CLEMSON — After every obstacle he has encountered, Roderick McDowell was not about to run away.
A concussion, the assorted foot injuries, the pulled and bruised muscles were incidental setbacks for the Clemson running back – described by his high school coaches in Sumter as the best ever.
Shadowing C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington the past four seasons hasn’t been the worst duty, but for a young man with McDowell’s resume and pride, it tested the limits of his dignity. After three seasons, he contemplated leaving Clemson. Folks in Sumter weren’t unkind. They just wanted to know when it would be his time to cast a long shadow.
Instead of feeling low, McDowell was inspired by his mother, who told him to pray.
“I’m glad I stayed,” McDowell said. “I came here as a boy, and now I’ll leave as a man.”
Hardly any understood. Heck, few outside the immediate family knew what it took for Roderick to become “Hot Rod.” Until last week, even Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t know about the surgeries on the right foot and leg, the casts and braces to correct the clubfoot that doctors insisted would make it difficult for him to walk without a limp – let alone run.
Clubfoot is the most common congenital birth defect, affecting 1 in 1,000 births annually, boys twice as often as girls. It twists either or both feet at the ankles and makes walking difficult or impossible. Addressed at an early age, it can be corrected through orthopedic appliances and surgery. NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, U.S. soccer legend Mia Hamm and former Olympic figure-skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi were each born with clubfoot.
The most visible anomaly is the right leg below the knee, which is distinctly smaller than the left. McDowell said the right foot is a half shoe size smaller. None of it ever has it seemed to hamper his quickness and acceleration.
“They told my mom if I had one more surgery, I wouldn’t walk again. I wouldn’t run again,” he said. “My mom said no more surgeries.”
Initially self-conscious as a child, McDowell discovered, “I was faster than everybody, so I ran with it.”
Grayson Howell said they first met the summer before that season. McDowell and some buddies were hanging in the gym. He wanted to be a receiver.
“Why are you going to do that?” Howell said he asked. “Why don’t you start off at running back, and we’ll see what happens from there? Lo and behold, here we go.
“His first touch as a varsity player was a 51-yard touchdown run against South Florence.”
Paul Sorrells, his coach at Sumter, did not notice the difference in the legs until somebody pointed it out.
“I watched him play basketball in the gym one day. He would use that leg just like he ran a football,” Sorrells said. “He would plant that leg and make a 90-degree cut as fast as anybody I have seen.
“I, still to this day, can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s incredible because he can sure run.”
When McDowell contemplated transferring after the 2011 season, his mother advised him to pray. He also sought Howell’s advice.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want to get out of this?’ ” Howell said. “Is it just about football, is it about you being able to make everybody at home think you’re a big star?’
“If football is that important and overcoming what people may see as a disappointment because you haven’t started at Clemson yet, then that’s the decision you need to make. But if it’s about graduating from Clemson and being part of putting Clemson back on the map and finishing this thing out, that’s a different decision.”
McDowell called the next day and told him he was staying.
“He could have given up a long time ago. He was buried on that depth chart and seemed like he was never going to get his chance,” Howell said. “He continued to work and persevere.”
McDowell entered Clemson as a 160-pound back. Last week, he weighed 198. He will leave Clemson with a degree in sociology, but he wants to inspire children.
“I have been blessed with the opportunity to play football. One day I want to mentor kids because I can relate to them,” he said. “A teacher at my old high school has a daughter with a club foot, and she has to walk in braces. She tells me I inspire her.”