Commentary

Spiller's priceless wisdom

Clemson RB risked millions -- and defied his mom's wishes -- for his own reasons

Originally Published: April 15, 2010
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Former Clemson running back C.J. Spiller at NFL Scouting Combine.Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesClemson RB C.J. Spiller's speed draws comparisons to Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson. Said one AFC team's personnel executive: "[Spiller] is better than Johnson was at this point in his career."

CLEMSON, S.C. -- C.J. Spiller had everything nearly figured out.

He'd worn his best suit, planned the right approach to take with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and even pondered how excited his teammates would be after learning their star running back would return for his senior season. The only hard part for Spiller on that day in January 2009 would be telling his mother. He knew how much Patricia Watkins wanted to see her youngest son reach his lifelong goal of playing professional football.

In fact, Watkins had spent the last few days talking to Spiller about all the potential hazards of passing up a chance to enter the 2009 NFL draft, including the possibility of injury.

"I knew how much he had dreamed about this day, and I didn't want him to miss an opportunity," Watkins said.

But when Spiller pulled his car into the parking lot at the Clemson football facility, he knew what had to be done, even though he could sense disappointment in his mother's eyes.

"I had to be a man about this," Spiller said during a recent interview. "I didn't want to be like anybody else [in that situation]. I knew wanted to leave a mark on this place."

What Spiller understood was that it would be easy to turn professional after his junior season. Even while sharing backfield duties with former Tigers running back James Davis, the conventional wisdom was that Spiller would be nothing less than a late first-round selection. But Spiller also had the maturity to realize something else about the process of going into the NFL: If he was good enough to be a high pick then, he could be even more attractive to teams after a fourth year in college.

That approach has made the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Spiller the highest-rated running back prospect coming into this month's draft. Blessed with electric speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the combine), explosive quickness and a multifaceted game, he is exactly the kind of weapon NFL offensive coordinators would love to unleash on opposing defenses.

"He can hurt you out of the backfield, with his receiving skills and as a kick returner," one AFC personnel director said. "And when he gets to the second level, there aren't many people who are going to catch him. People talk about how great [Tennessee Titans 2,000-yard runner] Chris Johnson is right now, but this kid is better than Johnson was at this point in his career."

As much as speed has been Spiller's trademark, he takes tremendous pride in the way he's improved other aspects of his game this past year. He knows the criticisms that hovered around him after his junior season -- knocks that ranged from his effectiveness running inside the tackles to his durability -- and he's tried to address each potential weakness. In doing so, Spiller produced a season that earned him ACC Player of the Year honors and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. Among his most notable accomplishments were 1,212 rushing yards, 503 receiving yards, a 32.8-yard kick return average and 20 touchdowns.

Spiller was so impressive during his college career that Clemson fans chanted his name constantly during his final home game. As he choked back tears that day, he knew how much he'd grown as a player, especially in regard to toughness.

"Instead of just being an explosive player who could break a 50-yard run at any time, he became a guy who understood what it meant to get four yards when we needed it," Swinney said.

Added Spiller: "I think I really grew in my pass protection. I wasn't responsible for a lot of that [earlier in college] because I had to get on the edge and catch passes. But I wanted to show people I could block. I didn't want anybody to have any questions about my game."

The only question about Spiller right now will be how high he'll go in the draft. The conventional wisdom is that he'll be a top-15 pick. He easily could end up in the top 10. There is no shortage of teams in that part of the draft who could be intrigued by Spiller (including Cleveland, Buffalo, San Francisco and Seattle), and a runner that dynamic would be hard to ignore. It's too easy to see him fitting into the mold of other small backs who've found success in the league recently.

[+] EnlargeClemson running back C.J. Spiller runs for a touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
US PresswireIn 2009, C.J. Spiller became Clemson's first ACC Player of the Year since 1987 (Michael Dean Perry).

When you consider the players who have overcome questions about how their stature might affect productivity -- men such as the Tennessee's Johnson, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles -- the trend is that bigger doesn't always mean better when it comes to backs. As Spiller said: "When you see what some of those guys have been doing at that level, it does show people that things are changing. People can see that size really doesn't matter."

Spiller has made that case has entire life, going all the way back to when his late grandmother, Nettie Pearl Allen, enrolled him in Pee-Wee football in Lake Butler, Fla., at age 6. Spiller also learned a valuable lesson in waiting for the right time to seize his opportunity in those days. Since his birthday fell so late in the calendar year (Aug. 15), he was too young to compete with his friends during his first organized experience with the game.

