ROCK HILL - Three years later, the memories are displayed in trophy cases, collecting dust on shelves, tucked into nooks inside South Pointe High School.
You can't walk very far without seeing the mark Jadeveon Clowney left here. Old stories pass through the hallways. Mementos are just around the corner.
In the school's main entrance, there's the 2010 South Carolina Mr. Football Award. It sits above the 2008 state championship trophy, its silver reflecting like a mirror. Down one hallway, resting above the head coach's desk, there's an autographed ESPNU helmet.
Then there's the state championship ring.
It hides in a jewelry box, locked in a storage closet adjacent to South Pointe coach Strait Herron's office. The 10 diamonds on its face still sparkle. They encircle a red Stallions logo, encrusted within the school name and "state champions" in silver block letters.
This is a replica of what Clowney will wear Thursday night at the NFL Draft. His is big enough to fit half a wrist.
"I'll be looking for it when his name is called," Herron, Clowney's high school defensive coordinator, says with a broad grin.
They still talk about his Friday night exploits on the football field across the parking lot from South Pointe's weight room. They still smile in appreciation. When Clowney left for the University of South Carolina, they kept watching. Waiting. Anticipating this day.
The Houston Texans are expected to make Clowney the first pick in the NFL Draft, which begins 8 p.m. Thursday on ESPN. South Pointe has already produced a top-10 pick in former Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore. This is different. Herron calls it surreal.
For everyone, there's an air of giddiness. South Pointe helped guide Clowney's path. His impact on the school and its football program was more profound. Bobby Carroll, who coached Clowney before taking a job at nearby York High, says Clowney helped put South Pointe on the map. Clowney still visits his old high school three or four times a year, and when he does, it's like Elvis entered the building.
South Pointe principal Al Leonard struggles to grasp the magnitude of what's about to happen. The same lanky kid who walked these halls will be first to step onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and shake NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's hand. It's a local fairy tale come to life.
But Leonard is not surprised.
"We saw this day coming years ago," he says. "I remember when he was a junior, traveling with my family or whatever, I'd say, 'There's this guy Clowney, you're going to hear about him.' We saw it coming. Because this kid, he was a man among boys."
It's not enough to be a great player. Each year, the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft goes to the worst team in the league, a franchise desperately hoping tomorrow will be better. Expectations stretch beyond sacks and touchdowns. The No. 1 pick must make an impact, on and off the field.
Before he could legally drive, Clowney helped build South Pointe's football program. The Stallions were born in one of the nation's most competitive high school football towns. For decades, neighboring rivals Rock Hill and Northwestern were established powers. The two schools had seven players in the NFL last season. Carroll says South Pointe was the "red-headed stepchild," needing to prove its worth.
Quietly, Carroll said, he worried about families moving out of the district so their kids could play football for another school. South Pointe needed an identity, something that made it an attraction.
"We somehow needed to make that third school a cool place to come," Carroll says.
South Pointe was in its third year of existence when the district lines moved, sending Clowney to Carroll's team. The coach still remembers hearing the news. Clowney walked into the weight room the summer before his freshman year, his long dreads merely pig tails, and told Carroll he'd be playing for him.
"It just took your breath, like, 'Oh my God, man. The football gods have been good to us,'" Carroll says. "Clowney was just a tremendous motivator from that standpoint of, 'Hey man, I played with Jadeveon Clowney. I'm on his team.' He was tremendous in helping build South Pointe."
Clowney was an immediate star. He scored 32 touchdowns as a running back for the freshman team. Carroll broke one of his unwritten rules the week before playoffs began, pulling the freshman up to varsity.
Herron remembers that first playoff game. Clowney played special teams. On the opening kickoff, he sprinted down field faster than his teammates, tackling the returner.
"At that point, I said, 'Man, that guy's special,'" Herron said.
Clowney became a full-time starter the next season. He also played defensive end exclusively. South Pointe soared, finishing the 2008 season 15-0 and winning the Division II-AAAA state championship. In the title game, South Pointe knocked off Northwestern.
