?

On Sunday morning, the Clowneys met with Swinney in his office. Swinney mentioned the similarities between Clowney and Da’Quan Bowers, the Clemson junior defensive end who declared for the NFL draft in January.

Like Clowney, Bowers was the nation’s top recruit coming out of high school in 2008. He is expected to be one of the top picks in April’s NFL draft.

On the drive back home from Clemson, Clowney slept most of the way, but not before telling his mother: “I’m more confused. Now, I really don’t know where I’m going.”

“I was all stuck on South Carolina,” Clowney said during a signing-day interview on Feb. 2 while sprawled out on a green couch at his mother’s house. “I told Coach Swinney that I wasn’t going to come to Clemson because Coach Rumph left. Coach Swinney said, ‘You come to Clemson, you would like it.’ I went down there and liked it. Now, I’m thinking about going to school there.”

 Earlier on Feb. 2 during a television appearance on ESPNU, Clowney surprised many by saying that Clemson was among his final three choices. Later, during an interview at his mother’s house, he said that if he had to sign with a school that day, it would be Clemson.

“Everybody expects me to go South Carolina or Alabama, but I’m going to shock everybody and go to Clemson,” Clowney said. “I’m going to do the unexpected.”

 Before the trip to Clemson, Josenna Clowney had wanted her son to go to South Carolina if it came down to the Gamecocks and Alabama. But during a Feb. 2 interview, she declared Alabama out of the race, from her perspective.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable,” Josenna Clowney said of Alabama. “Some of the people in Alabama was nice. I don’t want my son going there. I just didn’t feel like we fit in.”

With her trust in Swinney and belief that Clemson would be best for her son because it is farther away from home than South Carolina, Josenna Clowney had changed her opinion about where he should attend college.

“I’m leaning towards Clemson now,” she said during a Feb. 2 interview.

“I don’t feel comfortable with my child going to school down there,” she said of South Carolina. “I don’t. I really don’t. At first, I did, but it’s so close and there’s so much to get into down there.”

CLEMSON IMPRESSES

On signing day, Clowney laughed at rumors that he was interested in taking official visits to Auburn and Oregon, but paid close attention to the college choices of Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, two of the Class of 2011’s top linebackers. Somewhat surprisingly, both picked Clemson, despite the Tigers' 6-7 record last season, their first losing record in 12 years.

 

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“Oh man, that right there made me start saying, ‘I might as well go there, too,’ ” Clowney said. “Everybody else is going to be in that defense.”

Clowney was also impressed by the other members of Clemson’s top-10 recruiting class, which included linebacker Lateek Townsend, who called him on signing day.

“It’s hard, man,” Clowney told Townsend about making his college choice.

When Clowney walked outside to continue his phone conversation with Townsend, his mother smiled broadly and flashed her crossed fingers for Clemson.

 “I’m hoping,” she said. “Nobody would have ever thought Clemson.”

After Clowney’s phone conversation with Townsend, his grandfather had a question for him.

“Are you signing with Clemson?” he asked.

“You want me to?” Clowney replied.

“I want you to go to South Carolina,” he said, eliciting laughter from Clowney and his mother.

HOLD THOSE CALLS

Townsend’s call was one of just a couple that Clowney took on signing day. Otherwise, he purposely didn’t answer his cell phone to avoid coaches.

Swinney left a voice mail, however, that Clowney recalled in his best imitation of the energetic young coach.

“You see that class we’re picking up?” Clowney recalled Swinney saying. “I hope you’re watching. We’re getting them all. No point in waiting. You might as well come. It’d be the happiest day of my life. I love you, Clowney. Come on.”

“That’s the man,” Clowney said.

Saban didn’t call on signing day, but Spurrier did and left a voice mail, which Clowney also repeated in his best imitation of the colorful coach.

“Ja-DAVE-ian, come on, man, come to South Carolina,” Clowney recalled Spurrier saying. “We need you. We need you bad.”

And while the Clowneys had long ago eliminated LSU as a possibility, the Tigers didn’t know it because Clowney hadn’t told them. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis called Josenna Clowney on signing day, but she ignored his call.

“He doesn’t want to tell nobody no,” she said of her son.

But Clowney did say no to one school — Florida State. He was supposed to take an official visit on the second-to-last weekend of January, but canceled.

That didn’t stop Florida State quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Dameyune Craig from trying his best to entice Clowney.

“I don’t know if you’re going to come down here to see us or if you’re coming down for the girls, because we got ’em,” Clowney recalled Craig telling him.

“He’s a black guy, brother, so he know what’s going on and everything,” Clowney said of Craig. “He a cool dude. He kept it real with me.”

While Clowney played in a basketball game last Friday night, Swinney called Clowney’s mother. They briefly talked before he called back later in the night to ask whether Clowney would make another unofficial visit the next day for Clemson’s men’s basketball home game against North Carolina.

When she told Swinney that her son wouldn’t be coming, he replied, “That’s a bummer.” Townsend also called Clowney’s mother and asked if her son would be at Clemson on Saturday.

“Tell him I can’t make it,” Clowney told his mother, which she refused to do.

“I really like Clemson,” Josenna Clowney said two days before her son’s announcement. “I think that’s the best place for him.

“I’m not disappointed he’s going to South Carolina. I need to make sure he knows that there’s a lot of stuff to get into and he don’t need to be down there fooling around.”

Josenna Clowney took a deep breath and sighed. With her son making his spontaneous, late-night decision to choose South Carolina, she knows he’ll face more important choices ahead.

Tagged: Clemson, South Carolina

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