CLEMSON LEGEND CJ SPILLER TO RECEIVE HALL OF FAME RECOGNITION SATURDAY IN DEATH VALLEY
- 2021-09-10 13:54:17
The date was February 1, 2006, and only then Wide Receivers Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Dabo Swinney knew what was going to transpire. For the rest of the country and the state of Florida, the National Signing Day announcement came as a shock. It was so shocking that when CJ made his announcement, the Union County High School gym in Florida went stunned silent.
CJ Spiller, the top-ranked running back in the nation, made it known in the middle of Gator and Seminole country that he would be taking his talents to Clemson University and playing for the Tigers.
This was not only groundbreaking for Clemson, but it was even bigger for the Dabo. It landed him the Tigers’ very first 5-star recruit (since recruiting services began using those ratings) and opened the door for the Tigers to recruit even more elite talent, particularly in the talent-rich state of Florida.
Dabo’s recruitment story of CJ has been well documented—the ride from the airport to Clemson and the business card with a promise from CJ to come to Clemson, which still hangs in Dabo’s office today. No less important than that signing-day announcement were the decisions CJ made to remain at Clemson after his freshman season and return for a senior season. There’s something special about Clemson, and it kept drawing CJ back. After a career in the NFL, it has drawn CJ back to be the Running Backs Coach for Dabo, and last January, it was announced that CJ will be Dabo’s first former player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December. At halftime in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, he will be honored by the National Football Foundation, which governs the Hall of Fame, and we will once again here the Death Valley crowd chant, “CJ! CJ!”
We all know about CJ the football player, but what about CJ the individual? Where did he get his start, and what has led him to be who he is today?
Growing up in Lake Butler, Florida, CJ faced situations with which few of us can relate. He lost an uncle to murder, witnessed by his mother while holding CJ in her arms when he was only 3 years old. On top of that, his parents broke up after his dad couldn't convince his mom to move with him to Miami.
In the midst of what seemed to be a childhood of chaos and turmoil, there was one constant in CJ’s life. That bedrock would be his grandmother, Nettie Pearl Allen. When CJ was 14, she tragically passed away from her bout with cancer. Although she was in CJ’s life for a short 14 years, she made those years count in a way that he still clings to.
Ms. Allen was a custodian at Union County High School, where CJ attended. On work days, she would bring her grandson to the school early to empty trash cans and clean the school before his classmates arrived. When CJ was finished helping, he would head over to Hardee's and get a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit and orange juice for breakfast. That was his daily routine in high school. One can only imagine if NIL had been passed back then. CJ would have likely signed a nice deal to represent Hardee’s! Instead, it was a humble beginning for a kid who had been through so much in a short period of time.
It wasn't just that side of CJ that made him the person he is today. There are always two sides to every person, and the other side was just a little more rigid. You can’t have the success CJ has had without learning discipline. According to reports, Grandma Allen also had a stern side.
Whether CJ was on the field or in the classroom, she was his biggest fan and his biggest critic. “She was my biggest fan. My grandmother is the one who got me started with football,” CJ said. “My mom worked at a nursing home, so her hours were weird. Some games she wasn’t able to make. [My grandmother] would be in the stands with her lawn chair. She was my biggest fan and my biggest critic. She would let me know right after the game what I did wrong. From a body language standpoint, from a playing standpoint…the way I controlled my tongue. Y’all probably don’t know, but on the football field, I’m probably the biggest trash-talker. So she used to always give me pointers of what I can and can’t do.”
According to Mrs. Stephenson, a bookkeeper/receptionist at Union County High School, when CJ was on the field running down the side line, his grandmother would be on the other side of the white line, running right beside CJ and cheering him all the way to the end zone. Apparently, that wasn't the only time she displayed her speed. CJ was late getting home one night, and Grandma Allen was waiting on him on the front porch with hickory switches in her hand. She chased him all over the mobile home park while kids and neighbors were looking out their windows, watching it all unfold. CJ claims she got him pretty good on the legs, and that is how he learned to run over and around defenders on the football field.
As funny as that sounds, and it is funny, there was a bigger lesson that CJ learned in all of that. When adults tell you to be home at a certain time, you best be on time. And do things the right way the first time. It was these values that CJ not only carried with him on the football field, but he carried those values into the classroom and in his community.
As for the football field, CJ's mentor was Head Coach Buddy Nobles. With an absentee father living in Miami, Coach Nobles, who was cherished and loved in the community by all, took CJ under his guidance and never once left his side. Sadly, Nobles will not be able to share in CJ’s Hall of Fame moment either because he passed away in 2020 from his bout with cancer. However, he got to see CJ’s enormous success in both college and the NFL and saw him earn his college degree from Clemson.
So, what was in store for Dabo Swinney and Clemson after that fateful February day in 2006? Once CJ stepped onto the field, it didn’t take long to see that Clemson had something special. The Tigers had a gifted every-down back in sophomore James Davis, but after seeing CJ’s electrifying moves as a true freshman, it became more and more difficult to keep him off the field.
By the time CJ finished his Hall of Fame career at Clemson, he totaled 3,547 yards rushing, 569 yards in punt returns, 2,052 yards in kickoff returns and 21 career touchdowns of 50 yards or more. Even Travis Etienne, who became the ACC’s all-time leading rusher (6,894 yards) last year, is 694 yards short of CJ'S all-purpose yardage record. CJ also became the first player in ACC history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving. CJ is the only college football player to have scored a touchdown five different ways: rushing, receiving, passing, kick return and punt return. He was the only player in the nation to score a TD in every game of 2009 despite playing the entire season with an excruciating turf toe condition, and many feel that he should have won the Heisman Trophy that year when he surprised everyone by returning to Clemson for his senior season. Despite the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss in their first ACC Championship Game of many, Spiller was named MVP and set ACC Championship records that still stand, including rush touchdowns (4), rush yards (233) and all-purpose yards (296). His 7,588 career all-purpose yards is third in FBS history and first among all Power Five players.
CJ's accolades didn't end with his record-setting college career. He was selected 9th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He spent 8 seasons in the NFL and played in the pro bowl in 2012 before leaving the NFL and coming back home to Clemson. Last spring, Dabo Swinney named his former recruit Running Backs Coach and will make his home coaching debut on Saturday in Death Valley.
CJ has broken many records, was the first one in his family to graduate from college, was a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and has just begun to embark on his football coaching career. If this is his cake, then the icing will be Saturday’s halftime recognition for being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in just his second year of eligibility. Spiller will be inducted with fellow legends like Carson Palmer, Darren Sproles, Aaron Taylor, Tony Romo and Bob Stoops in the 2021 class.
CJ’s number has already been retired by Clemson, and there is only one thing left to do to complete this cake. That's to add CJ Spiller’s name to the Memorial Stadium Ring of Honor. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. That would be the "cherry on top.” Of all his accomplishments and accolades, that would be very fitting end to a place where CJ got his start 15 years ago. It is something he has definitely earned, and Clemson University owes it to CJ to make this happen.
Until then, Clemson fans can pay tribute to CJ Spiller at halftime on Saturday, and this is just the beginning of a new chapter in the love affair between CJ and Clemson, as we all get used to calling him “Coach.”
If you aren’t able to make it to the game on Saturday, it will be televised at 5:00 ET on ACC Network. CUTigers will make the trip to Las Vegas in December to bring you coverage of CJ's Hall of Fame induction and interviews, so be sure to mark that on your calendar! Click the link below for more on CJ from the National Football Foundation. Our interview with CJ on Tuesday is below as well!
Never miss the latest news from CUTigers!
Join our free email list