HOOVER, Ala. — For a moment, Jadeveon Clowney separated himself from the scene around him, the dozens of inquisitive eyes and ears brought here by his enthralling performances over the past two seasons.
He was considering a question about being assigned a personal security guard to follow him Tuesday at Southeastern Conference football media days. After saying he loves interacting with fans and didn’t need a security guard — stand next to Clowney, and you will agree — he let his imagination wander for a moment, as 20-year-old kids are wont to do.
He pondered a life where nobody recognized him, an existence he hasn’t entirely known since his junior year of high school. He envisioned stepping into the crowds that watched him pass Tuesday afternoon at The Wynfrey Hotel. He considered what it would feel like to not be Jadeveon Clowney in this halcyon summer of 2013.
“I just imagine if it wasn’t me,” he said of the famous man with a security guard. “I’d be mad, like, ‘Dang, I wish I was that guy.’ Being that guy is the greatest thing ever.”
Clowney’s life only figures to improve, and part of that involves eventually cashing in the personality — his brand, as marketing wizards say — that he showed Tuesday. After finishing his junior season this fall at South Carolina, he will be the NFL draft’s No. 1 pick. A defensive end, he is considered one of the most promising defensive prospects of the past 30 years.
Anyone who watched his games the past two years knows he is a remarkable player. He showed Tuesday, in the most prominent off-field public appearance of his life, what the rest of being Jadeveon Clowney is like — equal parts folksy, candid, silly and engaging.
When he was a freshman, Clowney was reserved in media interviews, but quarterback Connor Shaw said teammates always saw a more outgoing Clowney. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington said the Gamecocks “just sit in the room and laugh at him all day.” Clowney opened up publicly more last season. On Tuesday, bouncing from room to room, surrounded by hundreds of reporters, he let it all hang out, cracking wise and taking jabs at opponents, smiling all the way.
Does his behavior in an artificial social setting like this really matter?
Not to on-field results, per se. But few college sports media settings are more absurd and awkward than the annual SEC football human zoo. Look comfortable here, as Clowney did Tuesday, and you will probably appeal to companies seeking a face for their product. Combine that with athletic talent and a major or even mid-major media market, and you’ll have steady income for life. It worked for another defensive end, Michael Strahan.
“You’ve got some really good players that, when they get to the next level, some of them take advantage of the opportunities, and some of them don’t,” said USC senior associate athletic director Charles Bloom, who coordinates marketing and ushered Clowney around Tuesday.
Most athletes now recognize there is little to be gained from completely walling yourself off from the public. Give people even a little of yourself, and you get a lot. Or, as Ellington put it, “It’s all about your brand.” Clowney gave plenty Tuesday, offering amusing responses to wide-ranging questions.
Could he tackle Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner, if they met in the SEC championship game?
“Can he get away from me, though?” Clowney said, grinning. “That’s the question. But yeah, I can tackle Johnny Manziel.” (This is a line he essentially repeated, along with a couple others, in different interview rooms. Like any successful public figure, he is learning what charms.)
What would he say to Vincent Smith, the Michigan running back whose helmet he famously popped off with a ferocious hit in the Outback Bowl?
“I would be like, ‘Hey, how you feel, man?’” Clowney said.
His thoughts on Tennessee’s elite offensive tackle, Antonio Richardson, who he beat for a game-clinching strip sack last season: “He is the best at holding and getting away with it.”
Clowney’s response when opponents trash talk him during games, as he said Richardson did: “That’s all you’re going to do, but you ain’t blocking me.”
Clowney even mixed in a squeaky-voiced impression of USC coach Steve Spurrier — complete with mimicking Spurrier’s fist-bump greeting — and told a winding, unintentionally funny story about how he got a sore throat by cramming down lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the offseason to gain a few pounds he thought he needed.
Of course, none of this attention is new to Clowney, who said fans have pulled him over in his car at stop lights to get a picture. And for now, most of it is welcome. He said walking around campus and hearing people holler his name is “the greatest feeling in the world.”
This has always been him, teammates say — the life of the room, with a presence large enough to match his 6-6, 270-pound body. But now, he is letting you have some of him, too.
“I guess I’m getting used to this thing right here,” he said, spreading his arms out to the 50 or so reporters in front of him. “I’m starting to catch on to it, have fun with it. People always tell me, ‘You’ve got a good personality. You’re good for TV.’ I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to get my own TV show.’”