COLUMBIA — He’s always been used to the spotlight. He’s had to be, when it’s been on him since his high school days, and he learned to handle it with a dismissive, nearly arrogant air.
But this? This was humbling.
“Everybody that took part in me the years that I was here was a blessing, got me where I am today,” Jadeveon Clowney said, back in the stadium where he turned himself into a No. 1 NFL draft pick. “They’ve been trying to get me to do it for a few years. I was excited for it.”
Clowney returned to South Carolina on Saturday to see his name join only four others so honored in the program’s 128-year history. USC affixed its four retired numbers to the pressbox façade this year after they were on the four ramps of Williams-Brice Stadium, and on Saturday, unveiled Clowney’s jersey No. 7 beside them.
His jersey was honored, his number not retired like the other four, due to a university policy passed in 2007 that allows honored jersey numbers to still be worn. Nevertheless, Clowney joining Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate Sterling Sharpe (2), Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers (38), Steve Wadiak (37) and Mike Johnson (56) and being the first man so recognized since 1987 had him deeply appreciative.
Clowney is the only No. 1 overall football recruit to choose the Gamecocks and after three standout years at USC, became their second No. 1 NFL pick. From Rock Hill, an hour north of Columbia, Clowney more than lived up to his sizable hype.
In his ninth year in the NFL, playing for Cleveland, Clowney is on an extended homecoming. The Browns open their season next week at the Carolina Panthers so Clowney could visit his hometown, his alma mater and not have to go too far for his day job.
He hadn’t returned to Columbia in three years and spoke numerous times about how much he missed it.
“I miss college football. Much more rowdier (than the NFL), turned up, it’s crazy. It’s like a true brotherhood in that locker room,” Clowney said. “I felt like that chip on my shoulder was a lot different at that time, because of the guys in that locker room.”
He reminisced on his favorite moments — of course, “The Hit” where he launched Michigan running back Vincent Smith’s helmet into the stratosphere and his personal fame went with it, but others.
“The (second) game that Marcus Lattimore got hurt, I had a big sack against Tennessee to end that game, forced a fumble. I watch that play all the time,” Clowney said of his game-saving play in 2012. “Probably the sacks at Clemson … I had like five sacks in that game.”
He actually only had 4½, but the point remained. The smile on Clowney’s face was as wide as the one he wore the day he committed.
“I was just doing it for fun. I never saw it taking me nowhere. Everybody just told me how good I was,” he said of the game. “We were just kids in the backyard playing football growing up, that’s why I did it. Just loved playing.”