COLUMBIA — Jadeveon Clowney knows how much money is waiting for him a year and a half from now. He tries not to focus on it, but he is not oblivious. He is well aware that his life likely will change forever after the 2014 NFL draft, in which he is projected to be picked first.
The top pick in this year’s draft, quarterback Andrew Luck, signed a $22 million contract — every dollar of which he is fully guaranteed to make. It’s the same deal that quarterback Cam Newton got after going first in the 2011 draft — $22 million, all guaranteed.
Yes, that is a significant drop from the NFL’s old rookie pay scale, under which the 2010 top pick, quarterback Sam Bradford, signed a $78 million deal, with $50 million guaranteed. But $22 million is still absurd money, even after the pay scale changes, and the hefty chunk claimed by taxes.
It is a strange and uncommon existence for a 19-year-old like Clowney — immediate wealth awaiting, a year and a half away, but no sooner. But rare is the case of a football player — especially a defensive end, as Clowney is — who finishes his second year of college and is told that he would be the No. 1 pick in the following spring’s draft if he was eligible to turn pro.
“If he were in this draft, he would be the guaranteed No. 1 pick overall,” said Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN’s draft analyst. “I don’t think there would be any doubt about that.”
As South Carolina prepares for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Michigan, and in 2013 tries to build on back-to-back 10-2 regular seasons, there will be much hand-wringing about whether Clowney can become the first exclusively defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
It is an interesting storyline, to be sure, but not nearly as fascinating as how a kid processes the knowledge of inevitable riches that no one of any age would be able to ignore. And despite his 6-6, 256-pound body, Clowney, deep down, is still very much just a kid from Rock Hill.
From a practical standpoint, Clowney has plenty of time to prepare. Money mismanagement is a significant problem for young athletes inexperienced with wealth. It is especially troublesome for NFL players, because football’s physical nature sometimes shortens careers. Reaching your second contract is not assured, so blowing your first is ill-advised. Clowney said he has already spoken to his coaches and mother, Josenna Clowney, about how to handle his money.
From an emotional standpoint, Clowney insisted he does not think about the money, which perhaps stems from his reputation as a notorious cheapskate. Clowney embraces it. He chuckled as he bragged about bumming rides from teammates rather than driving his 2006 Chrysler 300.
“I know the money is going to be there (after the 2014 draft),” he said. “I’m going to be pretty good with managing my money probably because I don’t spend money. I’ll jump in the car to ride anywhere with somebody to save me miles. I’m one of the tightest guys around here. I don’t care how much money I’ve got. I never like driving my car. My teammates are like, ‘Why don’t you drive your car?’ Man, do you know how much gas costs?’
“Probably if I’ll be the No. 1 pick in the draft, I’ll still buy fake earrings and tell people they’re real. They’re going to believe me anyway because I’m in the NFL.”
He smiled at the silly thought. There is no telling if wealth will change Clowney, but for now, he remains a young man with simple desires, like using his NFL earnings to make sure his mom never again needs to sweat away her days cooking chips at the Frito-Lay plant.
During a four-day span earlier this month, Clowney attended three awards banquets, in Charlotte, Houston and Orlando, Fla. He lost all three awards, including two defensive player of the year honors, to Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te’o, who finished second in Heisman voting.
By the end of the four days, Clowney was weary of flights and missed home so badly that he hopped on USC’s plane immediately after the Orlando event with his position coach, Brad Lawing.
“Coach, it was nice being nominated for all these things, and if I win them, that’s great, but it doesn’t matter,” Clowney told Lawing, as the coach recalled.
“It will to you next year,” Lawing replied. “I promise you.”
Clowney balances his modesty with acute awareness of his prodigious football ability. After a 2012 season in which he set USC’s single-season records for sacks and tackles for loss, he understands what similar success could bring him in 2013.
“I believe a defensive player can win the Heisman next year,” he said. “I just keep playing my game, and I’ll probably have a shot at winning next year.”
Regardless of whether he wins the award, it will not define his football career. There is much more out there for him to chase. It seems an odd notion, this early in a player’s career. But Clowney is that physically gifted, and now a far smarter player than he was in 2011. His increased knowledge allowed Lawing to shift him around to different spots on the line, and sometimes have him stand up rather than bend into a three-point stance, to exploit mismatches.
Lawing believes Clowney needs a third year of college ball, but Lawing’s perspective comes from coaching college football since 1983, 10 years before Clowney was born.
Clowney was asked how it feels to be projected as the top pick in 2013, if he were eligible. He immediately spit out a succinct, unfiltered answer you’d expect from a 19-year-old kid, though it’s hard to argue with his basic logic.
“It makes me want to go,” he said with a laugh. “I’m ready to go.”