Note: The following appears in the Texas A&M gameday football program.
Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars have long been a favorite pastime for youngsters. Collecting different cars and playing and trading with friends has been a hobby since their invention by Elliot Handler 49 years ago. The time spent playing with these toys as a youngster is still a pleasant memory for many people.
Many Tiger fans may not have played with the cars at a young age, or may not have any interest in them now. But when Tee Higgins takes the field for Clemson this afternoon against Texas A&M, they should be thankful that his aunt, Denise Davis, used the toy to persuade Higgins to take to the gridiron for the first time.
Higgins, a junior from Oak Ridge, Tenn., has done some amazing things during his time in Tigertown. A 2019 preseason All-American by several publications, Higgins led Clemson in receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (12) in 2018 and amassed 1,281 receiving yards in his first two seasons. No Tiger fan will forget his five-yard reception on a dart from Trevor Lawrence that was the game’s final touchdown in the 44-16 national championship victory over top-ranked Alabama in January.
But if not for his aunt, Higgins may have continued with only his first love of basketball.
“When I was old enough, my aunt wanted me to play pee wee or boys club football,” remembered Higgins. “I always liked basketball better and was not really sold on football and really didn’t like it. She told me if I would play football, she would buy me a Hot Wheels car. And she then told me if I scored three touchdowns, she would buy me three Hot Wheels cars. I went out and scored three touchdowns. I have to give credit to my aunt for me loving the game of football.”
Higgins, who had both football and basketball jerseys retired at Oak Ridge High School, excelled in both sports. The highest-rated signee in Clemson’s 2017 recruiting class according to ESPN also had basketball offers from Auburn, Louisville and Tennessee to name a few. If not for a coaching change at the flagship university of his home state, the talented wide receiver could very well be wearing a faded shade of orange.
“I had originally committed to Tennessee,” admitted Higgins. “But the receiver coach that was recruiting me took another job. When I decided to open my recruitment up, Coach (Jeff) Scott and I built a relationship and connected.”
Higgins is quick to mention former Clemson Assistant Coach Dan Brooks for starting the relationship with the Tigers. That pursuit by Brooks, who retired after the 2016 national championship season, and a visit by Higgins to see the Tigers play Florida State in 2015 made Clemson the eventual destination for one of the top recruits in the nation.
“Coach Brooks was recruiting me before Coach Scott. He really started my interest in Clemson. I knew what was being built here. With the number of great receivers who have played here, Clemson is always going to be high on the list for great wide receivers.”
The visit for the Florida State game on a dark, misty November afternoon made quite the impression on Higgins. Moments before the cannon fired and Dabo Swinney led the Tigers down the Hill, he got an up-close look at what is called “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
“Just a few minutes before the team got to the top of the Hill, a couple of other recruits and I were taken up to the Hill. The atmosphere and noise is something I will never forget. After seeing that up close, how could you not want to be a part of it? I loved it from the first time.”
When Higgins made the decision to choose football in college, the work really began. As a basketball player, he had never spent much time or effort in the weightroom.
Scott, a 2018 Broyles Award finalist, has had many wide receivers with the same hoops background excel on the gridiron.
“Tee was an outstanding basketball player in high school,” said Scott. “We have a lot of guys with similar basketball backgrounds…‘Nuk’ Hopkins and Mike Williams (now both NFL mainstays with the Texans and Chargers, respectively) are two that immediately come to mind.
“The only negative is when they get to you, they are not quite ready from a physical standpoint. Tee was like that when he was a freshman. There was no question he could run and he could catch. The biggest thing was getting him stronger.
“This summer was the biggest step he has made in the right direction. He has really bought into getting stronger, and I have seen that transfer over to the football field.”
Director of Football Strength & Conditioning Joey Batson, now in his 23rd year at Clemson, can’t help but notice the growth that Higgins has displayed. The scale certainly tells the story from a 185-pound freshman in 2017 to a 215-pound junior in 2019.
“Tee has done a tremendous job,” said Batson. “When you come in as a freshman, you are just trying to figure it out. When a young man gets here, he sees what he is capable of. What is great to see is the transformation of a player in terms of maturity.
“It goes from ‘I have to lift weights’ to ‘I get to lift weights.’ He has taken a professional approach. He has become a craftsman. He has taken every aspect of the game from the physical performance to the knowledge of the game, and he has taken it to the field.”
It did not take Higgins long to realize success in the weightroom would lead to the success that he is having on the field. A promise made to his mother, Camilla “Lady” Stewart, who is his biggest fan and supporter, came true in early August.
“Playing boundary receiver is big-boy football,” said #5. “I knew if I wanted to be successful, I needed to be stronger. I played at 210 pounds last season. I promised her that I would work in the weightroom like never before.”
It paid off, as Higgins tipped the scales at just over 215 pounds at the start of fall practice. The work in the weightroom should lead to even greater success in 2019, but Higgins is also thankful to have both Scott and Swinney, who coached wide receivers his entire career before becoming head coach in 2008, to learn from.
“Coach Scott keeps everything real,” said Higgins. “He knows his stuff. When we make a great play, he congratulates us. But it is all about moving on to the next play and what is next.
“I am so thankful for Coach Swinney. He has so much knowledge. Every day, he will come over and work with the receivers. He makes sure we concentrate on the little thing that will lead to the bigger things.”
Two seasons, two CFP appearances and a national championship could lead to complacency, but the work that Higgins has continued to put in could lead to new successes in 2019.
“This is a new season and a new journey. We have to build a new house to get to the mountaintop. We have to keep the same mentality of enjoying the grind and enjoying the climb. That is what makes Clemson what it is and what it will always be.”
Higgins has a strongbox full of title rings that details his accomplishments. A touchdown in a national championship game and leading the 2018 team in receptions and touchdowns would be what most would think he remembers the most. But his team-first mentality that he first developed at Oak Ridge High School is what makes him the player he is today and will be in the future.
“Winning a national championship is so special and something you will never forget. But my favorite memory at Clemson was in the Louisville game last season, when Will Swinney scored his first career touchdown. Seeing a guy like Will, who works so hard every day, score a touchdown playing for his dad is special. After that play, there is a picture of Trevion Thompson, Derion Kendrick and me all the way at the 20-yard line celebrating. That was such a great moment for all of our receivers.”
As this Clemson team is early into the climb of being the best it can be, it is easy to see that a player like Higgins will contribute to the success. His commitment to hard work, team work and dedication, that all started with a love of a Matchbox car, should have this Tiger team in the conversation for more great outcomes in 2019.