Nov. 26, 2008
A famous quote by William Shakespeare begins, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
C.J. Spiller is a real-life testimony to that statement. With his God-given speed, hard work, and dedication to his football career along with his ability to take it all in stride, Spiller has shown that he is a vital member of the Clemson football team.
Fourteen years ago in the small town of Lake Butler, FL, a young Spiller was prepared to take the field as a football player for the first time, until he discovered that it would be another year until that happened. He was too young and had to wait until he was the right age.
“I couldn’t play my first year because my birthday came late, so I had to be the waterboy,” admitted Spiller. “It was kind of heartbreaking, but I knew once I got my chance, I would be ready.”
Spiller played running back most of his prep career, with the exception of eighth grade when he played quarterback and led his team to an 8-0 record and a championship.
“I’ve always been in the backfield. My coach came to me the summer before going to high school and asked me if I wanted to play quarterback or switch to running back. I told him I would like to run the ball, and everything took off from there.”
And take off it did. As a running back at Union County High School, Spiller used his speed to literally run away from opponents. In his high school career, he gained 5,511 yards on just 541 carries, a 10.2-yard average, and scored 93 touchdowns, 85 of which were rushing scores.
Spiller was named a first-team All-American by USA Today and Parade, the first running back to come to Clemson with that honor since 1989.
One way that he maintained his speed on the gridiron was by running track during football’s offseason. He was one of the top track athletes in Florida and was state champion in the 100m and 200m as a senior in high school.
Despite being from a town that was so close to Gainesville (home of the Florida Gators), Spiller was eager to start his college career at Clemson.
He had a breakout year as a freshman and showed Tiger fans and the nation what he could do in the backfield with an average of 7.3 yards per carry during the 2006 season, the best by an ACC player since Florida State’s Warrick Dunn in 1995. That average was also fourth-best in the nation and fourth-best in ACC history. Dunn, who wore #28 as a Seminole, is an inspiration for Spiller and the reason he wears #28 for the Tigers.
Spiller also had two games with over 150 rushing yards (N.C. State, South Carolina), the first Tiger to do that in back-to-back games since Terry Allen in 1988. His 80-yard run against the Gamecocks was the longest by a Tiger in 13 years, and his 82-yard catch at Boston College was the longest by a running back in school history (a mark he has since broken). He was also a three-time ACC Rookie-of-the-Week and set Tiger freshman records with 1,415 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns.
“It was a great experience,” remembered Spiller. “I knew coming in that I had two great running backs in front of me in James (Davis) and Reggie (Merriweather). And those guys did a great job of teaching me the plays and showing me things off the field as well. To get to play my freshman year was wonderful. One big concern coming to college was could I still run away from guys like I did in high school, and as the year went on, you could sense that I had gotten faster. I was very blessed.”
That blinding speed earned him the nickname “Lightning” with Tiger fans, though it was not new to him. “I have had the name since high school. It has stuck with me.”
Spiller faced a difficult personal decision at the end of the 2006 regular season when he considered leaving Clemson and returning to his home state to be closer to his family. In the end, he chose to honor his commitment to his school.
“Once I stepped back and thought about everything, I realized that it was best for me to stay here. My uncle, who is one of my mentors, did a great job of teaching me about the vows you make to someone…you just can’t walk away. It’s like a marriage…you just can’t walk up out of it. So I did a lot of praying, and I’m still here today.”
The 2007 season showed an even more dynamic Spiller on the gridiron. He was second in the ACC and 14th in the nation in kickoff returns, which earned him Honorable Mention All-ACC honors. He had two kickoff returns for touchdowns, one against Duke and another against Wake Forest. He also became the first Tiger to return a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games.
Spiller was the second-leading rusher on the team (behind Davis) with 768 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per carry. He was the third-leading receiver as well with 34 receptions for 271 yards. He had three 100-yard rushing games, including his outstanding performance against #21 Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl when he had an 83-yard touchdown run, the longest in the history of the Peach/Chick-fil-A Bowl as well as Clemson’s bowl history.
Continuing in the tradition of running track in the offseason has allowed Spiller to maintain and even improve upon his already blazing speed. The past two years on the track have earned him honors in another pursuit. He received All-America and All-ACC accolades as a member of the 4x100m relay team that finished fourth in the nation with a time of 39.48. That team also included football teammate Jacoby Ford, as both Tigers use track to enhance their speed on the gridiron.
As the one who recruited Spiller three years ago, Interim Head Coach Dabo Swinney has much praise for what Spiller has accomplished in Tigertown, both on and off the field.
“He was already a great young guy when he got here, but he’s really developed into a man. He’s mature way beyond his years. On the football field, he was always a good player and had an unbelievable skill-set, but he’s really developed into a complete player. There’s nothing he can’t do. The sky is the limit for C.J. He has opportunities that will come his way because of the talents he possesses. He’s going to take that platform and really make a difference in the world.