Gilmore was the star of that team, a senior quarterback who would be named Mr. Football and a Parade All-American, but Clowney's presence was invaluable. Only a sophomore, he was already the engine powering South Pointe's defense. Clowney lined up at right defensive end before each snap, rushing the quarterback's blind side.
"We knew if we could hold the receivers up on pass routes for less than two seconds, Clowney was going to get back there and sack the quarterback," Carroll says. "He kind of closed the right side of the field off."
The buzz began growing when Clowney was a sophomore. During that 15-0 run, more fans filled the stands each game. They weren't quite packed, but they were getting there.
Gilmore helped South Pointe prepare for the reality of Clowney. His recruitment generated headlines. His choice of South Carolina garnered instant celebrity. College scouts flocked to South Pointe every week trying to lure Gilmore. Still, Leonard said, nothing could have warned him for the "circus atmosphere" Clowney's recruitment would bring.
The principal vividly remembers Valentine's Day of 2011, when Clowney's recruitment ended. Satellite trucks parked in the school's back lot. More than 70 media members filled the auditorium. Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism helped handle crowd control.
Clowney's announcement, broadcast nationally on ESPN, was scheduled to happen between school periods. Students watched as they headed to class. They clamored and cheered until Clowney stepped to the mic.
"You could hear a pin drop when the announcement was made," Leonard says. "I've never seen anything like that."
On the day Jadeveon Clowney chose to attend South Carolina over Clemson and Alabama, coach Steve Spurrier talked about increased expectations. He mentioned an SEC title - "or more" - during Clowney's time in Columbia. What his college career lacked in championship hardware, it compensated with history.
Three straight 11-win seasons for a program that had never done it previously. Three straight bowl wins against Big Ten opponents. Five straight victories against Clemson, the Gamecocks' longest win streak in the rivalry.
"Every year Jadeveon Clowney played for South Carolina, we finished in the top 10 and won 11 games," Spurrier said at the school's Pro Day last month. "Now that's pretty daggone neat right there."
It wasn't a perfect college career. There have been a few bumps, and he has critics. Truth is, Clowney outgrew college football - both physically and in reputation - one year before the day he left.
When Clowney made The Hit against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl, jarring Wolverines running back Vincent Smith from the football and his helmet, he reached legendary status. The play will be remembered as arguably the greatest highlight in Gamecocks history - for any sport. Clowney won an ESPY for Play of the Year. People wondered if it was the greatest hit in the history of football.
The Hit was felt in the local economy. Brian Harmon, a manager at Columbia-based Jewelry Warehouse, said business boomed in 2013. Harmon said the company sold more than 1,700 jerseys with No. 7 on the back, 53 percent of all jerseys sold. Clowney merchandise was sold out and reordered several times throughout the year.
"Overnight, it was definitely a big demand," Harmon says. "It was a 24-hour buzz that was just crazy. We noticed it right away, and it wasn't just one of these things that happened and then it died off. January until August is kind of the slow year for us as far as football sales, but we noticed that stuff like that was selling even during the offseason and in the spring, because of The Hit and the hype going on around Jadeveon."
South Carolina benefited off the field from Clowney. Revenue from TV deals, tickets and jersey sales piled up. In his final season, Clowney's monetary value to the university was estimated at $3 million, according to Dr. Robert Brown, an economics professor at the University of California at San Marcos. Brown has studied college athlete values for more than 20 years.
Eric Nichols, South Carolina's associate athletics director for marketing, says it's impossible to measure the economic impact of just one player. There are too many factors to consider, he says. But every year Clowney played for the Gamecocks, season-ticket sales increased. South Carolina sold 51,967 season football tickets last season, almost 7,500 more than the season before Clowney arrived.
"I wish I could put an immediate value on the exposure he's provided not only the last eight weeks, but these last three years," Nichols says. "He has garnered attention for himself, which is fantastic, but also for the University of South Carolina. To show that a No. 1 prospect in the country can come here and prosper is a great message to send."
The buzz is unstoppable now. It spiraled out of control long ago. Each replay of The Hit added fuel. Each pundit wondering if Clowney could make a legitimate run at the Heisman Trophy pushed his hype over the top.
