For years, the people of St. Matthews have been weary of having to describe themselves as “a little south of Columbia” or “just north of Orangeburg.”
It’s not a huge uprising, considering the town is home to fewer than 2,000 people, but still, says Calhoun County High School football coach Walt Wilson, it would be nice if South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery put tiny St. Matthews on the map.
“It’s always a good thing when someone in the nation is aware of and actually learns where St. Matthews is,” Wilson said. “At one time, no one could tell you where St. Matthews was, but if you say Orangeburg, they would say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know.’ Now people actually start to Google the town of St. Matthews. That’s a good thing.”
Jeffery did his part to put the spotlight on his hometown this season by becoming the second Gamecocks wide receiver to earn first-team All-America honors. The sophomore leads the SEC and is fourth in the nation with 1,387 receiving yards heading into Friday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against Florida State. He set the school single-season records for receiving yards and receptions (79).
Nowhere have they been happier for, or prouder of, Jeffery than in Calhoun County, which — for the record — is 35 miles south of Columbia and 14 miles north of Orangeburg.
“Right now, if Alshon were to run for mayor, he could win,” Calhoun County High basketball coach and former USC star Zam Fredrick said. “As a matter of fact, in the last election, somebody put him on the ballot for a couple of different offices. It means a tremendous amount to everyone in Calhoun County to have one of our own that we know grew up pretty difficult, didn’t have a whole lot, and he kind of threw himself into athletics.
“Everybody (in St. Matthews) more or less takes ownership in Alshon.”
In the nation’s fifth-poorest state, St. Matthews has a median household income of less than $30,000 a year — 30 percent below the state average. But at the Calhoun County High Saints’ gym, where a sheriff’s deputy pats down and uses a metal detector on incoming patrons, the people of Calhoun County are blessed with abundance.
Region championship banners for every year from 1991 to 2006 line one wall. On the opposite end are state-title banners. The Saints won the state championship in each of Jeffery’s four years on the basketball team.
“St. Matthews is a small town, real rural area,” Wilson said. “Sports crosses barriers; it brings a lot of people together. Everybody has something in common, and that’s what sports does for Calhoun County and St. Matthews.”
Jeffery is not the first St. Matthews athlete to make the big time. That honor goes to Fredrick, who played basketball for South Carolina and led the NCAA in scoring with an average of 28.9 points per game in 1981. The Saints football program has former players at Auburn (Eric Mack), Georgia Tech (David Sims) and Kentucky (Donte Rumph) this season.
Jeffery outshines them all, though.
“Alshon right now is a like a hero to a lot of people, especially kids,” Wilson said. “You see so many No. 1 (jerseys), it is unreal.”
The town is sending another native, and another Jeffery, to Columbia next year in Alshon’s younger brother Shamier.
“He makes catches like his brother,” Wilson said of Shamier. “Also, Shamier is faster than his brother. Shamier is a better athlete than his brother. I am telling you, Gamecock Nation is going to be excited for a while.”
Wilson and Fredrick are both happy to see so many of St. Matthews’ native sons make it out of town in recent years. For every major-college athlete the town has produced, there is another who should have made the jump.
“We have had some really stout football players,” Fredrick said. “You’ve had some kids who should have gone on and done great things but didn’t really like school much. I am talking about some tremendous athletes.”
Alshon and Shamier’s older brother Charles Ben was one of those players. Ben, a wide receiver, signed with South Carolina in 2002 but failed to qualify academically.
“I am telling you right now, this boy may have been even better than Alshon,” Fredrick said. “Everybody knew he would be lining up on Sundays somewhere, but he never wanted to stay in school much.”
When Wilson arrived at St. Matthews, he made it a priority to export more of the town’s football talent.
“My goal was to let these kids understand that God has given them a gift, and it’s not meant to be kept inside St. Matthews,” he said.
The school’s teachers and administrators deserve credit for helping Calhoun County get back on track, Wilson said.
“I tell these teachers, ‘Every time Alshon catches a touchdown, you stick your chest out,’” he said. “You have a part in this.”
Jeffery feels the weight of his hometown’s attention, he said.
“I feel like everybody is looking up to me, and I have to live up to it,” he said. “I’m happy for all the guys who made it out of St. Matthews.”
Wilson encouraged Jeffery to dream big, and Jeffery took him at his word.
“He said, ‘I want to be a (Southern Cal) Trojan,’” Wilson said.
However, the reality of being on the opposite side of the country was too much for Jeffery. The South Carolina star is never away from his hometown long. He often sat in on the Calhoun County football team’s Sunday meetings, Wilson said, and he’s a courtside regular at basketball games, Fredrick said.
“I was so glad that he decided to go to Carolina, because I felt like whatever he wanted from football, it was right there at Carolina, plus it would give everybody here a chance to continue to be a part of his life,” Fredrick said. “He’s got a lot of good people here who are behind him.”