Sept. 13, 1999
It wasn’t his playing ability that got senior fullback Terry Witherspoon to Clemson. Sure, that played a part, but without the help of his high school guidance counselor, he might have never made it to college at all.
As a high school football star out of Monroe, NC, Witherspoon played five positions, tailback, fullback, tight end, linebacker and defensive end. He earned all-conference accolades three consecutive seasons and was named an All-America his senior year, ranking among the top eight fullbacks in the country.
On the field, Witherspoon seemed to have everything going for him. Off the field, however, things had not always been so smooth.
As a freshman he began to get into trouble at school, and teachers noticed that his grades were slipping. He was referred to the Transition Program, a counseling program for students at risk of dropping out of school, where he met Sandy Deskins.
“Terry had a tremendous amount of potential,” said Deskins. “He was a man-child, meaning he had a big physical body, but he acted more like a kid.”
She knew he had the potential to play football at the college level, but knew he would not reach that goal on his own. Deskins began working with Witherspoon on improving both his grades and his conduct, but he was moved to an alternative school at the end of the year after receiving too many bad conduct slips.
Deskins worked with Witherspoon throughout the following summer as he began to prepare to take the SAT, and she thought the beginning of his sophomore year would prove to be different from his freshman year. Then, Deskins found out that Witherspoon wasn’t coming to school at all, and she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“There was just something special about him, something that I couldn’t put my finger on, that made him different from the others that I work with,” she said. “I had worked with so many young people, and this was one that I just wasn’t going to let fall through the cracks.”
Deskins approached Witherspoon’s mother about having him move in with her and her husband, Doc. “His mother has five children, and they lived with a great-grandmother because his mother was in and out of the house a lot working a second-shift job,” said Deskins. “His mother knew that Terry was having some problems, and she wanted to see him get straightened out. She agreed to us taking him and helping him get his act together.”
After getting her approval, Deskins approached Witherspoon with the idea. He took two weeks to think over the decision, realizing that it would mean a huge change of life for him.
“This was a hard decision, because I knew I was going to lose a lot and I was going to gain a lot,” said Witherspoon.
At the time he didn’t see everything that he would gain, he just thought about being away from his family and the friends he would lose. “I wanted to be able to keep the friends I was hanging out with, and I knew that wouldn’t be a possibility if I made the choice to stay with her,” he said. “I would be away from my family, my brother and sisters.”
In the end Witherspoon decided to move in with the Deskins family, and he knows that decision changed his life for the better. “In the long run, I know I made the right decision,” he said. “She (Deskins) made sure I had everything I needed as a student in high school, and as a person in life.”
By his senior year, Witherspoon’s overall grade-point average had increased from barely a 1.0 to just under 3.0, meeting the NCAA’s freshman criteria of a 2.5 GPA in 13 core classes. He just needed to score a 900 on the SAT to be eligible to play as a freshman.
Witherspoon studied with Deskins, who he now refers to as mom, night after night. “After I did my regular studying, we pulled out the study books to help me prepare for the SAT,” he said. “I studied for months just to prepare for this one test.”
He took the test several times during high school, and his score kept climbing, but he still hadn’t gotten the 900 he needed to play his first year at Clemson.
The summer after his graduation, Witherspoon continued to study for the test. Because he was a learning disabled student, he could take the SAT any Saturday at his high school. The marketing teacher at the school, who also coached junior varsity baseball, offered to proctor the test. He had never taught Witherspoon, never coached him and never advised him, so he seemed to fit the strict requirements the NCAA places on high school teachers who administer the SAT.
Two months before Witherspoon entered Clemson he took the test one final time and scored a 930, 30 points higher than he needed to play football as a freshman.
“I was so happy because I thought I was finally cleared with the NCAA to play,” said Witherspoon.
Deskins called Clemson to report the score when she discovered that the high school had to send a letter to the NCAA confirming that the teacher who administered the test didn’t work for any high school or college athletic department.
It seemed that since the teacher that administered the test was a junior varsity baseball coach, the 930 Witherspoon worked so hard to earn wouldn’t count.
“The teacher never taught me or coached me,” said Witherspoon. “I had no association with baseball in high school. My score only jumped up 40 points from the test before, so it seemed like the NCAA would see that there wasn’t a huge increase in my score and know that this wasn’t my fault.”
Witherspoon and Deskins appealed the decision of the NCAA Clearinghouse and had to wait a month for an answer. When that answer came, the NCAA informed Witherspoon that he would have one final opportunity to take the test in September.
