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.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was moved by the story of how long-time coach and community activist Clay Hampton lost his home - and most of the equipment belonging to the Charleston Blazing Hawks semi-pro football team - to a devastating fire in March.

Riley thinks the rest of the Charleston community will be just as moved.

Riley held a news conference Tuesday morning at City Hall to show support for Hampton, who is 72 and lost his Dover Street home to a fire on March 23. As The Post and Courier reported in a story in April, Hampton lost all his personal possessions as well as some $40,000 worth of sports equipment, including most of the Blazing Hawks' helmets, pads, cleats and jerseys.

"Every time you see something like what Clay Hampton is doing to give people a chance, it's important to support it," Riley said. "I thought the community would find heart-rending the story of the fire that destroyed the equipment of the team and all the goods of this dedicated coach and would want to contribute, as I am, to the Clay Hampton Fire Relief Fund."

The fund is set up through Wells Fargo Bank; tax-deductible donations can be made at any Wells Fargo branch in the country.

Riley hailed the work that Hampton has done in the Lowcountry, both through the Blazing Hawks and the community garden he tends on Spruill Avenue. Hampton is well known to children in North Charleston; when they answer his spelling quizzes correctly, he rewards them with a dollar.

"I understand the good that Clay Hampton has done," Riley said, "and the importance of his semi-pro football team. It gives young men the opportunity to continue to play a sport that is important to them, to help them stay or get on their feet. Clay has helped them find jobs, and it's a positive activity that helps young men get established."

To date, little more than $1,000 has been donated to the relief fund. And the only equipment Blazing Hawks coaches Michael Mack and Tony Lewis have been able to come up with is some practice jerseys from a coach at Fort Dorchester High School. The Hawks are due to start practice soon and to begin their season in August.

"We've played the last 37 years," said Mack. "But we can't move forward until we get the equipment. We've got young men who are hungry and ready to play, but we can't afford to pay for the equipment that was lost."

Mack recalled the impact that Hampton and the Blazing Hawks had on his own life.

"I was one of those young men without a father figure," he said. "Coach Hampton embraced me and that allowed me to get my high school education, go to college, join the Navy and have a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons."

Hampton, who grew up on James Island and briefly attended Voorhees College, began playing semi-pro football in New York in the 1950s after a failed tryout with the New York Giants, who boasted Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff.

"Nine of us went to the tryout, and in front of me was Sam Huff," Hampton said. "I was an offensive guard and he was a linebacker. He weighed about 255 pounds and was faster than me. For three days, I found out that Clay Hampton could not play in the NFL. But I could play semi-pro football, and when I moved back to Charleston, I wanted to do the same thing for young men."

That was 35 years ago, and Hampton has been involved with the Blazing Hawks ever since, as coach and president. Without help, that run could come to an end this year. But Hampton, who has been living in a room in the back of a restaurant since the fire, is more concerned with young men who might lose an opportunity.

"Our focus is on the community, and I'm talking about poor people," he said. "We're trying to get them off the street and into sports. We're teaching them how to put money in the bank, to let them know they can be car owners and home owners.

"You might not be a billionaire, but you can have a car, a home and a family and make your life better."