Charleston Blazing Hawks set to open season in September

Charleston Blazing Hawks founder Clay Hampton stands with head coach Michael Mack (right) and general manager Tony Lewis at the site of Hampton's previous home, which was destroyed by fire in March of 2014. (Tommy Braswell/Staff)

Two years after a fire burned his North Charleston home and destroyed all of his possessions, Clay Hampton has welcomed back a sense of normalcy into his life these days.

The 74-year-old community activist is living in a new home, a renovated three-bedroom house presented to him by Metanoia Community Development and Jumpstart Prison Ministry.

He’s working in his vegetable and flower gardens again, hobbies he enjoyed for years before the fire ruined them both at his previous home.

Up next is to finalize the comeback of the Charleston Blazing Hawks, a semi-pro football team Hampton started in 1978, but had to fold when the fire destroyed some $40,000 worth of equipment.

If all goes as planned, Hampton can check that off the bucket list this fall, too.

“It’s definitely going to happen,” he said.

“We’re going to be playing in the winter league ... Those (teams) are playing right now, so that means when we play, starting in September, there will be teams in the playoff championship games and those are the teams that we’ll be playing. We’ll be playing some of the finest semi-pro teams in the world.”

Currently, the Hawks have about 35 players of various ages signed up to play. Hampton formed the inaugural team almost 40 years ago as a way to give struggling kids and adults in the Lowcountry a positive outlet.

He was inspired to form the Hawks after he tried out for the New York Giants and was edged out by, among others, Hall of Famer Sam Huff, who could “run backwards faster than I could run frontward.”

“I said it just like this: ‘You know Clay, you’re not gonna be able to — I only weighed 165 pounds — you’re not gonna be able to play in the NFL,’ ” Hampton recalls telling himself.

“The coach kept telling me, ‘Clay, I want you to go back with the (semi-pro) New York Ravens and learn and grow ... and then come back (to the tryouts) next year.’ But I started using my talent to help people on the New York Ravens and I started loving that.”

Hampton started three different youth teams and a semi-pro team, all in New York. He helped coach each of them for about nine years before he moved home to Charleston to be with his sick father. It was here where he started the Hawks.

Thanks to a company in Texas, Hampton said he has been given 100-plus jerseys since the 2014 fire. The Citadel, Charleston Southern and a few of the Lowcountry high schools helped out with shoulder pads, and Hampton said a company in Florida is going to sell him used helmets for $75-100 each.

Now he just needs more players.

“We can reach out to Dorchester County schools, Berkeley County and Charleston County and bring all these young men to the table” said general manager Tony Lewis. “Those who don’t get to be those elite ballplayers, we don’t want to have them sit out in the streets when they have God-given talent.”

Michael Mack, the coach of the team, said practices are on Saturdays and Sundays at North Charleston High School from 8-11 a.m. The first game is scheduled for September 24. Mack credited Hampton for helping him get his own life on track, which is why he’s happy to help coach the team.

“From my point of view, Mr. Clay Hampton was my mentor,” Mack said.

“He put me on the right path and so my experience of playing football gives me an opportunity to give back.”

It’s Hampton’s hope that he can influence others the same way.

“What’s happened, is now, at this age, my life is to give back,” Hampton said.

“The only way I feel like I should give back with the talent the Lord gave me is football.”