S.C. State lessons serve Porcher well

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Former Lions star and restauranteur says he owes a lot to the Bulldogs

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 Not a lot of restaurant owners and entrepreneurs — even in Detroit — are also 6-foot-3, 266-pound former All-Pro defensive ends and first-round draft picks. But Robert Porcher is nothing if not unique.

In its July 2 issue, Sports Illustrated profiled the former NFL star and South Carolina State graduate (criminal justice, Class of ’92) who co-owns three trendy eateries in the Motor City. One photo shows the Wando native nattily attired in gray suit and red-striped power tie, seated in a white-table-clothed booth.

Another shot shows the Lions’ No. 91 rushing to sack a Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback. So which is the real Porcher?

He laughs. “It’s really just being in Detroit, out and meeting people,” said Porcher, 37, who calls the restaurants more investment than culinary passion. “That came about from one of the lessons I learned from coach (Willie) Jeffries: how you conduct yourself, watching him at S.C. State, helped mold how I want people to interact with me.”

Perhaps more than any former S.C. State player this side of Harry Carson, the ex-New York Giants linebacker and 2006 NFL Hall of Fame inductee, Porcher says he owes everything he is to his former coach. Jeffries, in turn, praises Porcher for his uncommon and continuing financial support of his alma mater.

“One year, Robert gave $105,000 to establish a Willie Jeffries scholarship,” Jeffries said. “(When Jeffries coached from 1989-2001) he would give me about five or six full scholarships every year. He and Harry are cut from the same cloth.”

Porcher laughs again. “Any time I’m compared to Harry or Donnie (Shell), I shake my head,” he said. “But I think we share the way we approach the game and things away from football.”

As did Florence native Carson, Porcher barely tapped his potential in high school, not playing football his sophomore and junior seasons. Reason? His grades weren’t good enough for his parents, both ministers.

“By the end of my junior year, I figured out they weren’t going to bend at all,” he said.

Porcher played well enough as a senior to be signed by Tennessee State, but after two seasons he realized Nashville was not for him. Meanwhile, Jeffries — a childhood hero — had returned to S.C. State.

“He was, and still is, a legend,” Porcher said. Marvin Dingle, an S.C. State graduate and friend, helped Porcher return home. Still, it was not until the end of his junior year that he and his coaches meshed.

“(The late assistant) George Wheeler and I told Robert, ‘You can play better. If you give 100 percent of what you’ve got, you can be a No. 1 draft choice,’ ” Jeffries said.

“Later, he told us, ‘A light bulb came on. I understood what y’all were saying.’ ”

That season, Porcher had 88 tackles, 15 sacks (two shy of Carson’s record) and 24 tackles for loss. The Lions made him the 26th pick of the 1992 draft, and he led Detroit in sacks eight times while playing in three Pro Bowls. He retired in late 2004 after 13 seasons.

In Detroit, Porcher — again like Carson — has won numerous community service awards, including a “Father of the Year” citation in 2000. But he is most proud of the day S.C. State retired his No. 94.

Porcher remembers in college, on Fridays before games, Jeffries would call out players who were dressing out by number, always noting that “no one wears No. 75” — Carson’s number. “I thought, ‘Man, I want to get to the point that he says the same thing about me.’ ”

These days, Porcher no longer needs comparisons. He’s arrived on his own.

By BOB GILLESPIE (bgillespie@thestate.com). Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.