When the coach broke the news to Spiller, he knew the boy would be heartbroken. In fact, Spiller loved the game so much that the coach offered a consolation: Spiller could be the team manager. Spiller would race out to the huddle every time his teammates needed water, and he heeded his coach's only rule: As long as Spiller was the water boy, he couldn't touch the football when he went on the field.

That turned out to be the last time a coach had to keep Spiller away from the ball. He went on to become a Parade All-American at Lake Butler's Union County High School, but his prep experience wasn't completely smooth. Pearl died after a two-week battle with lung cancer, shortly before Spiller entered the ninth grade. For a kid who couldn't wait to be in the same school as his grandmother, who worked as a custodian at Union County, the devastation sent him into a shell for months.

There were many days when Spiller, then a middle-school student, would wake up at 5:30 in the morning to escort his grandmother to school (even though he didn't have to be in class until 8). And it wasn't until Spiller was heading into the 10th grade that he seemed capable of letting go of the pain.

"I just remember being excited to be around her every day, to know that if I got into some trouble, she'd be there to talk to," Spiller said. "It was hard for me to deal with that when she died."

"I told him that even though she isn't here physically, she's still here in spirit," Patricia Watkins said. "She's looking down on you. She wanted him to grow up and make his dreams happen because she saw something special in him at a young age. She always told him to never stop what you start. That's why C.J. always knows he has to finish the job."

That dedication showed up in everything Spiller did at Clemson -- as Spiller's older brother Darren said, "Our grandmother's death affected the way C.J. approached the game."

Spiller wasn't satisfied when he gained 938 yards and scored 10 touchdowns while backing up Davis as a rookie. He never felt slighted while splitting time for the next two years, even when his individual statistics suffered. This past year, the coaches asked Spiller for more off the field as well. He'd always led by example. Now it was time for him to become more vocal.

But once this is done, I wanted something I could fall back on. And I didn't want to be some 30-year-old guy coming back here to finish up my classes.

-- Clemson RB C.J. Spiller on getting his degree in 3½ years

It wasn't a natural transition, but it was a necessary one.

"For the first three years here, C.J. pretty much did his job and led that way," Swinney said.

"But we challenged him to lead in other ways. He'd call meetings with the offensive line. He became more vocal in practice. He'd stand up and say things that needed to be said. He did a great job of understanding that people were looking at him [for direction]."

Spiller actually had been thinking about ways to reach people before that point.

When the Tigers struggled midway through the 2008 season, Spiller watched how Florida's All-America quarterback Tim Tebow rallied his own teammates to the national championship with a rousing postgame speech after a loss to Mississippi. Spiller wondered why he wasn't providing the same kind of inspiration to his own squad. A few weeks later, he was organizing the other leaders on the team to hold a players-only meeting and regain their focus.

Spiller has been just as determined about his education. The major reason he stayed at Clemson was to finish his degree in sociology, which he completed in 3½ years. During commencement ceremonies in December, a small contingent from Lake Butler waved a banner in support of Spiller. The university's board of trustees gave him a standing ovation.

"My thing is that if you're a ballplayer, then you'll always be a ballplayer," said Spiller, who became the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college. "But once this is done, I wanted something I could fall back on. And I didn't want to be some 30-year-old guy coming back here to finish up my classes."

One recent look around Spiller's apartment revealed that he's more than ready to move on these days. The living room was fairly bare except for an ironing board, a couple of cardboard boxes tucked behind a chair and a picture of his grandmother on a shelf near his bedroom. Spiller's mother and stepfather were driving up to pick up his belongings because his lease ends in May. His only request was that they keep his flat-screen television. They could pitch everything else, including the PlayStation 2 that had seen plenty of action.

One thing Spiller hasn't done much of lately is talk about the draft.

His brother Darren said, "Everybody in the family is so ecstatic, but he almost never talks about it." That may be because Spiller knows he's already done everything he can to put himself in the best possible position for success. All he is to do at this point is travel to New York City with his family next week, enjoy the draft festivities and let fate take care of the rest.

"It does feel a little weird to be sitting here, knowing you're leaving but not knowing where you're going to end up," Spiller said before flashing a slight grin. "But I also know that wherever that place is, I'll be pretty happy once I get there."

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.