The play lasted barely four seconds from snap to whistle. When it was finished, two very different college players were at the nexus of All Things Football in the year 2013, having distilled the intensifying debate between reform and bloodlust into a single moment of truthful violence. One young man (surprisingly) scraped himself off the grass, 20 feet away from his maize-and-blue helmet; the other stood posing with his giant arms folded in front of his body, letting a stadium's collective awe wash over him like the Florida sunshine. One player is expected to become a transcendent pro; the other hopes to become any sort of pro at all. They were opponents that day, yet teammates too—equal partners in an act that both defines and divides their sport.
Late on the afternoon of New Year's Day, Michigan held a 22--21 lead over South Carolina with slightly more than eight minutes to play in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. On fourth-and-four from their own 37-yard line, the Wolverines ran a fake punt on which Floyd Simmons seemed to have been stopped short of the first down by Gamecocks senior linebacker Damario Jeffrey. A measurement showed the ball roughly two inches short of the marker, but inexplicably (to this day) referee Jeff Maconaghy signaled a first down. South Carolina took a timeout. On the sideline Jeffrey approached his teammate, 6'6", 273-pound All-America sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, the presumptive first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, and said, "Just make a play."
Clowney nodded and said, "I'm with you."
On the next play Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner took the snap and began the act of sticking the ball into the belly of senior tailback Vincent Smith, a process Gardner would not complete. Television viewers saw a maroon blur flash into the play, as Clowney rushed forward and exploded into Smith, who at 5'6", 175 pounds is roughly a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Clowney. There was the ever-familiar sound of pads, helmets and humans cracking against each other, except amplified. Smith's helmet launched into the air and rotated a full, balletic 360 degrees before dropping to the turf and rolling to the 26-yard line. Smith's dreadlocked hair flew out as if electrified. Players from both teams dived on the ground, signaling an unseen fumble, and then Clowney rose from the pile, ball in hand, majestic.
ESPN's Mike Tirico called the play: Michigan at the 41. What a hit! Ball's free! On the ground! South Carolina deserves to have it, and they do!
Analyst Jon Gruden jumped in: Clowney just says, I'll take care of business right here.... I'll come off the ball and rock you and get it right back for our offense.
Inside the stadium the crowd of more than 54,000 roared, then fell into a buzz. Clowney walked into a wild celebration on the South Carolina bench. On the subsequent play—almost as an afterthought—Gamecocks junior quarterback Connor Shaw threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Ace Sanders, giving South Carolina a 27--22 lead in a wild game it would eventually win 33--28. But the electricity of the hit lingered in the air.
The earth has shifted beneath football's feet in recent years. For so long, big hits were central to the game's entertainment paradigm, and a kill shot such as Clowney's was a consummating moment. Now fans are asked to wring their hands when players collide, informed of the long-term damage being done to brains and bodies. Yet Clowney's hit on Smith—legal, though brutal—ignited not a safety discussion but rather a cultural frenzy. Within minutes of the collision, #Clowney was trending worldwide on Twitter, as fans rushed to share the hit with their brethren.
LeBron James (@KingJames): "Watching this SC vs. Michigan game and Clowney just made a big time hit/fumble recovery at the same time! He's the Freak Part 2 (Javon Kearse)."
ESPN put the play on a near-constant loop, and as of last week it was still the reigning champ in SportsCenter's "Best of the Best" fan poll. Dozens of clips of the hit have been posted on YouTube, with aggregate views well over four million.
The tackle spoke truth. In a sport swimming upstream against its primal current, there remains a powerful attraction to the most violent plays, whether they remain forever legal or face extinction through rule changes. (The majority of punishing hits in football are still legal; only a small sample, primarily head blows, have been outlawed.) Most instructive of all, the physicality of the game draws not just fans but players. That night, following the Outback Bowl, Clowney (@clownejd) tweeted, "Boy I had a big hit today dang love the game."
