Morris: C.J. Spiller finishes a family dream

Before C.J. Spiller came along, Clarence Brown was the family's superstar football player, bound for greatness. But Brown's life ended early - and tragically. Now his nephew concludes his amazing college career

December 27, 2009 

Virginia Clemson Football

Clemson's C.J. Spiller (28) acknowledges fans during the first half of their NCAA college football game against Virginia, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

RICHARD SHIRO/AP

— NOT A DAY passes without Patricia Watkins thinking about Clarence Brown, her brother who was murdered before her eyes more than 20 years ago in a Lake Butler, Fla., housing complex.

In her son, C.J. Spiller, Watkins has a constant reminder of what an outstanding athlete and special person her brother was before his tragic death. Old-timers around Lake Butler will tell you Brown was every bit the football player that Spiller became.

So Spiller serves as a reminder to Watkins of what might have been for her brother. She will tell you Brown was destined to be a star college football player, like Spiller, and perhaps a professional career would have followed, as is certain for Spiller.

Watkins is not alone in her belief that Spiller, Clemson's All-American running back, is the spitting image of her brother. Carlton Faulk, a coach of Brown's and later a fan of Spiller's at Lake Butler's Union High School, says the two shared an uncommon likeness.

Faulk says Brown and Spiller smiled the same way, which was nearly all the time. He says both were good students and the subject of much adulation within the community. They both were respectful of others, answered with "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs." Both were hard-nosed football players.

Watkins says Spiller's likeness to his late uncle sometimes can be a bit eerie. She says their penmanship is nearly identical, all the way down to how Spiller writes in small print.

"Clarence was well-known in the community. Everybody loved him. Now, I see my son is picking up where my brother left off," Watkins said recently over breakfast at a restaurant in Clemson.

If Spiller's grandmother Nettie Pearl Allen were alive, she, too, would swear by the similarities in her son and grandson. For it was "Grandma Nettie," as everyone from her grandchildren to neighbors in Lake Butler called her, who nurtured Brown and Spiller from the crib to the brink of adulthood.

Grandma Nettie saw her only son live for 19 years. She saw Spiller grow for 14 years before she died of cancer in 2001.

There was no doubting, though, that Grandma Nettie believed young Spiller would be the equal of her son on the athletic fields and in the Lake Butler community. Watkins does not deny that her mother knew all along Spiller would realize the dreams Brown had chased.

As Spiller grew, Grandma Nettie was there whenever a push was needed. When others might have doubted Spiller, Grandma Nettie believed.

"She was my rock," Spiller says of his grandmother.

When Spiller prepares himself for the final game of his college football career tonight in the Music City Bowl, he will continue a custom that began during his high school days: He will wear his grandmother's initials, "NPA," on both wristbands.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

Eighteen-year-old Patricia Watkins lived with her older brother, Clarence Brown, in the Union County government housing project, not far from the high school in Lake Butler, Fla. With a 3-year-old son, Darren Alexander, and a 2-month-old son, Clifford "C.J." Spiller, Watkins, a single parent, needed assistance in caring for her children beyond that provided through the government and child-support payments from Spiller's father.

Watkins' mother, Grandma Nettie, was happy to help raise a second family, and Clarence was there to look after his sister.

"He was my protection," Watkins says. "He was the type who, if something happened, he would tell people, 'Don't you mess with my little sister.' "

Brown had developed quite a reputation in town as the kid who was destined for greatness. He was as good a football player as Lake Butler and Union County High had seen, playing running back, linebacker and special teams.

"The thing about Clarence, he never came off the field," says Faulk, who was an assistant coach at Union County High when Brown played there through 1986 and now is superintendent of the county school district.

When Buddy Nobles arrived at Union County High as an assistant coach in 1993, he quickly learned of the legend of Clarence Brown.

"You know how you hear those folk stories, 'This guy could run this and that,' " Nobles says. "Well, I always heard about C.J.'s uncle."

Although recruited by numerous colleges to play football, Brown instead moved in with his sister upon graduation. He was working to help support his sister and her two children.

Then, in the middle of the afternoon of Oct. 27, 1987, the Lake Butler community was shaken.

David Holton, 24 years old and a Union County School Board mechanic, returned to his apartment two doors down from where Brown lived with his sister. Holton learned that Tina Cummings, the girl with whom he shared his apartment, was in a nearby apartment with Brown, according to a Gainesville Sun newspaper report.

Holton chased Brown out the apartment's back door with a paring knife. Holton caught Brown and stabbed him twice, leaving the knife in Brown's neck, where it cut a major artery, according to the Gainesville Sun.

Watkins had her 2-month-old son, Spiller, in her arms as she watched the incident unfold. She placed Spiller on the ground and ran to help her brother, who was airlifted to a Jacksonville hospital where he died after surgery.

Two months later, Holton pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served three and was released, according to Watkins.

"I ask myself all the time, 'How can a guy be so good and have something like this happen to him?' " Watkins says.