“It was disappointing to know that I tried and did my part, but I still felt like I had failed,” said Witherspoon. “My mom (Sandy) told me that it wasn’t my ignorance. It was ignorance on the part of some adults and some miscommunication with other people. I feel like I got punished for someone else’s mistake.”
Witherspoon entered Clemson as the school’s first partial-qualifier, and he took the SAT for the final time in September. Deskins worried because she knew she would not be in Clemson to help him prepare for the test.
Seven games into the 1996 season, Witherspoon’s final SAT scores arrived. He scored 890, ten points lower than he needed to play as a freshman.
Witherspoon worked hard throughout the rest of the season in order to be prepared for his sophomore year. But the hardest part of the season came at the end of the year, when he had to watch the team play in its biggest game of the year, the Peach Bowl, on television.
The following spring as Witherspoon entered spring practice he finally knew he was cleared to compete. In the spring game at the end of his freshman season, Witherspoon led the team with 29 carries for 120 yards. He proved himself in the classroom, too, finishing his first year at Clemson with a 2.5 GPA.
As a sophomore Witherspoon started four games for the Tigers. His best performance came against Georgia Tech, when he had 12 carries for 61 yards and one touchdown.
But the biggest moment of the season for Witherspoon came in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. He only had one carry in that game, but it was a touchdown.
When the announcer said, “Touchdown Terry Witherspoon,” Deskins was yelling, “That’s my son! That’s my son!”
Witherspoon remains the only active Clemson player who has scored an offensive touchdown in a bowl game for the Tigers. He concluded his sophomore season ranked third on the team with 224 yards rushing.
He attributes much of his success on the field to what he learned by playing so many different positions in high school. “When you play different positions, both on the defensive and offensive side of the ball, you learn what is going on in the other player’s head and where he needs to be,” explains Witherspoon. “When playing fullback, understanding where the tailback is supposed to be is an advantage for me to be in position to make blocks.”
Last season Witherspoon started eight of Clemson’s 11 games and scored against Furman, Wake Forest and North Carolina. He averaged 35 plays per game and played at least 26 snaps in every game. Witherspoon had a season-high 31 yards rushing in eight carries against South Carolina.
“That was a big game for us to win, but we still knew we were going to stay at home instead of going to a bowl game,” said Witherspoon. “There wasn’t really a reward at the end of last season. It wasn’t like the year before when we won the South Carolina game to get to a bowl.”
Witherspoon intends for this season to be different. “This year we want to get back to a bowl game, but not just any bowl game,” he said. “We want to get to one of the big bowl games. We want to show everyone that Clemson football is back.”
Now a veteran on the team, Witherspoon ranks eighth among active players in total plays and is fifth in total starts. He is also among the strongest players on the team, leading all running backs with a 417 bench press. In this year’s spring game, Witherspoon caught a 14-yard touchdown pass.
Witherspoon is also beginning to take on a leadership role among the running backs, especially with the younger backs. “I want to push them to know that they can step up now and help our football team out,” he said. “I feel like as running backs, we can really help this team. I try to push our young guys to see that we don’t need them to play like rookies, we need them to play like Clemson football players.”
With the arrival of the new coaching staff, Witherspoon has high hopes for the 1999 season. “As a coaching staff, they’ve got a plan for us to be winners and get our program back on track,” he said. “Clemson’s strong football history is one of the reasons I came to school here in the first place.”
Witherspoon can already see a difference in the Clemson offense. “Coach Bowden has pushed our team to a higher level of playing and loving the game of football,” he said. “The defense has always been a tough, hard-nosed part of our football team, but now we’ve got a new offense. I can’t wait to see what our offense will do throughout this season.”
Next season Witherspoon will have a chance to make up for the freshman season that he lost. As long as he graduates by August of 2000, the NCAA will give Witherspoon an extra year of eligibility.
After this semester, Witherspoon will need 18 hours to graduate. He is glad to have the opportunity to make up the year he missed and has even found something positive in the situation. “This pushed me to graduate in four years, so I know I will have a degree before I leave Clemson,” explains Witherspoon, who is majoring in technical and human resource development. “There has been a lot of pressure on me, but it was good pressure because it helped me academically to keep on top of things.”
Witherspoon has future goals of playing in the NFL. “That’s always been my dream, ever since junior high school,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play pro ball.”
If he is as diligent toward reaching that dream as he has been toward meeting his goals to this point, Witherspoon will surely be successful. And when he is, Deskins will be right there yelling, “That’s my son!”
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