Seventeen days after the bowl game, Clowney was back on campus in Columbia. As he sat in an office, watching and discussing the Smith hit, he was asked about the controversy swirling around his chosen sport, and the troubling hypothesis that perhaps football is simply too violent. Clowney recoiled. "Man, I love the violence," he said. "I don't think it's too violent at all. You got all that equipment on. It's not too violent; it's fun, that's all it is."
A few days later, 700 miles to the north, Vincent Smith talked on a cellphone from outside Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor. His career at Michigan is finished, and he is training for a shot in the NFL. "I feel the same way Clowney does," said Smith. "You gotta love the violence. That's why little kids love the game. It gives them a reason to feel good about themselves. The violence is the reason I play football."
They are children of the game, born and raised in communities where football is a way of life, and the NFL is a dream made real often enough that it seems within reach for the next generation. Clowney and Smith are linked now by four seconds of football on the floor of an NFL stadium in Florida, but in truth their moment, their love of the collision, was years in the making.
On a Monday night in the heat of summer, the townspeople would come to the rutted, dusty ball field at Sylvia Circle Elementary School in Rock Hill, S.C., and they would set up their lawn chairs to watch the neighborhood boys in their first night of full-contact football. Rock Hill is a city of 66,154 that lies 25 miles south of Charlotte and has sent at least a dozen players to the NFL in the last decade. Middle-school-aged kids prepare for their high school careers by playing two seasons in the citywide Gray-Y (short for YMCA) League, where teams are named for the schools closest to the players' homes. The Sylvia Circle Demons would practice for a week in shorts, and then on the first evening of the second week they would put on full pads, some for the first time in their lives. It was an important night—part celebration, part rite of passage.
"That second Monday, everybody comes out at six o'clock," says Perry Sutton, 49, who has coached Gray-Y football for 25 years. "I'm talking about parents, friends, former players, people from the neighborhood. They all want to see that first day of hitting." In the summer of 2004, Clowney was one of the rookies, a fast and lanky 11-year-old, bigger than most of the kids but greener as well. "Raw," says Sutton. "So raw."
Clowney was born on Valentine's Day 1993, the first and only child of David Morgan, then 22, and Josenna Clowney, then 20, both of whom had been born and raised in Rock Hill. Josenna says she created her son's distinctive name, beginning with the letter J that distinguishes most members of her family (her parents are John and Josephine; her sister Joanetta and her brother Jerard), and incorporating the consonant sound of David's first syllable. (Josenna says her son's name is pronounced juh-DEV-ee-ON. At South Carolina he is known by most as JD.)
Clowney's parents were never married. In 1995, when Jadeveon was two years old, his father, who had accumulated a long list of arrests that included weapons, drug and assault charges, pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary and would eventually serve 11 years of a 20-year sentence, missing most of his son's childhood. Clowney visited his father for the first few years of his incarceration but stopped around age six. "One day he said he didn't want to go anymore, and I didn't make him go," says Josenna.
Inside the Manning Correctional Institution in Columbia, Morgan, who stands 6'5" and weighs 240 pounds, collected tattoos in homage to his son and bragged to his fellow inmates that his boy was going to be a football star. "They didn't believe it," says Morgan. "They believe it now." Morgan was paroled in December 2006, when Clowney was approaching 14. Father and son now have a relationship. "That's my only child, my best friend," says Morgan, who says he is employed as a laborer in a Charlotte warehouse. "There's a lot of things in my life that I regret, but I can't take anything back. I just got to make it up."
Josenna Clowney raised Jadeveon on the same block of Carolina Avenue where she grew up. Her father, John Clowney, now 84, worked four decades in a Rock Hill cotton processing plant and bought three other houses on the street for his children. Josenna, who has worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Charlotte for 18 years, brought Jadeveon to his first Pee Wee practice at about age seven. "He really liked it," says Josenna. "Of course he was always the biggest child on the field. He would always be running with the ball, dragging two or three other boys. And people would say, He's in the wrong age group, don't let him hit my child."
