TO HELP

Donations can be made to the Clay Hampton Fire Relief Fund at any branch of Wells Fargo Bank.

For information on donating football equipment to the Charleston Blazing Hawks, call Tony Lewis at (843) 735-1725.

Clay Hampton had just finished a late-night dinner in the kitchen of his modest home on Dover Street in North Charleston, where he'd lived for the last 35 years.

He fried up a piece of fish, some tilapia from Crosby's Seafood, with collard greens and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and bell peppers from his own garden. He drank two cans of beer with his dinner before lying down on his bed and drifting off to sleep at about 10:30 p.m.

About an hour later, Hampton woke with a start.

"I heard an explosion," Hampton recalled. "I rolled over, and the whole place was red."

Hampton, 71 years old and the founder of the Charleston Blazing Hawks' semi-pro football team, lost his house and all his belongings in a devastating fire on the night of March 23.

Hampton escaped the fire by diving over a fence and crashing through his neighbor's fence, leaving a man-sized hole in the wood boards.

But there was little else left behind. His beloved roses along the front of the house, the kettle his mother used to cook in when he was a boy on James Island, the $1,300 in his wallet, a freezer full of meat from deer, hogs, rabbits and ducks, his pickup truck and $40,000 worth of football equipment that belonged to the Blazing Hawks - all lost in the fire.

"I lost everything," Hampton said one morning this week as he worked to clear the lot of charred wreckage. "But what really hurt me, I tell everybody, was all my roses. All my flowers are dead."

Hampton, who has worked as a maintenance man for various property owners, had no insurance on the property, which included two structures and a shed. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to the North Charleston Fire Department.

"All I had on was my pajamas," Hampton said. "A friend brought me some sneakers, and my nephew brought me a jacket."

Spearheaded by Hampton's longtime friend and vice president of the Blazing Hawks, Tony Lewis, efforts are underway to help Hampton and to supply new equipment for the Blazing Hawks, whose season starts in just three months.

The Clay Hampton Fire Relief Fund has been set up at Wells Fargo Bank; tax-deductible donations can be made at any Wells Fargo branch across the country. The American Red Cross already has provided Hampton with financial assistance for temporary housing and food, clothing, shoes and personal hygiene items.

According to Lewis, officials in Charleston and North Charleston have inquired as to how they can help. He also is reaching out to state colleges and other organizations for donations of football equipment.

"I had football uniforms for at least 50 or 60 guys, helmets, shoulder pads," Hampton said. "There were basketball uniforms, baseball equipment, all kind of stuff stacked in there."

That equipment is what Hampton used to help the youth of North Charleston, his primary goal since he started the Blazing Hawks in 1978.

Hampton fell in love with football at the old Gresham Meggett High School on James Island.

"I wanted to play in the NFL," he said. "But I only weighed about 150 pounds."

Instead, Hampton went to Voorhees College in the South Carolina town of Denmark. He had to drop out after two years because "my girlfriend got pregnant, and my daddy made me get married."

Hampton moved to New York, where he worked for the General Motors plant in North Tarrytown, and played football for the New York Ravens, at the time one of the top semi-pro teams in the country.

When Hampton's father took sick in 1978, he moved back home to Charleston and started the Blazing Hawks with equipment donated from Columbia University. Hampton turned over the Blazing Hawks to Lewis and coach Michael Mack in 2008, but his vision for the team - which plays at Stoney Field in Charleston and at North Charleston High School - remains unchanged.

"Clay has done his due diligence in this community," said Lewis, who also is vice president of the District 20 Board of Trustees in the Charleston County School District. "He's nurtured a lot of ball players and young men, got them opportunities to be looked at by colleges and pro leagues. He's been a father figure to a lot of them and has given them a lot of direction and helped mold them."

Hampton knows the toll that drugs have taken on his community; his own two sons have had their struggles. The goal of the Blazing Hawks is not to send players to the NFL; it's to help young men become responsible adults.

"When guys get out of high school," he said, "if they don't go to college, they just hang out on the street, and they get on drugs. What I want to do is, when they get out of high school and they still love the game, they can come right in and keep doing it."

Hampton's immediate goal is to rebuild his house on Dover Street, and to keep the Blazing Hawks going. If he has his way, the community garden he tends on Spruill Avenue will still produce food for his neighbors, and the kids walking home from school past his house will still have to spell a word when they see Mr. Clay, who rewards them with a dollar bill for each word they spell correctly.

"If they can't spell it, the next day you see them coming up to me," he said. "They say, 'Mr. Clay, you got something to ask me? I ask them, and they spell it. You've just go to give them the confidence.

"That's my life," he said. "I did a lot of wrong things in my day. But the Lord has blessed me. I've still got time here."