McCLELLANVILLE — Steven Young finally broke down, weeping in the principal’s office. It was a first for the big, cheery kid so many classmates relied on for hope in this tight-knit community.
HOMETOWN: AwendawHIGH SCHOOL: Lincoln HS (enrollment 138) in McClellanvilleFOOTBALL: 5-11, 275-pound redshirt freshman defensive tackleMAJOR: General engineeringWORKS: Weekends as a dishwasher and busboy at T.W. Graham & Co. in McClellanville
Lincoln High School annually has some of the lowest academic statistics in Charleston County, but Young excelled in the classroom. He is now a sophomore engineering major at Clemson.
WHO: No. 14 Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC) vs. No. 9 LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC) WHERE: AtlantaWHEN: 7:30 p.m. todayTV: ESPNLINE: LSU by 5
“That tenacity, that resilience,” said Dr. Yvonne Commodore, the Lincoln principal. “Steven has always had a mission. Nothing and no one are going to stop him.”
Never mind that Lincoln had perhaps the worst high school team in South Carolina in 2010, Young’s senior year. He thought he could play college football. He wasn’t recruited to Clemson but made the team as a walk-on defensive tackle, and appeared in two games this season.
To take high school engineering classes, Young commuted each school day, driving a 1999 gray Dodge Durango 30 miles down Highway 17 to Mount Pleasant. He went from Lincoln, one of the smallest public schools in the state (138 students), to a new socio-economic world at Wando High School (3,800 students).
Barbara Young, a single mom with four children, got help from her sister Betty and saved just enough money to pay cash for Steven’s truck at an auction.
But, so close to college dreams, Young found a roadblock — gas money.
“Steven’s heart was aching,” Commodore said. “He confided that he was having trouble. He also talked about how difficult it was with no dad in the picture, about how he was worried about his mom working so hard. But before he left the office, he said, ‘Dr. Commodore, I’m going to be a better person for this.’”
In this tiny Atlantic Coast inlet town known for shrimp, Spanish moss and hospitality, some Lincoln High School “sponsors” quietly volunteered to pay for gas.
Commodore plans to watch the Chick-fil-A Bowl tonight. Young probably won’t see action when No. 14-ranked Clemson faces No. 9 LSU at the Georgia Dome. Then again, the 5-11, 275-pound Awendaw resident already has defied odds, demographics and football gravity.
“I’m just a focused and determined guy,” said Young, 20. “No one knows how hard you’re willing to work except yourself and God. You can do anything you put your mind to, but you just have to work hard.”
Engineering classes are among the most challenging at Clemson. Young, who wants to be an electrical engineer, said he has time for four or five hours of sleep per night.
“I’m good at math,” he said. “But this math is very, very hard.”
Unlike 85 of his Clemson teammates, Young doesn’t have an athletic scholarship. His aid package is a patchwork of grants and loans. There are financial gaps.
“I need money to wash clothes, things like that,” Young said.
So he works available weekends washing bits of seafood and rice off plates at McClellanville’s most popular restaurant, T.W. Graham & Co.
How many bowl-bound college football players do you think worked last weekend between the end of a postseason practice schedule and kickoff? Young did, eagerly grabbing holiday shifts among the old oaks on Pinckney Street.
“I feel like I can set a great example for kids at Lincoln,” Young said. “Every time I go home, I go straight to work.”
Teachers drop by T.W. Graham & Co. when Young is working in the busy kitchen. They sometimes bring high school or middle school students.
“Some of the kids ask how they can be like me or get to Clemson,” Young said. “I just let them know you have to work hard, that nothing is easy. Trust me, it has not been easy for me.”
Only nine players
The Lincoln Yellow Jackets had a roster including as few as 15 players during Young’s junior and senior seasons.
“Steven never got discouraged,” said Michael Donald, the Lincoln head coach when Young was a senior. “He wasn’t so much an outspoken leader, but he led by example.”
The greatest opportunity to triumph over incredible adversity came one chilly autumn night, a three-hour bus ride south of the Lincoln locker room. Even for Lincoln, what happened in the 2009 regular-season finale at Hardeeville High School was humbling.
“It was their homecoming,” Young said. “We had some guys get hurt. We finished the game with nine players.”
Lincoln lost, 47-12, to cap a winless season.
