(Editor’s Note—This month will mark the 50th anniversary of Howard’s Rock and it’s first appearance in Death Valley. Howard’s Rock is not only an iconic symbol at Clemson but also in the college football world. This is one story in a series that will appear this week in the Clemson Vault on ClemsonTigers.com about Howard’s Rock.)
By Sam Blackman
Sometimes a gift can keep giving.
Take Howard’s Rock for example. It was a gift for Coach Frank Howard 50 years ago and it’s still near and dear to the hearts of the Clemson nation.
Samuel Columbus (Sam) Jones, a Clemson alumnus, picked up a rock in Death Valley, California on the side of the road and gave the token to his friend Clemson Head Football Coach Frank Howard in the mid 1960s. A simple gesture that would have profound effects in just a few short months on the football program at Clemson.
Little did Jones know that this small act of giving would lead to so much publicity and recognition for his beloved school, Clemson. He had no idea that the rock he brought back across the United States in his little red Ford Falcon would be such a national legacy and be an object of admiration for thousands in the Clemson nation.
His love for the school was obvious from the start. He graduated from Clemson in 1919 after a fine career. He obtained the rank of captain and was editor in chief of the Chronicle, Clemson’s literary paper. While at Clemson he was a member of the track team, where he was called “Swifty”, a nickname that followed him throughout his life. He also had the distinction of being one of the few charter members of IPTAY.
He taught agriculture and was a land appraiser and had worked with Clemson University in the purchasing of land. His last 20 years of work were with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was a U.S. Army Veteran of World War I and was a former president of the S.C. Retired Federal Employees Association.
The Act of Giving
In the mid 1960s, Jones gave the rock from Death Valley, CA to then Clemson Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Frank Howard. It was presented to Howard with Jones, saying “Here’s a rock from Death Valley, California, to Death Valley, South Carolina.”
Howard reportedly used the rock as a doorstop in his office for several months. In the summer of 1966, while cleaning out his office, Howard noticed the rock and told IPTAY executive director Gene Willimon, “Take this rock and throw it over the fence or out in the ditch, do something with it, but get it out of my office.” It was also said that Howard tripped over the rock and he wanted the rock to be removed quickly.
Luckily Willimon thought that rocks should be treated better than that–especially the ones from Death Valley, California, and he had the rock placed on a concrete pedestal at the top of the east end zone hill that the team ran down to enter the field for games.
On September 24, 1966, the first time Clemson players ran by the rock, they beat conference rival Virginia in one of the greatest games in Death Valley, 40-35.
In 1967, on a Friday before the home opener, Howard told his players that if they touched the rock before running down the hill they would receive supernatural powers. He also told the Tigers that if you give me 110% effort you can touch the rock, but if you don’t keep your filthy hands off of my rock.”
How many games have been won because of the rock, we may never know.
Mr. Jones’ gift was a one of a kind and has withstood the test of time. He had no idea that his gift of the rock would ever get this kind of notoriety.
“He would have never thought the rock he gave to Coach Howard would have been so famous,” said Jones’ daughter, Celana Massey.
“He always said Clemson was special and meant so much to him. He told me that when he picked up the rock in Death Valley, CA, that the rock was very hot and he had to use two handkerchiefs to pick up the rock.”
His grandson, Gary Massey, who played football at Clemson in the mid 1980s remembers his grandfather as a one-of-a-kind gentleman. “I’m really proud of my Grandfather,” said Massey. When I was in school he lived at the Clemson House and I enjoyed visiting him. He was a special man and did so many interesting things in his life.”
It would be safe to say that pulling off the side of the road in the desert that day in the mid 1960s and picking up a few rocks was one of the events that Jones never knew would be so important to Clemson.
Jones died on July 16, 1990, and is buried in the Old Stone Church Cemetery in nearby Pendleton. In his life he accomplished many things and one of the most famous was giving the gift of a rock to Coach Howard.
Perhaps Coach Howard summed it up best when talking about motivation and the rock.
“I tell you, there is something about football that makes boys believe in something that will help them. When they believe they can do something they usually do it.”
August 21, 2019