Southern Football’s Rise Can Be Seen in Rock Hill, S.C.

“Everyone’s working to grab their dreams,” Adams added, “’cause in this town, everyone knows you can.”

An Unlikely Talent Incubator

San Pedro de Macorís, in the Dominican Republic, is famous for producing Major League Baseball players, just as New York City once set the bar for high school basketball talent. Over the past couple of decades, Rock Hill has been a little like that for football. Northwestern High’s Derek Ross was a cornerback for Ohio State, and then for several N.F.L. teams. Rock Hill High’s Chris Hope played safety at Florida State before a long Pro Bowl career that included a victory in Super Bowl XL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The former Bearcat Tim Jones starred in the early 1990s at linebacker at Clemson, where he now works in football. The former Notre Dame all-American defensive back Jeff Burris, another former Bearcat, returned to South Bend this season.

That Rock Hill is now nationally renowned as an incubator of football talent is partly a consequence of arbitrary fortune: from 2012 to 2014, it happened to produce three consecutive first-round N.F.L. picks in Gilmore, the Minnesota Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and Clowney.

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Jadeveon Clowney as a South Pointe player in 2010. The N.F.L.’s top draft pick in 2014, Clowney, a Houston Texans defensive end, is the biggest star Rock Hill has produced.

Credit
Melissa Cherry/The Herald, via Associated Press

If Rock Hill exceeds expectations, it is also probably because they are low: Its barren name conjures images of a dusty, one-stoplight town that has no business mass-producing football stars. But Rock Hill is actually a growing city of 70,000 — one of the largest in South Carolina — about 20 miles south of Charlotte, N.C., and right off the interstate that links that city with South Carolina’s capital, Columbia.

Moreover, the track record of Rock Hill football has helped produce a virtual cycle of talented players.

“The continuing success we’ve been able to have means the expectations are there, the standards are there,” said Doug Echols, Rock Hill’s mayor since 1998, whose first job in town, in the 1970s, was as Northwestern’s football coach. “That spills over into quality coaching, kids’ interest, district support, community support.”

But Rock Hill also reflects the shift in high school football’s national center of gravity to the South over the past several decades. Over five recent national recruiting classes, according to SB Nation, the greatest number of top recruits were produced not only by extremely populous and sunny states like Florida, Texas and California — the three leaders, in that order — but also by the Southern football factories Georgia (fourth), Louisiana (sixth), Alabama (seventh), Virginia (eighth), North Carolina (ninth) and Tennessee (tenth).

The N.F.L. draft numbers are even more stark: Seven of the 10 states with the most picks per million people were in the South. South Carolina was No. 1.

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