LESSONS FROM GRANDMA NETTIE

Watkins promised herself her brother's legacy would live forever through her children. From the first day Spiller could walk, he heard tales of his uncle's exploits, told first by his mother and later by those in Lake Butler who to this day consider Brown among the area's finest athletes.

Grandma Nettie and her husband, Hubert Allen, immediately stepped up their support of Watkins and her children. When Watkins returned to the work force, even more of the mothering responsibilities fell to Grandma Nettie.

Spiller's grandmother signed him up for Pop Warner football. She became his No. 1 fan. When Spiller ran the football, Grandma Nettie ran alongside him on the sideline.

The two walked to school each day, first to Union County High, where Grandma Nettie worked as a custodian. Then they were off to Hardee's, where Spiller ordered a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit with orange juice every morning.

Forever in search of a father figure, Spiller latched on to Nobles, his football coach from Pop Warner leagues through high school. Nobles' son, Kasey, is a teammate of Spiller's at Clemson along with Kevin Alexander, who also played football under Nobles' tutelage in Lake Butler.

When Watkins was involved in a 1999 car accident, Spiller lived with the Nobles while his mother recuperated in the hospital. By his senior year of high school, Spiller was part of the Nobles' summer vacation trip that included stops at the University of Tennessee, Ohio State University, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a Reds baseball game in Cincinnati.

Even as he added a second family, Spiller continued to look for direction from his mother and grandmother. Grandma Nettie was the disciplinarian in the family, and Spiller says he knew better than to cross her.

Spiller, about 10 at the time, recalls vividly the day he promised Grandma Nettie he was on his way home from his friend's house. Twenty minutes later, Grandma Nettie arrived on his friend's doorstep with switches in hand.

"She chased me all the way from their trailer to our trailer with all my friends looking out the windows," Spiller says. "She got my legs pretty good. She probably helped me with how I'm able to step over people (on the football field). I learned to get my legs up high."

He also learned a lesson, according to Spiller: When adults tell you to do something, do it right away.

Grandma Nettie had all kinds of lessons for Spiller, and one saying after another:

"If it's in your heart, do your best."

"Always give 110 percent."

"Always do your best."

"Don't give up."

"If you promise someone something, do it."

Grandma Nettie died in 2001. She suffered through her final days bed ridden in Watkins' home. Her death was particularly difficult on Spiller. He wanted so badly for Grandma Nettie to see him play high school, college and pro football. Nothing would have pleased her more than for her grandson to fulfill the dreams denied her only son.

Throughout high school, Spiller wore a medallion around his neck with Grandma Nettie's picture inside the locket. Sometime late in her life, Grandma Nettie wrote a note to her grandson, one that is framed and hangs in his apartment at Clemson. Spiller says whenever he faces a difficult decision, he reads the note:

"C.J.,

"You have grown into a wonderful young man. I'm proud of you and love you very much. Always keep God in your heart and in your life.

"Love always,

"Grandma Nettie."

MOST CHERISHED AWARD

Spiller's college football career will conclude tonight against Kentucky. He will leave Clemson as one of its most decorated athletes and one of the school's all-time great ambassadors.

Spiller graduated a week ago, and his mother proudly carries the diploma in the front seat of her Dodge Durango. He was the first in his family to earn a degree, doing so in 3 1/2 years while earning star status in both football and track.

"He's got certain things in his DNA that drive him to be successful," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says of Spiller. "The guy is relentless in his pursuit of greatness."

Along the way, Spiller earned first-team All-America honors. His jersey No. 28 is certain to be retired. He was the ACC Player of the Year. He finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.

Each award and trophy is sent home to Lake Butler to his mother, who lives with her husband, Leon, and her 16-year-old daughter, Lashae Mitchell. Her oldest son, Darren Alexander, is 25 and works for an accounting firm in Jacksonville. Word has it that Lashae is every bit the athlete Spiller was at Lake Butler and she is beginning to collect trophies in basketball and track.

She has a long way to go to catch Spiller, though. His trophies became so numerous, Watkins had a case built to house them, including one that is particularly special to the family.

Not long after Brown's murder in 1987, Faulk established the Clarence Brown Award, which is presented each season to the Union County High player who participates in the most plays.

In his first season as coach, Nobles promoted the freshman Spiller to the varsity squad. By the conclusion of the 2002 season, Spiller had participated in more plays than anyone as a running back, a defensive back and on special teams.

At the team's postseason awards banquet, Nobles presented the Clarence Brown Award to Spiller. Before accepting it, Spiller stood at his table, turned and hugged his mother. The two cried in each other's arms.

Today, signs greet visitors to Lake Butler with the words "Home of C.J. Spiller." Southwest 14th St., where Watkins and her family live, is soon to be renamed "Spiller Street" in honor of Grandma Nettie's grandson.

But none of that recognition compares to the award Spiller received as a freshman in high school. To this day, Spiller says the Clarence Brown Award remains his most prized athletic possession.

"That's my Heisman," he says.

Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)

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