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The play lasted barely four seconds from snap to whistle. When it was finished, two very different college players were at the nexus of All Things Football in the year 2013, having distilled the intensifying debate between reform and bloodlust into a single moment of truthful violence. One young man (surprisingly) scraped himself off the grass, 20 feet away from his maize-and-blue helmet; the other stood posing with his giant arms folded in front of his body, letting a stadium's collective awe wash over him like the Florida sunshine. One player is expected to become a transcendent pro; the other hopes to become any sort of pro at all. They were opponents that day, yet teammates too—equal partners in an act that both defines and divides their sport.
Late on the afternoon of New Year's Day, Michigan held a 22--21 lead over South Carolina with slightly more than eight minutes to play in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. On fourth-and-four from their own 37-yard line, the Wolverines ran a fake punt on which Floyd Simmons seemed to have been stopped short of the first down by Gamecocks senior linebacker Damario Jeffrey. A measurement showed the ball roughly two inches short of the marker, but inexplicably (to this day) referee Jeff Maconaghy signaled a first down. South Carolina took a timeout. On the sideline Jeffrey approached his teammate, 6'6", 273-pound All-America sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, the presumptive first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, and said, "Just make a play."
Clowney nodded and said, "I'm with you."
On the next play Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner took the snap and began the act of sticking the ball into the belly of senior tailback Vincent Smith, a process Gardner would not complete. Television viewers saw a maroon blur flash into the play, as Clowney rushed forward and exploded into Smith, who at 5'6", 175 pounds is roughly a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Clowney. There was the ever-familiar sound of pads, helmets and humans cracking against each other, except amplified. Smith's helmet launched into the air and rotated a full, balletic 360 degrees before dropping to the turf and rolling to the 26-yard line. Smith's dreadlocked hair flew out as if electrified. Players from both teams dived on the ground, signaling an unseen fumble, and then Clowney rose from the pile, ball in hand, majestic.
ESPN's Mike Tirico called the play: Michigan at the 41. What a hit! Ball's free! On the ground! South Carolina deserves to have it, and they do!
Analyst Jon Gruden jumped in: Clowney just says, I'll take care of business right here.... I'll come off the ball and rock you and get it right back for our offense.
Inside the stadium the crowd of more than 54,000 roared, then fell into a buzz. Clowney walked into a wild celebration on the South Carolina bench. On the subsequent play—almost as an afterthought—Gamecocks junior quarterback Connor Shaw threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Ace Sanders, giving South Carolina a 27--22 lead in a wild game it would eventually win 33--28. But the electricity of the hit lingered in the air.
The earth has shifted beneath football's feet in recent years. For so long, big hits were central to the game's entertainment paradigm, and a kill shot such as Clowney's was a consummating moment. Now fans are asked to wring their hands when players collide, informed of the long-term damage being done to brains and bodies. Yet Clowney's hit on Smith—legal, though brutal—ignited not a safety discussion but rather a cultural frenzy. Within minutes of the collision, #Clowney was trending worldwide on Twitter, as fans rushed to share the hit with their brethren.
LeBron James (@KingJames): "Watching this SC vs. Michigan game and Clowney just made a big time hit/fumble recovery at the same time! He's the Freak Part 2 (Javon Kearse)."
ESPN put the play on a near-constant loop, and as of last week it was still the reigning champ in SportsCenter's "Best of the Best" fan poll. Dozens of clips of the hit have been posted on YouTube, with aggregate views well over four million.