It was largely unschooled football and school-yard hitting until Gray-Y and that Monday night in the summer of 2004. "We teach them the fundamentals of tackling," says Sutton, the Gray-Y coach. "And then we line 'em up and do Oklahoma." The Oklahoma tackling drill, ingrained in modern football, has various permutations, but the Demons practiced it in its simplest form: Two lines facing each other, one tackler and one ballcarrier. "Jadeveon just exploded through somebody," says Sutton. "After that, we put two tacklers on him when it was his turn. He still cracked a few helmets. Other peoples' helmets."
As a 6'3", 200-pound ninth-grader, Clowney ran for 31 touchdowns on the South Pointe High freshman team and spent the next three years on coach Bobby Carroll's varsity. The Stallions went 38--6 with Clowney at defensive end, linebacker and, occasionally, flex-bone fullback. In the first round of the state playoffs his senior year, Clowney scored two defensive touchdowns and one offensive touchdown—in the first quarter. During daily practices he would hold back on his hitting until the coaches cajoled him into turning loose. "Then five minutes later we're calling 911," says Carroll, "because Clowney knocked some kid out."
That's an exaggeration, right?
"No, no, I'm serious, man," says Carroll. "We called the ambulance a couple of times. Our trainers couldn't deal with the situation."
Clowney signed with South Carolina on his 18th birthday. Shaw, the quarterback, didn't meet him until fall practice and didn't understand him until one day when Clowney beat blockers off the edge and rushed at Shaw's blind side. "All we do in practice is tag off the quarterback," says Shaw. "So Clowney comes by, and wham! It's like somebody hitting me as hard as he can with one hand. I said, 'Gawd, dude, what was that for?' Clowney says, 'I just tagged you off.' Later on I had this big ol' red hand mark on my side."
Victor Hampton, a starting cornerback at South Carolina asked once, "Did you meet Clowney? He's bigger than you thought, isn't he?" Yes. "He's like Shaq in his prime. Some of us on the team say God took his time when he made Clowney."
Vincent Smith was raised 650 miles south of Rock Hill, in Pahokee, Fla., a small town surrounded by sugarcane fields on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. It is a place that famously shames Rock Hill (and nearly every other burg in America) in the matter of sending football players to the pros. In the last half century at least 50 players from Pahokee and neighboring Belle Glade (combined population under 24,000) have left to play in the NFL. The annual Muck Bowl (so named for the thick, rich soil on the shores of the lake) between Pahokee and Glades Central regularly included more than a dozen Division I prospects (though that number has dropped, as Pahokee has struggled in recent years).
Like young boys in Rock Hill, the kids in Pahokee hit hard and young, and they practice the Oklahoma drill to separate the meek from the fierce at an early age. "One-on-one, mano-a-mano, aggressive tackling," says Ricky Lammons, 47, who has been the defensive coordinator at Pahokee High since 2002. He's also a youth football coach in town and has worked with Smith from when Vincent was eight. "When he was little, he would volunteer to get in the Oklahoma," Lammons says. "He invited the physical part of football right from the beginning."
By the time Smith was in junior high, he was already 5'6" and more than 150 pounds. "I thought I was gonna be a beast," he says now. "Then I stopped growing in middle school." But Lammons says, "Even when Vincent stopped getting taller, he was like a little tank. And he ran with attitude. He would rather run over you than around you."
Smith was brought up to the Pahokee High varsity squad late in his freshman year. "First out to practice, last one to leave, leader by example, hardest worker on the team in the weight room," says Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson. Smith was a starter at running back for three full seasons (splitting carries for two seasons with Janoris Jenkins, who is now a starting cornerback for the St. Louis Rams) and finished high school with 4,677 yards, 58 touchdowns and three state titles.
