ROCK HILL, SC — Benjamin Watson was talking to his father recently about the number of Rock Hill players dotting NFL rosters.
Both men were at a loss to explain how a city of 66,000 has sent so many players to the NFL.
“I have no idea,” Watson said last week. “Just going down the list of guys that have gone on to play in the league. … I don’t know, it seems like a football factory.”
Watson, a 10-year tight end who signed with New Orleans this offseason, is among five Rock Hill players who were on Week 1 rosters last season.
And there are more on the way.
Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who played at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, is expected to be a first-round pick in this month’s draft. Experts believe the only reason South Carolina defensive end and Rock Hill native Jadeveon Clowney won’t be the first player taken is the small technicality that he’s not eligible.
Coaches and officials affiliated with Rock Hill schools point to a couple of factors they believe have contributed to the city’s history of churning out NFL talent — a strong collection of youth leagues overseen by coaches who know the game, and a decision by the Rock Hill school board in the 1980s allocating money to improve the quality of the city’s high school programs.
Rock Hill and Northwestern soon were among the top teams in South Carolina in their division. The opening of a third high school, South Pointe, in 2005, diluted the talent pool. But the former textile and mill town 25 miles south of Charlotte has maintained a pipeline to the pros.
“I know a lot of places will claim that in their little corner of the world they have great high school football. But you look at Rock Hill and those three anchor schools, it’s just this hotbed of high school football,” said Greg Brannon, the Carolina Panthers’ director of TV broadcast and digital media, who is the play-by-play announcer for South Pointe’s radio broadcasts.
“I don’t know if you can put your finger on why,” Brannon added. “But there’s some longevity.”
Just like they planned
Rick Sanford, a South Carolina defensive back who played at Northwestern, was the first Gamecocks player to become a first-round draft choice when New England selected him 25th overall in 1979.
Sanford, who set a Patriots’ record with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown, played seven seasons before retiring in 1985.
It was about that time when the Rock Hill school board took steps to ramp up its high school teams.
“It was somewhat competitive, but it was not championship level,” said Joe Gentry, the superintendent of Rock Hill Schools from 1981-93.
Under Gentry’s watch, the board passed a District 3 Stadium renovation that cost a “couple million,” dollars, approved expenditures for the schools’ weight rooms and increased the salary supplements for its coaches.
“We didn’t want anybody to hire our people away,” Gentry said. “We didn’t overpay. We paid what the larger schools were paying.”
Longtime coaches Jim Ringer and Moose Wallace built powerhouse programs at Rock Hill and Northwestern, respectively. Both were flush with quality players.
Gerald Dixon, a linebacker who starred at Rock Hill and South Carolina, was a third-round pick by Cleveland in 1993 and played nine NFL seasons. Defensive back Jeff Burris, of Northwestern, was a first-round pick out of Notre Dame the following season who lasted 10 years in the league.
Chris Hope, a Parade All-American at Rock Hill in 1997, credits Dixon and Burris for opening the door for the next wave of Rock Hill players who had their sights set on the NFL.
Hope, a safety at Florida State, was one of four York County players drafted among the first three rounds in 2002, along with defensive backs Derek Ross (Northwestern) and Sheldon Brown (Lewisville) and running back Maurice Morris (Chester).
Over the next few years, a number of players with Rock Hill ties would join them in the NFL, including three first-rounders in Watson (2004 out of Georgia) and cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (2006, South Carolina) and Stephon Gilmore (2012, South Carolina).
“Football,” Hope said, “was pretty much everybody’s ticket.”
Right people in right places
With the exception of Watson, who came to Rock Hill as a high school sophomore when his father moved there to start a church, players came up through the city’s Park and Rec. and Gray-Y (YMCA) leagues.
Many of the coaches had high school coaching experience, and the instruction level was better than what Thomas Richmond calls “daddy-coached teams.”
Richmond, who works for Duke Energy in Charlotte, began coaching in the Rock Hill youth leagues when his son was playing. Now his son is a Columbia fireman, and Richmond is still coaching.
“They’re not out there for pay. All they want to do is see the kids succeed,” Richmond said. “A lot of these guys don’t have kids on the team.”
Bobby Carroll, who won a state title at South Pointe in 2008 with Gilmore and Clowney, said the youth leagues build competitiveness, in addition to the skills that are taught.
“That’s how the city of Rock Hill is. The kids are so into it when they get into high school,” said Carroll, now the coach at York High. “They want to excel so bad. They want to do what the previous players have done.
“It’s innate in these kids that, I want to be better than so-and-so,” Carroll added. “I want to be the next Jeff Burris, the next Chris Hope, the next Stephon Gilmore, the long line of guys that have played in the NFL.”
The players form a sort of brotherhood once reaching the league.
Every time he faces a fellow Rock Hillian, Hope takes a picture with him after the game and gets it framed.
After seeing Patterson play last fall, Watson called him and told him to call any time if Patterson had questions about the combine, draft process or anything else. Watson will return to Rock Hill next weekend to host a two-day camp/clinic that will include a panel featuring him, Hope and Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who played with Watson at Georgia. The camp is for kids from second grade through middle school.
Hope, whose mother lives in Rock Hill, got a group of 15 players together last summer to train at District 3 Stadium.
Hope, 32, a free agent who is unsigned, calls himself the grandfather of a group whose membership could get a big boost next year in the (large) person of Clowney.
Clowney, 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds, set South Carolina records for sacks (13.0) and tackles for loss (23.5) last season. He also delivered college football’s signature moment with his ball-jarring, helmet-popping hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl that has gotten more airtime than Snooki.
Clowney was featured on a Sports Illustrated regional cover last month that showed him breaking through a faux March Madness cover. Hope said Clowney is about to come crashing through the door that players like Burris and Dixon opened to the steady stream of Rock Hill players headed to the pros.
“You’re talking about being the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Hope said. “The door’s off the hinges now. It’s wide open.”
Want to go?
What: Benjamin Watson’s annual football clinic and NFL panel, featuring Chris Hope and Thomas Davis
When: April 19-20
Who: Kids from second grade through middle school
Where: The panel discussion will be from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 19 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill; the clinic will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on April 20 at District 3 Stadium in Rock Hill
For more info: