Raymond Priester grew up in Allendale County as the oldest of 10 children.
“Numero uno,” he says these days with a laugh.
Funny thing, too, since his ranking among his siblings happens to be the same as his standing among Clemson football’s all-time rushing leaders.
Ten years after his final carry as a Tiger, Priester remains No. 1 with 3,966 yards, one of 18 Clemson records he holds.
His Clemson career mirrored his success at Allendale-Fairfax High School, where he gained 5,673 yards and scored 71 touchdowns as a four-year starter in a prep career capped by a 1993 Shrine Bowl appearance.
But while Priester has a great appreciation for his accomplishments, he is not one to let a set of numbers define him. Ask about his best memories at Clemson, and he’s quick to respond.
“First and foremost, getting my degree,” said Priester, who wanted to prove a kid could rise out of impoverished Allendale County and do more with his life than carry a football.
He was determined not to wash out in a way that other athletes had or some expected him to.
“That was extremely huge for me, for Allendale. Believe it or not, there were doubters,” he said. “If somebody tells you that you can’t do something, that’s fuel for my fire. I have somewhat of an ‘I’ll prove you wrong’ attitude.”
Priester displayed the same determination off the field as he did on it. When he hit the first roadblocks in his football career — he was released by the St. Louis Rams after being a fifth-round pick in 1998 and never made an impact during stints with the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants the next couple of years — he cut back against the grain by seeking a business opportunity.
Faced with the choice of trying to keep his NFL dream alive or making a new way with his wife, Latonia, his college sweetheart at Clemson, and young daughter Jordyn, Priester met his decision head-on.
“At some point, you have to make a choice: Am I really going to pursue this or is it time to get a real job?” he said. “I had to make a choice, and I chose my family. I chose to stay home. I’ve seen so many guys try to hang on so long that it destroys their chances.”
Priester accepted a job offer with Choice Homes in the Atlanta suburbs, which started his career in the home-building industry. Two years ago, he moved to a different facet of construction, the steel industry. His job with Paradise Steel has him working on accounts with builders, a role he has embraced like a goal-line carry.
“I’m not 100 percent bound to an office. I get to interact with people. I really do enjoy it,” said Priester, whose family with Latonia has grown to three children: Jordyn, 6, son Trey, 3, and daughter Kendall, 7 months.
They all get back to Allendale to see his large family about three or four times a year.
RUNNING FOR HOME
Priester did not grow up wealthy, but he grew up happy. His parents, Raymond Sr. and Rosella, made sure of that.
They instilled in him values he retains to this day. His positive nature and friendly demeanor stood out from a young age.
“He was always like that,” Rosella said. “He always cared about other people. He was kind to everybody.”
Her numero uno child also displayed leadership qualities around the house.
“If two of the other children got into an argument, he’d tried to settle it before it got to me,” she said.
Many days he didn’t need more than a ball and a group of friends to keep him happy. He fondly remembers the football games in the streets, where the light poles served as end-zone markers. Drawn to the sport by its contact, he was not afraid to compete with the neighborhood’s older kids.
“You couldn’t cry in those games,” he said. “You learned to be tough.”
While his family loved the Dallas Cowboys, Priester’s hero was Chicago Bears running back Walter Peyton, who could be both bruising and elusive. It was a style the young fan admired.
And it took Priester only one year — his first in a Pee Wee league — to learn that playing lineman was not for him.
“I did it, but I didn’t like it,” he said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”
He asked to play running back the next season, and he was off and running into Allendale history.
Yet it is not the incredible numbers Priester compiled, or the fact he played running back, safety, special teams and punter for the Tigers, that sticks out in the mind of former Allendale-Fairfax coach Mike Doolittle.
“The thing I’ll always remember about Raymond forever is that he’s as humble a young man as I’ve ever seen. He never acted like the star. You wouldn’t know it unless you saw him on the field,” said Doolittle, now an assistant coach at Gardner-Webb.
Priester’s storied high school career did not go unnoticed in the far corner of the state. Recruiters came calling, but Priester knew he wanted to play at one of the state’s two large universities.