But it was the Muck Bowl of Smith's sophomore year that underscored his football persona. Smith ran for 107 of his 161 yards in the fourth quarter and carried on seven of Pahokee's final 10 plays, running out the clock in a 28--21 victory. "I've got the tape of that game," says Smith's brother Jawarski Bouie, 31. "Glades wanted to get the ball back, and Vincent just kept running and running, big chunks of yardage. One play, he ran over two guys on the same play. The announcer said they were both Division I prospects. Ran right over them."
As near as Smith can recall, the play was 17 Power. If there was more to it, he doesn't remember. "I only listen for what I've got to do," he says. Which was, take the handoff from Gardner and follow fullback Joe Kerridge to the left, looking for a seam. On the other sideline South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward called Cali, in which the Gamecocks' front four stunted left at the snap and Hampton blitzed off the right edge. "They'd just gotten a big play," says Ward. "I thought they might run a play-action pass, and I didn't think their tight end [Mike Kwiatkowski] could block Vic."
That would not be the issue. At the snap, Michigan All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan, who had limited Clowney to two tackles, ignored Clowney and worked a double team to the inside. Lewan told reporters after the game that he was originally supposed to run a double team with Kwiatkowski on Clowney, but because of Clowney's outside alignment, Lewan didn't think he could make the block. Instead, he audibled to a double team with guard Ricky Barnum, leaving Kwiatkowski alone on Clowney. It appears that Kwiatkowski, who did not respond to an interview request, did not hear the call, because he reached briefly for Clowney—as if expecting help inside—then charged out to the second level.
Clowney, meanwhile, stepped hard to his left and then drove inside Kwiatkowski with his right shoulder. This cannot be said strongly enough: Clowney was not blocked. Pulling right guard Patrick Omameh sprinted right past Clowney's backside and glanced left at the last instant, startled to see a defender so deep in the backfield. "I was looking elsewhere," says Omameh, "but that got my attention. Then I saw the helmet go off."
Clowney watches the tape and explains, "I didn't know the call; I had to ask [linebacker] Reggie Bowens. It looks like the tight end was supposed to wash me down to the inside, but I was too fast. Then I dipped my shoulder and I'm clean. Uh-oh. Big hit." It is a textbook tackle; Clowney's head is up, and he drills his shoulder into Smith's sternum. "He never came out of his stance," says Ward of Clowney. "His back was flat the whole time." Clowney smiles at the screen. "I didn't feel a thing. Just heard the pop."
Smith says, "I saw it coming the whole way. But not in any way, shape or form could I avoid it." Smith has always worn his chinstrap loose, all the way back to Pahokee. "I don't like to feel that tightness," he says. ("I'm always telling him to strap up that helmet—you can't have your helmet loose," says Bouie. "He'll fasten it up now.")
In the instant after the hit, the physical reaction of the two players is remarkable. Smith never had full possession of the handoff, yet as he falls to the ground under Clowney's weight, he reaches to his right, trying to find the ball. Clowney gets there first, palming the end of the ball in one hand. Watching along, Shaw says, "Look at Jadeveon. He picks it up like it's a little tiny golf ball."
In the aftermath Clowney poses and says nothing. Smith gets right up, retrieves his helmet and walks off the field.
Sitting in the stands, Josenna Clowney did not see the play. She had turned away from the field after the lousy call, fearing the game was lost. Suddenly she heard voices, Your son! Your son! She turned to watch the replay on the stadium's giant screen. "I don't know how he comes up with these things," says Josenna. "But he always does." Back in Rock Hill, Bobby Carroll's daughter Chloe, 13, snapped a picture of the television screen and posted it on her Facebook page.
Near Pahokee, Coach Thompson turned away from the television. "I get upset talking about it," he says. "You give that young man a free run at a back who doesn't even have the ball yet? A lot of people could have made that hit." Rick Lammons watched the game with friends and family. "Watch, Vincent's gonna pop right up," Lammons recalls telling his guests. "That boy is tough as nails."
