Carson’s rise took time to get right

Friday, November 09, 2007

Setbacks in high school and in recruiting could not derail path to glory

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 The cream always rises to the top, no matter how vigorously the milk is stirred.

When Harry Carson’s senior season at McClenaghan High in Florence was short-circuited by a nasty conflict with the team’s football coach, it seemed as if he would always be branded a trouble-maker when in truth he was a born leader.

As the decades passed, the same type of conflict would rear itself from time to time, taking many different forms.

Yet here Carson is today, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and one of the most revered names in the 100 years of football at South Carolina State University.

With all that football history at Carson’s back, it becomes all the more amazing to rewind the clock to that second year following desegregation, Carson’s senior year at McClenaghan, and discover how his future nearly ended before it began.

Carson did not get along with his new coach, Ladson Cubbage, and stormed off one day after Cubbage dogged him for limping through wind sprints. Carson’s character should never have been in question. He was the senior class president. His standoff took another serious turn a few weeks later when the black players on McClenaghan’s team felt they were being singled out for criticism and voted to boycott. Carson accepted their request that he be their spokesman.

When the boycott ended, everyone was invited back to the team ... except Carson.

It’s here that Willie Jeffries enters Carson’s life. Jeffries was in his first collegiate gig as the defensive coordinator at S.C. State’s hated rival, North Carolina A&T. Carson’s large supporting cast was determined to make certain he got into college. An assistant principal drove him to A&T to meet coach Hornsby Howell.

“I like him. I was crazy about him,” Jeffries said.

So, too, was Howell, who offered him a scholarship. Unfortunately for Howell and Jeffries, the school itself disagreed.

“At that time, they were clamping down on us about out-of-state students,” Jeffries said.

The offer was rescinded, and not long after, Jeffries left A&T for an assistant’s position at Pittsburgh. One year later, Jeffries’ alma mater, S.C. State, asked him home to replace Oree Banks.

“I was making $24,000 as an assistant at Pittsburgh and they offered me $16,000 to be their head coach,” Jeffries said. “I took it. Hey, I did have a free house and free utilities. I got to eat in the dining hall.”

His first day on the job, Jeffries encountered a man sitting on the steps outside his office.

It was Carson. Banks had brought him to Orangeburg after A&T turned him down.

“I took a look at him and said, ‘I got ya anyway,’ ” Jeffries said. “I’m so happy that coach Howell didn’t have another scholarship.”

Carson teamed with Donnie Shell during Jeffries’ first season, winning seven of their final nine games in 1973. S.C. State went 8-4 and 8-2-1 over Carson’s final two seasons, and was selected by the New York Giants with the 105th overall selection of the 1976 draft.

Alongside Lawrence Taylor, Carson would become one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, yet was snubbed 10 consecutive times by Hall of Fame voters, who finally said yes in 2006, two years after he penned a letter asking to be removed from consideration.

In the years since retiring from football in 1988, Carson has been affiliated with numerous non-profit organizations and charities and has earned the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a South Carolina native.

“That’s the thing about Harry,” Jeffries said. “He not only was a great player, he is a great, great person, one of the best people you will ever meet.”

In life, as in football, it would appear Carson has come out on top.

By PATRICK OBLEY (pobley@thestate.com). Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473.