“At the end of the game, the Hardeeville coach came over to us,” Young recalled. “He said, ‘You all tried so hard; you are such a determined team.’ We all prayed together. It felt like we won the game.”
Again as a senior, Young started on both sides of the line.
Again, Lincoln lost every game.
The high school football website maxpreps.com ranked Lincoln No. 236 — dead last — among South Carolina teams in 2010, and 14,489th among 14,494 teams ranked nationally.
Just 13 months later, a wide-eyed Young had willed his way into Clemson’s Orange Bowl traveling party. He ate lavish team meals at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa on South Ocean Drive in Hollywood, Fla. The glassy, space-age structure towers above the beach.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Young said. “I came from a (Class) 1A high school and we were winless, and here I am in Miami playing football at a major conference school getting ready for a big bowl game.”
The Tigers went jet skiing.
“Yeah, jet skiing,” Young said. “I had never been jet skiing in my life. I just took it all in.”
Young wears an orange wristband he got from Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro. On one side it says “Psalm 27” and on the other “No Fear.”
Barbara Young works seven days a week at Seewee Restaurant on Highway 17 in Awendaw.
“Monday through Saturday as a cook,” she said. “On Sundays, I wait tables.”
She works Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights as a cook at T.W. Graham & Co.
Just the two jobs now, but for a while it was three.
“I didn’t stay at Waffle House long,” Barbara Young said, “because I have to help out with my mother.”
She beams at the mention of Steven.
“He still calls me ‘mommy,’” Barbara Young said. “He tells everybody, ‘If my mommy can work two jobs, I can do whatever it takes.’”
Young plans to use his engineering degree to take care of his mother. Goals and achievement run in the family. Steven, who also draws inspiration from grandparents on his mother’s side, has two older sisters. Martha is a teacher at Daniel Island Academy and Tasha is a cosmetologist. Younger sister Jessica is a Wando High School senior.
Steven could have transferred to Wando to make his high school life less hectic. Dr. Commodore said that would have been the prudent decision.
“But Steven insisted on graduating from Lincoln,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s just something I want to do.’”
‘Rudy’ or not
It happens that Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney overcame a rough childhood, made the Alabama football team as a walk-on wide receiver and helped the Crimson Tide win the 1992 national title.
Twenty years later, Swinney has a soft spot for walk-ons in general, Young in particular.
“I am so impressed with Steven,” Swinney said. “To take what you’ve been given and try to make the best of it, that’s the message we try to get across to all of our players.”
Young was a longshot when he asked his high school coach to phone Clemson and ask about a tryout. Though 25 would-be Tigers showed up on a hot August day in 2011, Clemson Director of Player Personnel Mike Dooley announced he needed only five. Young got the call that night.
Getting to play two snaps in Clemson’s 41-7 victory over Furman on Sept. 15 and one snap in a 45-10 rout of Maryland on Nov. 10 surprised Young, who is a redshirt freshman athletically.
“I wanted to get on the field and I was determined,” Young said. “But I didn’t think it would come so early; I’m still learning and I’m still young. Playing at Death Valley was just a great experience. The first time, it was like, ‘I want to do everything right.’ But my first snap went better than I thought; I didn’t mess up. The second time I played, I ran their center over. It made me think, ‘I can do this.’”
Swinney got a kick out of watching Clemson starters cheer for Young.
“Some coaches don’t even let (walk-ons) dress out for games,” Swinney said. “They might only play a few plays and rarely, but it’s good for team morale. To see the faces of their teammates and their excitement, that’s fun. And we all have the greatest respect for Steven.”
Alphabetically, Steven Young is the very last player on the Clemson roster.
But he’s first in other ways, and in the hearts of family and friends all across the brackish water from Awendaw to McClellanville.
“I’m at one of the top engineering schools in the nation and I’m playing football,” Young said. “That’s made me more determined.”
If Young’s story sounds like a movie, that’s because before there was Steven Young, there was Rudy, the walk-on player at Notre Dame who got a sack on the last play of the last game of his senior year. Young hasn’t seen the movie. “No, sir. I’ve never heard of it.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that he wants to get a sack.
“Oh, yes, sir,” Young said. “The Maryland game, I thought I was going to get a sack but I tripped. But I know it will come if I keep working hard.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff