Bobby Carroll slowed his Ford F-150 and turned right off Celanese Road in Rock Hill, S.C. He pulled into an oversized commercial parking lot, stopped and pointed out his window.
The football coach who discovered Jadeveon Clowney — and then became one of his closest confidants on Clowney’s rise from No. 1 high school recruit to No. 1 NFL draft pick — also is the person who introduced the Seahawks’ defensive end to sushi right here at Red Bowl bistro.
“This is where he had sushi for the first time,” Carroll said. “Then he fell in love with it, and we ate it all the time.”
During Clowney’s final season at nearby South Pointe High School, Carroll would treat his seniors to dinner at Red Bowl after practice each Wednesday. They would talk about football, about life and about their latest college recruiting visits over plates of sesame chicken and shrimp-fried rice.
Clowney’s favorite dish was a shrimp tempura roll, called a Monster Roll on the Red Bowl menu. A few years later, when Clowney was playing for the University of South Carolina and became famous for his hit — The Hit — on a Michigan running back in the 2013 Outback Bowl, the restaurant renamed the Monster Roll in his honor.
“Come get your Clowney Roll,” read a sign outside the restaurant. (The NCAA soon found out, Carroll says, and asked the restaurant to remove Clowney’s name.)
Clowney still eats at the restaurant when he comes home to Rock Hill during the NFL offseason. He loves sushi — “I ain’t turned down sushi ever since,” Clowney said during an interview a few days later — and he loves his hometown.
Rock Hill, with a population of about 73,000, is located about 20 miles south of Charlotte, N.C., not far from the Carolinas state line. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers are in the process of building their new headquarters here.
Carroll argues that Rock Hill has, per capita, likely produced more NFL talent than any town in America. In three decades as a high-school coach, Carroll estimates he has coached 15 NFL players, and Rock Hill had three consecutive first-round draft picks from 2012-14 (cornerback Stephon Gilmore, now with New England; receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, now with Chicago; and Clowney).
As a child, Clowney lived on Carolina Avenue in a one-story, two-bedroom house, on the same stretch of homes in which his mother Josenna grew up. A faded Houston Texans flag still hangs outside one of the homes Josenna’s father John owns.
After being drafted by the Texans in 2014, Clowney bought his mom a new home on a large parcel of land on the outskirts of town.
Each summer, Clowney comes home to host a free, three-day football camp for kids. Coaches from the area’s three main high schools volunteer, and Clowney likes to captain one of the 7-on-7 teams as the quarterback. Through his HIT Foundation, Clowney also donates to the Rock Hill School District for a holiday shopping spree for students.
“I just try to get back and give back to the community that took care of me all my life,” Clowney said. “Anything I can do to give back. I love where I’m from.”
In high school, Clowney was such a “homeboy,” in Carroll’s words, that the coach never truly envisioned him going far to play college football (despite a full-court-press recruitment from Alabama’s Nick Saban). That, as much as anything, is why he ended up at the University of South Carolina, just an hour’s drive south on Interstate 77.
“I really believe Clowney would have gone to York Technical College had they had football,” Carroll said, referring to Rock Hill’s junior college. “Him living in Seattle to me is unbelievable.”
How much longer Clowney — about to be a free agent for the first time in his career — will be in Seattle might be the biggest question facing the Seahawks in the first half of 2020. Is Seattle just a temporary stop? Or has Clowney found a new home here?
David Morgan was up early Sunday, the day he would attend his first Seahawks game. He made scrambled eggs with grits, then spent time hanging out with his grandson.
A few hours later, Morgan finished three Black and Mild cigarettes during a 30-minute walk around an upscale Bellevue neighborhood.
“Been smoking these for almost 30 years,” said Morgan, Clowney’s father. “I’m going to quit this year though.”
Better known as “Chili Bean” back home in Rock Hill, Morgan works out at the gym four or five days a week, always with bands or ropes, never weights. He will turn 50 in June, and at 6 feet 4 “and a half” and 240 pounds, he looks like he could join the Seahawks’ defensive-line rotation now.
He never played football as a kid back in Rock Hill. Instead, Morgan’s sport, as he has said, was “the streets.”
Clowney said he and his father have grown close since Morgan was released from prison just before Clowney turned 14. Morgan spent almost 12 years in prison after being convicted of a 1995 felony robbery.
“Forgive me, son,” reads a tattoo on Morgan’s left wrist.
“It was weird,” Clowney said, “because I ain’t seen him in so many years — 14 years. And then he got out and I was like, ‘What?’ (He said), ‘Yeah, I’m your daddy.’ ”
Now they are more like brothers, less like father-son. As Clowney put it: “He’s been my boy for years.”
Clowney stood by his dad after Morgan was arrested again following an August 2015 incident in which he allegedly fired shots at two people in a Rock Hill strip club. Morgan was shot in the shoulder during the exchange. No one else was injured.
