ORLANDO, Fla. - They called his name in sharp yelps, begging for one last contact. Packed three rows deep in a fenced-off corner outside the Florida Citrus Bowl, South Carolina fans held up hats and posters and team towels. One girl wanted her wristband signed. A few kids wanted their picture taken.
Moments earlier, Jadeveon Clowney talked about his next phase in life, all that awaited with the NFL Scouting Combine and finding an agent and getting paid to play a kid's game. When asked if he was looking forward to his first paycheck, Clowney flashed that trademark smile. Yes, he said. This is his dream.
Everything Clowney ever wanted will be realized over the next few months. Yet, he didn't have a mad dash out of college football Wednesday following South Carolina's 34-24 win against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. This program, the fans crammed in a corner shouting his name, meant too much for the star defensive end to discard like a raggedy sweatshirt.
So instead of turning left and stepping onto the team bus out of sight, Clowney went right. He had already shared time with fans after his final college game, even mingling in the stands before leaving the field for the last time.
Now, he sauntered over to the barricaded area outside the stadium, meeting with one section, then another, then another. He gave hugs, slapped high fives, signed almost everything in sight, and fans pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures, documenting the moment until a security guard grabbed Clowney's grey backpack and yanked him away.
"It goes by fast," Clowney said of his career at South Carolina. "I miss every bit of it already."
Clowney knew the inevitable conclusion was upon him when he arrived at the Florida Citrus Bowl on Wednesday morning. In the locker room, he put on his garnet Gamecocks jersey one last time.
"When I put the pads on, I was like, 'Man, that's it. I've got 60 minutes and then it's over with,' " Clowney said. "It hit me. I was like, 'Man, I'm going to be sad about it.' I told the guys I love my team, and everything. It's just been a blessing to be a part of a group of guys like this."
At a team breakfast Wednesday, Clowney hammered the point home to his teammates. He stood before the group and gave them one last pregame pep talk. He urged them to consider the big picture.
College football doesn't last forever. Just a few years, then it's done.
"It goes fast, and that's what he wanted the guys to understand," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "This game goes really quick. He said he remembered when he first came, and now it's over. So he'll go out into the real world now.
"I think he'll be very, very successful because I don't think he's going to face as many double teams next year as he did this season."
For Clowney, the departure from his home-state football team was bittersweet. It also came at the right time.
The 6-6, 275-pound defensive end was put under the microscope this season unlike almost any player in college football history. Before leaving Columbia for the Capital One Bowl, Clowney admitted he'd grown weary of the intensified attention.
When he had an unscheduled absence against Kentucky earlier this season, it was national news. Pundits said he quit on his team, permanently. Instead, the superstar returned the next week and hasn't missed a game against an FBS opponent since.
When Clowney was caught speeding twice last month, there was more national news. Every misstep is scrutinized, every decision endlessly debated. Those are the annoyances that come with fame and stardom.
"I don't want to talk about that right now," Clowney said after the game. "It's just speeding. I did a lot of speeding. Everybody speeds, I think. Just everybody don't get caught. I got caught, so I've got to deal with that."
Clowney held some cards close to his vest. He said he has an agent in mind, but "I ain't telling you." When will he make that decision? "Very soon, hopefully." How much will he do at the combine in February? "I'm not sure yet."
Clowney said he has "no clue" whether he'll have surgery to remove bone spurs from his right foot, something he planned to do earlier this season. The foot gave him problems throughout the fall, but he said "it's not bothering me" when asked Wednesday.
"I'm just going to go with the flow, work out and train and see where it goes," Clowney said. ". I'm just looking forward really to playing in the NFL. This is my dream, I've been saying, since I was like 5 years old, wanting to play in the NFL, watching everybody play the game growing up. I watched Julius Peppers' whole career. I watched everybody, Ray Lewis. I looked up to all them guys.
"Just to be going out there one day playing against Peyton Manning, it's just an honor, man. It's great just to be a part of something like that."
For South Carolina, it's been great to be a part of Clowney's last three years. The memories will be documented in history, held close to hearts of fans across the Palmetto State. It's why they lingered Wednesday, pushing shoulder to shoulder as the sun set in the early dusk. Their pleas weren't just about autographs or pictures or hugs. It was their chance to say goodbye.
"Thank you," the fans collectively said as the greatest defensive player in South Carolina history walked away.
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