ROCK HILL — In the beige supply shed on the corner of South Confederate Avenue, coaches Perry Sutton and Pat Kennedy outfit the next generation of "Football City, USA."
It’s a dreary August morning in Rock Hill, a South Carolina city of about 70,000 people, just south of Charlotte, with a penchant for producing football stars. Sutton estimates he and Kennedy have sent about 50 players to Division I college teams and dozens more to smaller schools. Four former Demons, including Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, have been signed by NFL teams.
The light drizzle hardly dampens the spirit of the boys on which it falls. They filter up the gravel driveway and into the shed, where Sutton and Kennedy are waiting alongside piles of jerseys, shoulder pads and helmets.
Sutton and Kennedy run the Sylvia Circle Demons, a local youth football organization. They’re doing more than helping to settle neighborhood bragging rights; they’re living out their mission.
Rock Hill is known is as a football hotbed. The list of names to come out of the city is expansive, including former South Carolina stars Clowney and Stephon Gilmore and current Clemson starter Derion Kendrick.
But Rock Hill is also a city shadowed by the specter of life on the streets. Many kids grow up without fathers, Kennedy said. In 2017, Rock Hill had the fifth-highest homicide rate among South Carolina cities of at least 30,000 people, according to data compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
On this morning, the neighborhood is quiet, except for the rumble inside Sutton’s shed. Sutton, a 56-year-old with a bald head and a mountainous chest, lumbers around the room, serving up discipline — “Yeah?” he asks, incredulously repeating one player’s response to his question. He wants a different answer; “Yes, sir,” the boy replies — and wisecracks.
He approaches a slight player getting fitted for pads.
“You bony!” he says, and Kennedy, 54, laughs through his soft belly. Kennedy chimes in: “We gotta get you to a Golden Corral!”
He is the smallest boy in a group of small boys, but he has reason to dream. Alongside the power tools and ladders, the shed’s unfinished walls are lined with trophies, photos and jerseys documenting some of the hundreds of players to have come through the program.
From behind the facemasks of their new helmets, the boys’ eyes dart across the shed from one hero to the next, the grown men who once wore Demons jerseys themselves. Perhaps football’s next star is in the shed. Chavion Johnson, a wide receiver on the Demons’ Gray-Y (ages 11-12) team, believes he’s up for the task.
“They’re going to retire my number,” he says, dropping for pushups.
Lamont Hicks Sr., a former S.C. State defensive back whose Demons jersey hangs on the wall, pops in with his nephew, who is getting fitted for his set of shoulder pads. A size XS — extra small — is yanked off the rack and slipped over the 8-year-old’s head.
“You have to get kids into it,” Hicks says. “There are bad things they could get into if not.”
A few months earlier, Sutton was awoken in the middle of the night by what sounded like shots from an automatic weapon.
“These streets are not kind,” Kennedy says. “They are not forgiving. And they can take you out.”
Even as head injuries have cast a shadow over football and kick-started a nationwide debate over what age kids should begin playing the sport — if at all — in Rock Hill it is seen as a way out.
The growth of Rock Hill as a football incubator has created a positive feedback loop for its young boys. The Demons players leave the shed on the overcast morning, giddy, with white garbage bags full of equipment slung over their shoulders.
For three decades, Kennedy and Sutton have served as two of the city’s foremost shepherds for young men, equal parts football coaches and life counselors. They’re bonded by a shared mission: How many kids can they save?
It was preordained that they meet, Kennedy and Sutton believe, to carry out this mission together. Their lives have run parallel, leading to their work with the Demons.
They both became deacons in 2002. They both have military backgrounds; Sutton with the Coast Guard, Kennedy with the Marines. They have children around the same ages — Sutton two boys, Kennedy three girls — and are known to each other’s kids as “Uncle Pat” and “Uncle Perry.”
Most importantly, their childhoods proved instructive in drawing them to coaching.
Sutton was born in Rock Hill in 1963, around when the city was in the national spotlight of the civil rights movement. Two years earlier, nine black students from Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College were arrested for refusing to leave a lunch counter where they had ordered food. They opted against paying bail, transferring the financial burden to the prison. The “jail, no bail” strategy was emulated in other places.