While the choice came down to Clemson and USC, the decision did not end up being difficult. He picked Clemson because recruiter Rick Stockstill promised him a chance to play running back, while USC was more interested in having him play linebacker. He sensed Stockstill’s word would be good.
“I valued that. Honesty, to me, is a big quality,” Priester said.
Stockstill’s word was good, but Priester quickly discovered how competitive the world of big-time college football was. Three games into his freshman season, he had carried the football one time and was wondering if he had made the right choice.
Once again, he looked back to Allendale for his answer. Afraid to broach the topic with his father, he called his mother, Rosella, and expressed disappointment with his situation by bringing up the prospect of transferring.
Priester chuckles while remembering her firm response.
“Without hesitation, she said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re going to work it out,’” he said.
Said Rosella: “I told him he was going to stay right there and wait his turn. You don’t play by yourself. You play as a team.”
Bill D’Andrea, Clemson’s longtime director of student-athlete academic services, remembers the day Rosella dropped off Priester as a freshman and asked him to make sure her son graduated.
“I never had to bother him too much,” said D’Andrea, who was always impressed by Priester’s ability to focus on both football and academics.
Doolittle, who maintains a close with Priester even though he only coached him one season in high school, saw the same maturity and commitment at Allendale-Fairfax.
“His education was important to him,” Doolittle said. “It’s one of those stories you want to tell everybody who comes from a poor area or has had some misfortune. You can point to him and say, ‘Here’s a guy who did it.’”
TIGERTOWN LOVE AFFAIR
Back on the field, it did not take long for things to begin to work out. The Tigers were 1-2 under first-year coach Tommy West, who looked to shake things up.
Told in practice he was getting a shot that week, Priester cracked the starting lineup and rushed for 88 yards on 19 carries and scored his first collegiate touchdown in a 13-0 victory against Maryland. Just like that, he was off and running into Clemson football history.
Priester could talk all day about his exploits at Clemson. He holds the two top rushing seasons (1,345 yards in 1996 and 1,322 in 1995) as well as the top single-game effort (263 yards against Duke in 1995).
Yet he doesn’t.
He would rather talk about hanging out on campus and chatting with friends on the way to class. He is more comfortable conversing about the friendships he made with teammates such as Donald Broomfield and Tony Horne. He prefers discussing the great advice he got from older teammate Louis Solomon.
“He told you the things you need to do and the things you needed to stay away from,” Priester said.
That attitude is characteristic of Priester, who offers that he gladly will shake the hand of James Davis if the senior back breaks his career record this season.
“Raymond is truly one of my favorite players,” D’Andrea said. “He had a lot of charisma about him. He was not only very popular, but his teammates got a lot of synergy from him. He had great people skills.”
If you prod Priester about his football accomplishments, he will describe one in detail. It is a touchdown he scored in a 1996 game in a 21-10 victory against Wake Forest, when he pulled in an errant pitch from Billy Luckie with one hand, busted two tackles and finished it off by dragging a Deacon safety into the end zone.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that was a great run,’” he said.
Those three words, “a great run,” might be the best phrase to describe his Clemson experience.
“If I could do it all over again, I’d be right back at Clemson,” Priester said.
He does not make the trip up I-85 to Clemson from Atlanta as often as he used to do. Family has a way of making that more difficult to do. He made it to only the Florida State game last season.
But he hopes to be in Death Valley when the Tigers play Georgia Tech in a week. And he does not plan on missing the annual grudge match with USC in late November.
The pride of Allendale admits to getting warm memories every time he returns. The glory days stay glorious, and, besides, it’s not in his personality to dwell on not doing in the NFL what he did at Allendale-Fairfax and Clemson.
“It didn’t work out for him, but he never lost his focus about what was important to him,” Doolittle said.
And that is what has allowed Priester to have so much good fortune in his life.
“I consider myself lucky. So many guys haven’t had the chance to do what I’ve done. I’m blessed to have walked that road,” Priester said. “I’m happy today. I’m happy tomorrow. I’m happy the next day. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
To those around him, he is still numero uno.
Reach White at (803) 771-8643