Clowney spoke in court in 2016 to ask a judge for bond for his father.
In 2017, Morgan pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and possession of a deadly weapon by a felon. He was sentenced to three years in jail; he was credited with two years he had already served.
Walking around his son’s Bellevue neighborhood on Sunday, Morgan expressed frustration that his transgressions remain a footnote to his son’s career. He said his troubles are behind him. He said he has given up alcohol. He’s trying to quit smoking. He’s looking forward to the future, to spend more time with his grandson Jahlil and a granddaughter due in Mach.
“You know, a son don’t want a daddy who’s always in trouble,” Morgan said. “Then you got his kids, too. My grandbaby, he calls me ‘PaPa,’ and I ain’t gonna get in no more (trouble). I already missed out on (Jadeveon’s) childhood. So I ain’t gonna miss out on my grandbaby’s. I ain’t doing that.”
He lit another cigarette.
“I ain’t ever thought I’d be in a life like this, you know,” he said. “This is the life. You can’t beat it. What’s better than this?”
That night, Morgan wore his son’s No. 90 jersey to his first Seahawks game Sunday night … against his favorite team, the 49ers. Morgan has been a Niners fan since the early 1980s, and when the Seahawks traded for Clowney it initially pained Morgan to know his son was in the same division as San Francisco.
Still, after visiting Seattle for the first time and hearing more about his son’s season with the Seahawks, he think there’s potential for a long-term fit here.
“He’d like to stay here,” Morgan said. “He loves it.”
The Seahawks need Clowney now.
If they are going to make a deep run in the playoffs, the Seahawks (11-5) surely must have a productive Clowney, starting with their NFC wild-card game Sunday against the Eagles (9-7) in Philadelphia.
It was no coincidence that the Seahawks’ best game of the season came when Clowney had perhaps the best game of his NFL career. That happened Nov. 11 during Seattle’s overtime victory in San Francisco; Clowney had a sack, five QB hits, a forced fumble and a fumble-return touchdown in that Monday night game.
He also injured a core/groin muscle that night, an injury that will likely require surgery after the season. He hasn’t registered a sack since that game in San Francisco, and in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the 49ers he played just 33 snaps, a season low.
He has not practiced this week but is expected to play against the Eagles.
“Unfortunately, the injury that he’s dealing with, when you have the core injury, it just kind of drags on you,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It’s hard for the guys to really get back to full explosive. They can kind of play, but it’s hard to get to full explosiveness and the quickness that they have.”
In 13 games, Clowney had three sacks this season, a career low (not counting his rookie season in 2014, when he played in just four games because of several injuries — a concussion, a sports hernia and a knee injury that required microfracture surgery).
But Clowney’s production and value can be assessed differently than most edge rushers. He draws a double-team from the opposing offensive line more often than most, and he has been good as any edge rusher in the league at stopping the run.
How highly do the Seahawks value that kind of player?
We’re about to find out.
“He’s an unusual player. He really is. He’s an unusual player,” Pete Carroll said. “He’s gifted. He can make real issues for your opponent by his penetration, by his length, by his instinct, his burst. All that stuff. It just didn’t translate in terms of sacks, but it surely did in terms of production.”
Clowney, playing on a franchise tag placed on him by Houston last spring, is earning $16 million this season. Per NFL rules, with the regular season over, the Seahawks can now start to negotiate with Clowney. Other teams can’t negotiate with free agents until March 16.
Could Clowney command a deal comparable to the one former Seahawk Frank Clark received — five years, $105.5 million, with $63.5 million guaranteed — after he was traded to Kansas City last spring?
Another pertinent question: Can the Seahawks afford to let one of their most talented defensive players walk away after finishing 2019 ranked No. 26 in the NFL in total defense, their lowest ranking of the Carroll era?
Also pertinent: The Seahawks are expected to have significant salary-cap space this offseason — projected around $60 million or so.
Pete Carroll said he knew little about Clowney before the Seahawks acquired him at the end of training camp.
“I go back to thinking he was a five-star kid coming out of high school and all that and maybe he had a way about him that he didn’t fit in or something (with the Texans),” Pete Carroll said. “He’s not like that. He’s a regular, great dude on the team. Our guys have taken to him from the start.
“We love having him around.”
Clowney, who turns 27 on Valentine’s Day, has shared his affection for the team and the culture during his short time in Seattle.
“It’s been a great season, a great run,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect this year. … We’re a very resilient team. We never quit. We never fold. We come in knowing we’re going to play hard and we’re going to dominate each game. That’s how we feel when we walk in this building. That’s expectations and standard we hold on ourselves. And it’s very contagious.”
The question is: How much longer will it continue, for Clowney and the Seahawks?
Adam Jude covers the Seattle Seahawks for The Seattle Times.