Sept. 23, 1998
by Bernie Merritt
No true sports fan could deny the fact that Clemson football and the linebacker position go almost hand in hand. Who could forget such names as Jeff Davis, Levon Kirkland, Anthony Simmons and O.J. Childress. O.J. Childress? Yes, this name may one day be listed with the other distinguished linebackers who played for Clemson, but for now Childress will settle for being known as the linebacker who fought and clawed his way to the position he so desperately desired: starting inside linebacker.
Last spring, while the Clemson coaches tried to decide who exactly would fill the linebacker position left vacant by All-American and NFL-bound Anthony Simmons, Childress, a soon to be senior, decided this would be his last shot at the starting position that alluded him his first three seasons with the Tigers. With a rigorous schedule and an unwavering drive, Childress landed that position and helped ease the minds of the coaches, players and the many Clemson faithful.
Born Orian J. Childress, he knew while growing up in Hermitage, TN that football would be more than just a past time. All the males in his family had played football at one time or another, and with his older cousin beginning his career at Tennessee State the notion of going to college to get a degree and to play football seemed like the right thing.
While at McGavock High School in Nashville, TN, Childress played his best trying to impress recruiters with his speed and great athletic ability. He played both ways as a senior totaling 126 tackles, five fumble recoveries and two interceptions on defense. On offense he tallied 11 receptions for 383 yards and five touchdowns. “I enjoyed playing both ways because it was something not too many people could do.” During one game he caught three touchdowns and gained 150 yards as a tight end and tallied 16 tackles as a linebacker on defense.
He came to Clemson in 1995 with hopes of carrying on the excellent tradition of Tiger linebackers. “The Hill and Rock were also in the back of my mind, but the linebacker tradition is what really caught my eye.” However, for the last three seasons the opportunity of starting linebacker was never available because of the talent ahead of him. So while on special teams he continued to work hard on and off the field, still hoping to get some attention.
As a freshman he was the leading special teams tackler and saw action as a second team outside linebacker in three games, including the Gator Bowl. He missed the only two games of his career as a freshman due to almost receiving a red-shirt season. “I was nearly red-shirted at the start of my freshman season, but the coaches decided they needed me out on the field instead.”
Childress would see the most action of his first three years during his sophomore campaign. Childress played in all 12 games that season seeing playing time on 134 snaps. He also tallied nine more special teams tackles to bring his two-year total to 22, which was almost half of the career record 45 special teams tackles held by another former linebacker, Ashley Sheppard. It was not until the spring before his senior year that he would make the biggest move of his career.
With the thought of playing second fiddle to Rahim Abdullah for one more year becoming more and more of a reality, Childress decided that enough was enough. He hit the weight room, where he would increase his pound power to third best on the team and his vertical jump to first among defensive players. This would make him one of the strongest and most athletic of all the Tiger linebackers. Coach Reggie Herring noticed this right away during spring practice. “I’ve always been impressed with O.J.’s athletic ability, but he really showed this spring that he was stronger, smarter and someone we could count on as a source of consistency.”
His work would move him from an outside linebacker position to a starting role as inside linebacker. “The biggest reason for the move was that we needed him on the field. We could not afford to let one of our three best linebackers sit on the bench.” With him now in the lineup, coach Herring is looking forward to a very stable and productive year from Childress and the rest of the defense. “O.J. has really stabilized our front seven and I look for them to be not only productive, but to also be a source of consistency over the course of the season.”
This sudden rise from second team linebacker and special teams tackling leader to starting linebacker was not accomplished alone. “Abdullah was a big reason for my improvement. He never gave me an inch on the playing field. I had to work for everything and so I knew that I better improve or be satisfied with playing backup for my fourth and final year.”
The leadership shown by Abdullah also rubbed off on Childress. Since his recent rise to starter, Childress has served as a quiet, go about his own business kind of guy who other players respect. He has also motivated many of his teammates like Adrian Dingle and even his own brother Gary Childress.
In 1996, Gary chose to play for Clemson over Alabama and Tennessee. His decision was simple however. “I wanted to play with my brother, so once he came here, my mind was made up,” Gary said. This has pleased the older Childress and has given their parents more of an opportunity to see them both play football. Having Gary join him on the defense has guaranteed O.J. that his name will be on at least one distinguished list of ex-Tigers. That list being the brother lettermen combination, which includes Jeff and Joe Bostic in 1977-78 and perhaps the most famous pair, the Perry brothers, William and Michael Dean, in 1984.
With all that has happened during his career Childress has remained motivated and inspired by his parents. “My parents have supported me a lot and have really pushed me to get an education and not just play football.” He has taken their advice and hopes to either play in the NFL or get a position in sports marketing if the NFL does not work out. Childress credits coach Herring for motivating him on and off the field as well. “Coach Herring has pushed me and made me work to be a better football player and most importantly a better person,” said Herring.
This season promises to be a fruitful one for Childress. He has improved on the consistency of his play and has shown coach Herring that he has finally become an active force he can count on to lead and stabilize the defense. “He started out as an inactive and inconsistent player, but has developed nicely into a solid defender.”
Even though he has never received the name recognition like Anthony Simmons, Levon Kirkland and other current and former Tiger linebackers, Childress does not feel cheated. “I feel very fortunate to have put on a Clemson jersey and gotten the chance to play. I feel that the rest of the seniors and I will go out winners.”
March 14, 2019