Somehow, the unassuming Rock Hill boy with a southern smile and charm to match has become polarizing. His game film is endlessly dissected. His work ethic and desire is questioned. His fit in Houston's 3-4 defense is doubted. Everyone has an opinion.
George Rogers recognizes the hype. Thirty-three years ago, it was his turn to carry the burden. The New Orleans Saints were coming off a 1-15 record in 1980 when they snatched the former South Carolina running back and 1980 Heisman Trophy winner No. 1 in the NFL Draft. Rogers said he felt the weight of expectations. It hung over him as he entered rookie camp.
Want to understand real pressure? Try being the man drafted one spot before Lawrence Taylor. In time, Rogers justified the pick. He was the 1981 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Saints' winning percentage improved in each of his first three seasons, yet they never finished with a winning record. Rogers didn't play for a contender until he was traded to the Washington Redskins in 1985. Today, he can boast about being one of seven players to win a Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl ring.
It's hard to compare what Rogers went through to the gauntlet Clowney traveled leading up to the draft. His time came before the Internet, social media and 24-hour sports talk shows. Rogers could escape the buzz, Clowney doesn't have that luxury.
There's another significant difference between then and now.
"He's gonna get 10 times more (money) than I did," Rogers said. "He'll make a lot more money. He's certainly worth every penny that he's gonna get.
"He's gonna have more friends than he wants. Everybody's gonna want to be around him and touch him and see how he's doing, this and that. You just have to make good decisions."
Overnight, Clowney's fortune will change. His rookie contract is projected to be worth approximately $24 million guaranteed over four years, with almost $16 million in signing bonus, according to Over the Cap. It would be more money than left tackle Eric Fisher received when the Kansas City Chiefs selected him first in the 2013 draft, and similar to rookie contacts Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton signed.
The financial prosperity comes at a price. When Clowney ventures into public, he's a lightning rod for attention. Carroll saw it firsthand last month when he, Clowney and Gilmore attended an NBA playoff game between the Charlotte Bobcats and Miami Heat. They sat courtside. Eventually, the ESPN cameras found Clowney.
Carroll was amazed at the scene unfolding around his former player. Before the game, LeBron James pointed at Clowney and winked. Afterward, James briefly visited and offered a friendly hug. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera walked over during a break in the game, shook Clowney's hand and wished him good luck.
From the moment Clowney entered Time Warner Arena, requests from fans were constant.
"They were mobbing him," Carroll says. "Just wanting to get their picture taken. Wanting to get his autograph. Wanting something signed."
NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly has been in this position before. He was Houston's general manager in 2006 when the Texans infamously drafted North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams over Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush, an unpopular decision at the time.
Casserly saw the expectations a defensive player receives when he's picked first in the draft. He warns against placing the same expectation on every No. 1 pick.
"The problem with expectation is, you can only get what's there," Casserly says. ". I think what you expect is a Pro Bowl player, and a player that will have a significant impact on your football team. That's what you'd like to get."
There's a reason for all this hype. It's supposed to be justified on the field. The job requirement for a No. 1 pick is really quite simple. Clowney will be expected to be the proverbial impact player.
It's a fitting moniker. Everywhere he's been, Clowney has made an impact.
Those who know Clowney are free of doubt. They know what he'll become in the NFL. They believe because they've seen it before.
Leonard, who keeps a poster of The Hit buried on his desk, bristles when he talks about the criticism Clowney receives. At South Pointe, they choose to focus on the positives. They want to look toward the future. Plans are in the works to retire Clowney and Gilmore's numbers next year during the school's 10-year anniversary ceremony.
But the celebration is already beginning.
They'll gather in the school's auditorium for a watch party Thursday night, just as they did a little more than three years ago. Leonard conservatively expects 100 people to attend. He knows there may be more.
Carroll plans to travel to New York for the draft with his son and Clowney's high school position coach, Zach Snyder. He knows he won't see his former player after the draft. Clowney will be immediately swept away, flown to his NFL city, a new life ready to begin.
"I told him the other day, 'Man, it's kind of like the final chapter of this great story,'" Carroll says. "And yet, it's not really the final chapter. It's really maybe the beginning of a new chapter. Because I don't think Clowney stories will ever end. I think they'll be told forever."