Smith says he didn't see the hit until the next day on SportsCenter (though teammates had assured him on New Year's Day that he would indeed be featured prominently). "I watched it with some guys, and I said, O.K., dang, he got me pretty good," says Smith. "But it didn't hurt at all. I've been hit way harder, back in high school. It looks way worse than what I was going through." What hurts more is that Smith is a long shot to play in the NFL, after rushing for only 94 yards on 38 carries as a senior, the lowest totals of his career.
The hit was a last breath of football sanity for Clowney. Upon returning to Columbia, he attended a team meeting at which coach Steve Spurrier asked all rising seniors to stand up. Clowney, technically a sophomore, remained seated, and Spurrier said, "Come on, Clowney, stand up. You're a senior," on the assumption that Clowney will leave after one more season, fulfilling the required three years out of high school for draft eligibility. Then came media speculation that he would sit out the season to protect himself from injury. "Some people think I'm not playing this year," Clowney said in January, even before the speculation. "I'm looking forward to playing."
There is work left for him to do. Spurrier briefly benched Clowney early in the Outback because his effort was lacking, and it was not the first time Spurrier and Ward had pushed Clowney to work harder. Clowney told teammates after the game that Lewan had held him repeatedly. "JD thinks it was holding," says Ward. "In the NFL they'll do that and pile-drive his ass."
Yet there is no questioning the talent. "He runs gassers with the defensive backs," says Gruden. "That's the kind of speed he has. He's the perfect player against today's offenses. You want to run that read option? Clowney will tackle the back, and if he doesn't have the ball, he'll go get the quarterback. He's the Number 1 pick whenever he comes out."
Meanwhile, he has the better half of history, and Smith is forever his victim. "I watched the video, like, two times," says Smith. "It's a hit I took. It's said and done."
But it's not. Clowney leans forward and drops his soft voice to a full-on whisper. "Sometimes I'll be in my room," he says, "and I'll think, Boy, I'm gonna look at that play." It is for him, as it is for so many others, a guilty pleasure that embraces the brutal essence of the game. "And then," he says, "I'll look at it over and over and over."
"I saw it coming the whole way," Smith says. "It didn't hurt at all. I've been hit way harder, back in high school."
SI's college football experts are on the road to bring back reports from spring practices all over the country. Check them out as well as our early Top 25 and conference analyses at SI.com/cfb
VIEW FROM THE COMBINE
CLOWNEY QUESTION, PRO?
An anonymous NFL general manager, on South Carolina's Clowney: "He's dominant. Dominant. He'd be the first player taken in this draft—easy. He's 6'5½", 6'6", and he can contort his body and bend and get leverage. He also has long arms and really natural hands. These kids in college, they really don't know how to play him. He's scary. Seriously. Remember how everybody freaked out about Julius Peppers? How he had incredible athleticism to go with his size? Clowney will be better than him. He's off the charts. We're evaluating other players on film right now, and then he'll just suddenly jump out at you. You're like, Where did he come from?"
Photograph by WES WILSON
STEVE JACOBSON (SEQUENCE, 5)
THE SEQUENCE Whether a blocker missed an assignment or Clowney was simply too fast, the South Carolina phenom (7) fired free into the Michigan backfield on the momentous Outback Bowl play.
SIMON BRUTY (CLOWNEY)
COLLISION COURSE At 6'6", 273 pounds, Clowney had a size advantage on Smith, but his speed is what makes him perfect for the new pro game.
JEFFERY A. SALTER (SMITH)
PULLING FORWARD Despite a disappointing senior year, Smith is back in Florida training for Michigan's pro day and the NFL.
AL TIELEMANS (MCCARRON)
HIGH FLIER NFL personnel people are already drooling over Clowney, prompting some to suggest that he sit out next season, but the soon-to-be junior intends to suit up.