“This season has been a little disappointing from a team standpoint. But no one can deny the fact that one of the major bright spots has been C.J….he’s been incredible. He makes a difference in every game he plays and he’s becoming dominant. He has scored just about every way you can score and has been very consistent. His effort and energy have been outstanding.”
Not everyone has had nice things to say about Spiller. But for the speedster, that negativity only creates more motivation for him to give his all when he steps onto the field.
“People that criticize me…I applaud them. It makes me go out and play even harder. One thing I like to say is `if you’re not getting criticized, that means you must not be doing something right.’ I always keep that in the back of my mind. People always question my ability to keep `dancing around,’ but I see it as trying to make a play for my team.”
Spiller has enjoyed his reception from Tiger fans, who have rightfully dubbed him one-half of Clemson’s “Thunder & Lightning” running back duo.
When asked if he likes the nickname “Lightning,” he replied, “Oh yeah. It sums it up itself. It strikes fast, can be very dangerous, and destroys anything it hits.”
Davis had helped Spiller develop into the running back he is today and applauds the player he has become. “He’s a `baller.’ He plays at a high level and he’s unstoppable, and I think the team expects that out of him.”
“Thunder” has done his job of showing his younger teammate the ropes. “I coached him on running downfield and trying to find holes, and I think he has really brought his stock up this year with his ability.”
With the 2008 season coming to a close, Davis is sad to see their partnership come to an end. “We’ve had a great ride together.”
One thing fans may not know is that the “VCC” on Spiller’s eye-black stands for Victory Christian Center, his church at home in Lake Butler.
Off the football field, he enjoys watching television, namely ESPN and MTV’s “Cribs.” Seeing himself on TV is still surreal for him.
“I never really imagined myself being on SportsCenter. I’m a guy from a country town, and to be on it is a blessing. To have opportunities to be on it is like a dream come true.”
In 2008, Spiller has improved upon his amazing stats from the previous two seasons. He started the year off with a kickoff return against #24 Alabama, Clemson’s only touchdown of the game. In the home-opener against The Citadel a week later, he had six carries for 75 yards and three touchdowns. He added either rushing and/or receiving scores in games versus N.C. State, Maryland, Florida State, and Duke.
After sustaining a hamstring injury at Wake Forest, Spiller missed the home game against Georgia Tech on October 18.
The next week at Boston College, however, he was in top form as he tied the Tiger receiving-yardage record by a running back with six catches for 105 yards. He was named Clemson’s MVP and won the first “Leather Helmet,” a tradition that began this year. He had a career-high 242 all-purpose yards, including a 64-yard kickoff return that changed the momentum. It led to Clemson’s 27-21 win, its first victory over the Eagles in 50 years.
A week later at #24 Florida State, he added two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. The game against Duke in Death Valley saw Spiller set yet another record, this time breaking the one he had previously tied at Boston College. His seven catches for 108 yards established the school record for receiving yards in a game.
It was his second 100-yard receiving game in three weeks. There had been just two 100-yard receiving games by a Tiger running back in the first 112 years of Clemson football. Also, his 83-yard touchdown reception was the longest by a running back in Clemson history and helped him earn ACC Offensive Back-of-the-Week honors for the second time in 2008. He now has 12 touchdowns of 50 yards or more in his career, another school record.
Having set all of these records and with even more in sight, one might think that Spiller is playing in order to consciously leave a legacy behind at Clemson. That, however, is not the case.
“I don’t have a favorite record that I’ve broken,” he admitted. “I don’t even know how many there are. I just let Tim (Bourret) tell me what they are. Records are meant to be broken. There are still a couple out there that I would love to get, but if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
One thing Spiller does hope to leave behind at Clemson is the memory that he was an upstanding person, both on and off the gridiron. “Football is going to end one day, but I want people to remember me as a guy who showed them tremendous respect. I’ve tried my best to treat everyone equal and give everyone a fair opportunity. That speaks more to me than scoring touchdowns and celebrating. I just want to be remembered as a guy that had great class and would treat everyone with the utmost respect.”
And with the way that he has carried himself in his time at Clemson, that status in the minds of others will not be hard to attain.
After the case he has made the last three years as a crucial part of the Tiger football team, Spiller has positioned himself as one of the nation’s most dynamic players. His speed, ability, devotion, and character have made a lasting impression on his coaches, teammates, and fans alike. So in the case of Spiller, was he born great, did he achieve greatness, or was greatness thrust upon him?
Maybe the only fitting answer is…all of the above.
Katrina Eddie, a junior from Sacramento, CA, is a student assistant in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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