When Jadeveon Clowney and his South Carolina teammates lined up against the Michigan Wolverines in the Outback Bowl in January of 2013, no one knew the highlight of his college career was about to happen. As the ball was snapped with eight minutes left, Clowney flew into the backfield and put "The Hit" on Michigan tailback Vincent Smith (whose claim to fame is being the recipient of said hit), forcing and recovering a fumble that led to a Gamecocks victory.
His senior season didn’t quite live up to the hype that the destruction of Vincent Smith created, but Clowney’s legend of being a larger than life, once-in-a-generation player continued to grow.
Unfortunately, Clowney’s slide from "The Hit" has continued ever since. He underwent minor surgery shortly after being drafted and missed significant practice time. Then, after making amazing back-to-back plays in an exhibition game against the Atlanta Falcons, Clowney got hurt again and sat out the rest of his rookie preseason. But he was going to be ready for week one of the regular season!
On September 7th, in the season opening game against Washington, a day that lives in infamy as far as Texans fans are concerned, Clowney suffered another injury – one rumored to have been caused by a seam in the horrible NRG Stadium turf (more on that later). This injury proved to be far more serious than anything he’d suffered before.
Now, here’s where the road forks for those with a vested interest in Jadeveon Clowney’s career. Some immediately tagged him as "injury prone" or worse, a "bust". Others looked at how he overcame that injury, one that ended the careers of many other NFL players, as a sign of what a fighter he was and just how special he could become.
Before we go any further, let’s stop and take a look at the turf monster of NRG Stadium that used to devour knees – and careers – before the McNairs (at the urging of the NFL) wisely put it out to pasture.
For those who don’t remember, NRG used to have a tile turf system, where the field consisted of a series of palettes with grass on each one. These palettes interlocked to make a n allegedly cohesive playing surface, but unfortunately the surface had seams that would widen during use. As a stopgap (literally), the seams were filled with sand. But using sand as a solid playing surface for dozens of the most powerful men on earth to battle on is an idea filled with, well, holes…
After his injury, Clowney allegedly told teammates he stepped in a hole during the fateful play that destroyed his knee. If you saw the play happen, it’s not hard to believe. Clowney jumped up during the play, and as he came down, his leg bent in an unnatural direction. Watching it with the idea that he stepped into one of those horrible seams makes it easy to believe that Clowney’s foot didn’t land on a flat, solid surface.
The list of players injured – allegedly due to the condition of that turf – is pretty lengthy. Names include Brett Hartmann, DeMeco Ryans, Arian Foster, and...Jadeveon Clowney. All-Universe head coach Bill Belicheck called it "one of the worst" fields he’d ever seen. The number of visiting teams that have denounced the playing surface at NRG Stadium is far greater than the number of Colts who panned the hard paint at last weekend’s canceled Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
So, Clowney’s career-turning-point injury is hardly attributable to his ability, talent or heart. In fact, the way he overcame microfracture surgery to play the following season, less than a year after he had the procedure, and to play at a level that was at worst, above average, is more likely true evidence of what sort of engine drives him.
Barring any more injuries between now and September 11th (jinx!), this year will be Clowney’s first "healthy" start in the NFL. Fans with rose-colored glasses have tons of optimism about what a front seven loaded with Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Vince Wilfork, J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and the rest will do to opposing offences. Some are anointing Clowney as the next Texans Pro Bowler and salivating at the idea of more "The Hit" caliber plays against enemy players. Those who love to complain and see the glass as half empty are already writing him off as an injury-prone draft bust, lamenting what could have been if Rick Smith had turned in Khalil Mack’s name on draft day instead.
The reality will probably fall somewhere in between. Based on Clowney's life since that fateful day, we can most likely expect a handful of superhuman plays, another handful of more nagging injuries, and a career filled with the sorts of "what-ifs" that linger, the kind of memories of the likes of Bo Jackson and other incredible athletes whose will power simply couldn’t overcome the physical brutality of being a professional football player.
Where do you land? Ungrounded optimism? Jaded negativity? Let us know in the comments.
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