As people around town fought for social justice, Sutton's parents preached kindness. They were poor, he said, but he never went hungry. Vegetables came from his mother’s garden, and meat from his father’s hunting expeditions; a hog was killed every year. Extra tomatoes went to wanting neighbors.
One evening, Sutton returned home to find a crowd of homeless people outside. He demanded they leave. His mother, Elizabeth, peeked her head outside.
“Look at these bums!” Sutton said.
“These ain’t bums,” Elizabeth shouted back. “They’re people."
She had been feeding the group daily, Sutton learned. He wasn’t the only one who loved her spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. It was a profound moment.
“I realized everybody needs a hand,” Sutton said.
Sutton started playing for the Demons when he was 9, and found community in football. So did Kennedy, who was born in Rock Hill before moving to nearby Fort Mill when he was 8.
Kennedy’s childhood was marked by pain; his father was not around. It wasn’t until Kennedy was 35 that the man who had always existed as more of an idea appeared in the flesh, in the church parking lot, with an apology.
Kennedy wasn’t having it.
“The good thing that came out of this,” Kennedy told his father. “Is I know how not to treat my children. My children will always know me. I’ll always be there for them, as long as I got breath in my body.”
That includes the boys for whom Kennedy serves as a father figure, who turn to him when their dads don’t show up to games, crying, seeking comfort.
Kennedy at first was hesitant to dive into youth coaching. He’d do it for a year, maybe two.
Sutton, who joined the program as a coach after Kennedy in 1989, had the same mindset. Neither had much free time. Then they got to know their players.
Early in their partnership, a player showed up to practice with an iron burn courtesy of a parent. Kennedy said he and Sutton took the boy home that evening with a message.
“We told them, they better never put their hands on the kid again,” Kennedy said. “Every year something different happens that keeps you coming back. ... If you got any kind of compassion for kids, or love kids, you don’t want to see them fail.”
Early on, Kennedy and Sutton drove around town recruiting kids in the summer. During the season they’d split up in their respective trucks to scoop guys up for practice, some as far away as Charlotte. Players piled into the bed of Sutton's pickup, next to the cooler Sutton’s wife, Alicia, had prepared the night before by freezing a bucket of water.
Whatever happened at home melted away when the kids hit the gridiron, and the Demons racked up wins and kept kids off the streets. One alumni who now plays at South Pointe, one of three high schools in town, said Sutton is “the reason why I’m still playing football.” After the player got into a recent “incident” at a bus stop, Sutton spoke on his behalf at court, helping him out of trouble.
“He was worth saving,” Sutton said.
Those who show commitment are rewarded. When Corey Neely, a former Demons player, learned he had diabetes in college, Sutton and Kennedy assisted him in obtaining medication as he continued his career at Georgia Military College and then Marshall.
“When a situation is going bad for a kid, they make sure they’re on top of it,” Neely said. “They’ve raised so many kids from the field, it’s like a habit.”
Former players in college often text Sutton after games with their statistics, which Sutton then shares with other Demons alumni. Deshawn Davis, a wide receiver at Tusculum University in Greeneville, Tenn., is among that group. Davis and his fraternal twin brother, De’Mon, played for the Demons growing up, then together at South Pointe.
Before going off to Fullerton College (Calif.), De’Mon sat down with then-South Pointe coach Strait Herron. Herron had a soft spot for De’Mon, but the veteran coach was concerned.
“If you don’t change what you’re doing, within 10 years you’ll either be dead,” Herron told him. “Or in jail.”
De’Mon returned home after one season at Fullerton, and was interested in continuing his football career, his brother said. He never got the chance. On Sept. 7, 2018, he agreed to take someone’s place to fight a local man in exchange for $150, according to news reports. Afterward, the man shot De’Mon, who was found dead at the scene. He was 22.
Davis stopped by Sutton’s shed this summer and found an old team picture featuring him and his brother. He felt a wave of emotions. His mind often drifts to his brother’s death, but he’s found support in texts and calls from former Demons teammates and coaches.
