C.J. Fuller set records as a running back at Easley High and helped Clemson to the 2016 national title, but those who knew him best will remember him for his ability to brighten the mood of a room in an instant and not for his accomplishments on the football field.
Fuller died unexpectedly on Wednesday, leaving behind family members, friends, former teammates and former coaches that were shocked and heartbroken by the news. The cause of death is unconfirmed.
“He was always smiling,” said former Clemson tight end D.J. Greenlee, who played against Fuller in high school and was a teammate of Fuller’s with the Tigers. “That smile, man… That’s the thing I’m going to miss the most. That smile and that laugh.”
Chad Smith, who coached Fuller in high school through his junior season, had a firsthand look at what type of player Fuller was.
The 5-foot-10 back rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a junior at Easley, setting a school record.
“His high school accolades kind of speak for themselves,” Smith said.
But what Smith remembers the most is the way Fuller was away from the football field.
“Person-wise, a fantastic young man. He had an infectious personality, a smile that would light up a room,” Smith said. “A hard-working young man, a very positive young man. The kid never had a frown on his face. Just a great, great kid.”
Grayson Howell, who coached Fuller during his senior season of high school, had similar comments about the player he called one of the best he has coached.
“He did not seek the spotlight at all. Never really tried to draw attention to himself,” Howell said. “He just had a smile and a grin about him that was almost childlike. Just a smile that came from somewhere deep inside that was real and genuine. You just couldn’t help but feel good when you were around him.”
Greenlee never beat Fuller during his time at Daniel High as he had a rivalry with Fuller and Easley.
But when the two were on the same team at Clemson they quickly became friends.
“We’re like brothers,” Greenlee said. “We’ve had a bond. Our bond was a lot more than just being at Clemson. It just puts life into perspective. I was really just lost (when I found out). You can be here one day and gone the next.”
While Fuller is remembered most for his personality, he certainly left his mark on the Clemson football program as well.
Fuller caught a 30-yard touchdown pass late in the first half of the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State and finished with three catches for 45 yards in the game.
The following week in the national title game Fuller had a 20-yard kickoff return to the Clemson 32 late in the fourth quarter to set up the Tigers in good field position for the game-winning drive.
Deshaun Watson went on to connect with Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown as Clemson won its first national title since 1981.
“He really set the tone for that game-winning drive we had in the national championship. When he had that kick return it gave us some life,” former Tigers cornerback Ryan Carter said. “It’s just very devastating. I can only imagine how his family’s feeling. I can only imagine the pain they’re going through. It’s just devastating.”
Less than two years removed from Fuller making big plays for Clemson, the Upstate is in mourning after his death.
“When I got the news my mom called me and said, ‘Did you hear about C.J.?’ When she told me I just froze. I didn’t know what to say,” Greenlee said. “I’m praying for his family. I know they’re going through hard times and I wish him the best. He’s in a better place now. I just love him.”
Smith, who was at the hospital with Fuller and his family Wednesday night, added that the Easley community is heartbroken by the news.
“He has family members that are still at Easley High school. His family is a big family in Easley. They’re class people,” Smith said. “They have faith in God and they’ll rally and they’ll make it through this, but it’s going to be tough on them.”
Howell, who is currently an assistant coach at Pendleton High, had a team practice Thursday morning and said Fuller was on his mind throughout it.
“Today’s a struggle. Last night’s more of the shock. Today is more of the reality,” Howell said. “We had early morning practice with our team here, and just being around your players you realize how much they mean to you and how much time you really spend with them. It’s just been a difficult morning.”