CLEMSON — Roderick McDowell will chase the invisible man for as long as it takes.
Takes until what, exactly? That’s undefined. If and when he’s reached the pinnacle —— starting running back for the No. 4 team in the country’s a pretty lofty position — “Hot Rod” will improvise.
“There’s a man in front of me I’m trying to catch,” McDowell said. “You may not see him; there’s nobody there. But to me, there is. So I’m just trying to be successful no matter where he’s at.”
McDowell, the fifth-year senior who once wondered if he was destined as a backup and not much else, said this two days after logging 22 carries (only one ACC player carried more in week one) and 132 yards (only one ACC back ran further) in Clemson’s 38-35 win over Georgia on Saturday.
For now, McDowell has a monopoly on Clemson’s distribution of carries. Sophomore Zac Brooks, junior D.J. Howard and the others are sidekicks.
But McDowell doesn’t see it that way. He’s constantly reminded of his years redshirting while C.J. Spiller was the star, and waiting his turn while Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington carried the load.
“I’m still chasing,” said McDowell, who despises the term “starter.” “I’m not trying to be complacent. I haven’t arrived. I’m learning something every day about myself, about our offense, about how to get better.”
McDowell wins the Tigers’ award for Most Unmistakable Entrance to a room. He tweaks media, working quietly before interviews, looking to crank the enthusiasm. He starts off many conversations with “Turn up!” and ends all of them with “God bless.”
“He’s got a lot of soul, man,” said Brooks, McDowell’s depth-chart backup. “He’s a fireball. Rod’s a ball of energy.”
At 5-10 and 200 pounds, McDowell’s got a low center of gravity. It’s been a career-long process learning not just how to break the big run, but read blitzes and protect quarterback Tajh Boyd from frothing linebackers — a skill at which Ellington was particularly polished.
“I am sold on Hot Rod McDowell. I’ve actually been sold on him since the day I came in … he’s not a selfish guy,” running backs coach Tony Elliott said. “He understands he has a few limitations from a size standpoint.”
Elliott admitted the focus wasn’t always there the last two years, which is why McDowell’s overcommitted himself to a dogged work ethic.
“He didn’t have that edge he needed to have, especially when you’re at the back of the line with three NFL guys in front of you,” Elliott said. “We’re making sure that confidence is there, all the time.”
Head coach Dabo Swinney has monitored McDowell’s maturation, knowing his time would come … even if it took five years.
“He’s a guy that makes you smile, because I’ve been with him the whole time, and I just know where he was when he came in here,” Swinney said. “I know how hard he’s worked. I know the price he’s paid. I know the patience he’s had to display, and the perseverance of mentally pushing through, when maybe he wanted to give up at some point, (wondering) whether he was ever going to be the starter here. I’m just really proud of him.”
Although few teammates noticed a change in McDowell’s emotions, his heart was wrenched in the spring by the loss of a loved one.
Last Christmas, McDowell’s grandfather looked his normal self.
“He was fully fine, heavy and all that,” McDowell said.
But prostate cancer is a more explosive, relentless beast than Jadeveon Clowney. When McDowell left the team for a week to see his elder in Florida, he saw a different man. Skinny. Deprived of energy. Painfully aware his clock was ticking.
“It kind of touched me,” McDowell said, “because me and my granddaddy were close.”
The next week, McDowell’s grandfather laid down, closed his eyes and, as McDowell said, “It was time for him to go home.” McDowell got the call, and made his peace with it best he could.
“He showed no difference in his attitude toward football,” recalled Brooks, who said McDowell’s closest friends on the team are his fellow running backs. “Rod has always come with the same attitude every day.”
McDowell’s lasting memory is the last words he heard his granddaddy tell him: “Son, if I don’t see you do nothing else in your life, I just want to see you run the ball one more time.”
He didn’t make it to Aug. 31. But nonetheless, it put football in perspective for McDowell.
Actually, it was technically Sept. 1 in Kuwait when Darrell McDowell watched online as his little brother made his first career start.
Back in middle school, Hot Rod played wide receiver. In his first game, he caught a slant route, took it to the house, and caused his big brother and teammate to make a big decision: give up football and watch Roderick hone his talents from the sideline.
“Growing up, my brother was always pushing me around,” McDowell said. “He was like, Rod, I see success in you. I want you to go out there and strive to be successful.”
Then at Sumter High School, McDowell switched to running back — sitting and waiting his turn behind quality starters.
But Darrell, one year older, kept Roderick’s spirits up.
“He’s like my biggest fan,” McDowell said. “I call him my father, because growing up, my father wasn’t around, so he had to grow up fast. My brother and I are very close.”
Even though McDowell’s already earned his degree in sociology, Darrell still insists his brother avoid that complacency, on or off the field.
“Even though he’s not around, he’s in my ear every day; Rod, get on those books, even though you’re graduated, don’t be lazy,” McDowell said. “Carry yourself as a man.”
Darrell is 24 years old, and has spent the past couple years in Kuwait with a contract job for the government. Darrell got a video feed to watch Georgia-Clemson, and couldn’t be prouder of what he saw.
McDowell didn’t score, but as the ACC’s only player to surpass 20 carries and 125 yards in the opening week, Clemson’s fall camp question mark at tailback might already be solved.
Darrell and Roderick use “Kik,” a messaging service, to communicate from opposite sides of the planet.
In the wee hours as Saturday became Sunday, August became September, backup became breakout, Darrell Kik’d a message to Rod: “I was crying, seeing where you came from and how hard you’ve worked. Look how it’s paid off for you.”
Oh, and one more thing from big brother: “I bet Granddaddy’s up there laughing right now.”
Darrell’s hoping to return home for good later this month. The last time he visited the United States — and saw Roderick — was for their grandfather’s funeral.
“I just can’t wait to see him,” McDowell said. “I’m really excited to have my brother — even though he’s not around, but he still is here.”
Just like the metaphorical ghost of a man he chases.