Herron, who now coaches at Legion Collegiate Academy, a new charter school in the city, said he was sad but not shocked by De’Mon’s death: "Even though things like what happened to De’Mon have happened, without Perry Sutton they would happen a whole lot more.”
The city is leaning into its reputation as a football factory — and recent legislation reflects belief the sport can bolster the economy in a city in which 18 percent of people lived in poverty in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In June, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced the signing of a tax bill allowing $115 million in incentives for the NFL's Carolina Panthers to relocate their headquarters to Rock Hill.
“We're going to bring people down to the region," Panthers owner David Tepper said then. "We'll have just a sense of excellence, not only up there for the football team, but everything we do down here in Rock Hill."
The move aligns with the city's emphasis on sports tourism, which came into focus in the 1980s as the textile industry moved away. The Rock Hill Sports & Event Center, a 170,000-square-foot facility, is coming soon.
One evening in late August, Dee Hemphill sat in her car watching the Demons practice tackling. Her 7-year-old plays for the Small Fry (ages 7-8) team.
Kennedy and Sutton instruct players to lead with their shoulders and their hands — not their heads. Hemphill still watches closely.
“They tackled for the first time Monday,” she said. “My heart was beating so fast.”
Indeed, national concern linking football to brain injuries has reached Football City, USA. Mason Rudolph, a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Rock Hill native, was knocked out earlier this month on a brutal hit.
Football’s benefits still outweigh the risks for Hemphill. When her older son, Quay Brown, proclaimed he wanted to quit the sport, she pushed back. His teammates formed a brotherhood. How could he give up on that?
“We were doing what we needed to do to keep these boys out of trouble,” Hemphill said of herself and fellow team parents.
In Rock Hill, excitement around football remains strong. The three local high schools — South Pointe, Northwestern and Rock Hill — all boast rosters of more than 60 players.
Sutton’s younger son, Najee, 29, played for the Demons and then at Virginia State University. He has 6-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. They both play tackle football, and Najee said he isn’t overly concerned about potential brain injuries stemming from the game. Risks are all around us, he said.
On Oct. 7, the Demons’ Gray-Y team stepped onto a grand stage. It had been selected to play at District Three Stadium, home of Northwestern and Rock Hill High, in the ‘Little Panthers TV Game of the Month,’ sponsored by the Carolina Panthers.
The Demons were an easy choice for the game, said Will Robbins, sports and fitness director of the Charlotte Avenue YMCA in Rock Hill. He labeled Sutton and Kennedy community leaders.
“A lot of these kids, you don’t know what they go home to at night,” Robbins said. “Some of these kids, I’m sure, go to bed hungry. I guarantee, a handful of kids, this is probably their best experience they’ve had so far in their young lives.”
The stadium buzzes with parents, former players and school district officials. Jimmy Wallace, the grizzly former Northwestern coach, says Kennedy and Sutton are “dads to a bunch of kids.”
Back in the locker room, Desmond Campbell, a former Demons player who is now a coach, raises his voice over the din of excitement as players slip on helmets and jerseys.
It’s time to get locked in, Campbell says. The boys fall silent. Slowly, starting in a whisper, a chant spreads through the room, until it reaches a roar, the players filling open beats by smacking their legs:
Outside, Kennedy leans against a back fence. The past few days have called for reflection. At church earlier in the week, a woman stood up and hyped the Demons’ televised game. She was the same person, Kennedy said, who first asked him to coach the team 31 years ago.
“I thanked God that he laid it on her heart to ask me to coach these young men,” Kennedy said. “Had he not, I don’t know if I would be here. I don’t know if I would’ve had the effect that I’ve had on young men."
Much has changed since Sutton and Kennedy first got together. They’ve become grandfathers. They’ve watched former players compete at the highest level and attended the funerals of others.
Kennedy looks out on the field, with the TV cameras and the inflatable Panthers runway and the setting sun painting the sky orange. He finds Sutton on the sideline. It's time for another kickoff in Football City, USA.