The turnoff to the driveway for Calhoun County High School, which sits at the corner of Saints Avenue and Saints Avenue in this central South Carolina town of 2,000, features only a simple sign. The permanent lettering at the top reads “Calhoun County High School,” and the interchangeable marquee reads “Welcome to Saints Country.”
The Saints are a big deal here.
“Sports for us is a major deal,” said the town’s legendary high school basketball coach Zam Fredrick, who before that was the NCAA’s leading scorer during the 1980-81 season for USC and then a professional basketball player in Europe. “We have always had some good teams, good athletes. Calhoun is a small, close-knit community, lot of a hard-working people. Athletically, we go as hard as we can go.”
Fredrick led the Saints basketball team to four consecutive state titles and five in a seven-year span. During the height of the run, school administrators had to lock the front doors to keep people out once capacity (and a little more) was reached on Friday and Saturday nights.
So, this is a Saints town, but on Sunday evening, that will change for four hours because of one man.
“Everybody’s an Eagles fan. EVERYBODY’S an Eagles fan,” said Cynthia Johnson, the chief of accountability for the Calhoun County school district. “It’s all on Facebook. It’s everywhere. Everybody is an Eagles fan. He has an entire community rooting for him and the Eagles.”
“He” is Alshon Jeffery, the former Saint and former Gamecock who will start at wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl LII on Sunday. As much as St. Matthews has outpunched its weight in producing sports stars, this is the first hometown boy to play on the biggest stage in American sports, and it means something to this community.
“Absolutely,” Johnson said. “I think in any community it is always a great feeling and an inspiration to see one of your very own move to the next level of anything, whether it’s playing on Sundays on television or you see one as a doctor or a nurse.”
St. Matthews has other notable products – including actors Viola Davis (star of “The Help”) and Mike Colter (star of Netflix series “Luke Cage”) and former Miami Dolphin Phillip Merling.
“We’ve had several people in the county go onto big things, but the Super Bowl, that’s pretty incredible when you think about it,” said Ross Smith, who was Jeffery’s position coach at Calhoun County High School and still teaches at the school.
Smith coached all four of Jeffery’s brother, Charles Ben, Darren Ben, Alshon and Shamier Jeffery. Alshon and Shamier both played at South Carolina, where Alshon caught 183 passes for 3,042 yards and 23 touchdowns in three years.
Alshon Jeffery was a star first at Calhoun County High on the basketball court. He was a four-year starter for the Saints, winning four state titles and finishing his high school basketball career with a record of 126-1 when he was on the court. At one point during Jeffery’s career, the Saints had an 81-game winning streak. It was broken Jeffery’s senior year when he missed a game to participate in the Shrine Bowl.
Jeffery’s professional career began in 2012, when he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the second round. After five years with the Bears, Jeffery joined the Eagles, first signing a one-year contract and then a four-year extension. Jeffery is the first St. Matthews product to play in the Super Bowl, Fredrick said.
“Everybody in Calhoun County will be around a TV on Super Bowl Sunday, you can believe that,” Fredrick said. “Those that aren’t around their TV will be around somebody else’s TV.”
Fredrick expects his former star to play well.
“One thing you can count on with Alshon, the bigger the game the better the performance. He’s a prime-time guy,” Fredrick said. “You never had to worry about whether he would be ready to play at the most important moments. Those are the games that he excelled in the most. If he was going to have a quiet game, it would be in a game that wasn’t very important, but a big game you could count on him. That stands out in my mind. Come Sunday, I expect him to be all over that game because that’s just who he is.”
Calhoun County’s current students almost all are aware that an alum will be playing in the Super Bowl, Smith said.
“I think it’s important,” Smith said. “All of the other kids can see that someone like that from Calhoun County is in the Super Bowl.”
Johnson can still remember Jeffery walking the same halls.
“He has always been a very humble young man, very respectful,” she said. “This is my 25th year and I’ve come into contact with a lot of athletes and sometimes some of them get the big head. He was never that person. I can remember him walking with his book bag on his shoulder and his head down, and I can remember doing this (mimicking pushing on Jeffery’s forehead), ‘Hold your head up, you’re going to walk into a wall.’”
That attitude made him very popular among his teammates and classmates and he remains so today, Fredrick said.
“He’s a very well-liked young man in the community,” the coach said. “It’s very rare that you have a kid come through here and have the success he has had without any envy. I don’t think there is one guy who is envious of what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. That speaks volumes for the type of guy that he is.”
Super Bowl LII
Who: Patriots vs. Eagles
When: 6:30 p.m., Sunday
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Line: Patriots by 4