"Before we got here he told me that it wasn't going to be Florida State so I knew Florida State was out of it," she said. "I knew it was Florida and Clemson and in my heart I really felt that it was going to be Florida so it was a big shock to me."
When they arrived at the Union County High School gymnasium they were greeted by a circus-like environment. Because there were six Union County Tigers signing their college scholarship papers, this was a big event shared by the entire student body and faculty as well as family, friends and neighbors from the Lake Butler community. Every form of media was well represented and the high school radio station's broadcast was being picked up by Clemson's internet site.
As she sat there with C.J., proudly watching as one-by-one, five of his teammates (Kasey Nobles to Rice; Chris Powers, Brendan Odom and Oliver to Bethune-Cookman; Kevin Alexander to Clemson) announced their intentions, there was a growing expectation in the gym that Florida would be the choice. She didn't know all that much about Clemson although she had pleasant visits with Coach Tommy Bowden and with Clemson's running backs coach, Dabo Sweeney. When C.J. visited Clemson a couple of weeks ago, she thought the trip was more or less a whim, simply a last minute decision to go up there to check things out with Alexander, his pal since their Pop Warner days. She pretty much felt that if this was a serious consideration that she would be taking the trip with her son.
When C.J. came back from Clemson, she was caught a little bit off guard by his enthusiasm for the school and the coaching staff. She was glad to hear about how many of Clemson's players are active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and how all of the coaches are born again Christian believers. A woman of strong faith who has raised her children to always put God first in their lives, she felt a level of comfort that if he somehow chose Clemson, there was that kind of environment for him.
"From what he told me that was something that caught his eye about Clemson," she said.
But still, Clemson?
She could understand if he chose Florida State. When he was just starting in Pop Warner football, he was the little guy who could run fast so they gave him number 28. That's Warrick Dunn's number and C.J. embraced the number, the player who wore it and the team he represented. Dunn made his reputation at Florida State as an undersized player with tremendous speed, toughness and character. C.J. reminded everybody of Warrick Dunn and as he grew up, the folks in Lake Butler saw the impeccable character and personal values that you associate with Dunn in their own local star.
By the time he made it to his senior season, locals felt that the odds were C.J. would follow in the footsteps of his hero over in Tallahassee. Patricia knew and liked the Florida State coaches. They started recruiting him when he was just a sophomore, long before anyone else, so she felt they would look out for her baby if he went to school there.
A couple of weeks ago when it came time to make an official visit to the University of Florida, she wasn't going to go. The way it worked out, she and C.J. kind of convinced each other to take the visit. After the weekend with Urban Meyer and the Florida coaching staff, she felt very much at ease. She liked the way he demands accountability on and off the field by his players. She liked the emphasis on starting what you finish and getting that college degree. Best of all, she liked all these things just 25 miles away.
Florida she could understand and the more she thought about Florida, the more comfortable she was that it was the right place for her baby.
Then came the slip of paper with CLEMSON spelled out.
"That was maybe about two seconds before he walked up," she said.
He stood up before this crowd that had waited patiently for this moment, sharply dressed in a white suit, blue shirt and blue and gold tie. He thanked everybody from his Pop Warner coaches to his late grandmother to his pastor to Coach Nobles to his high school classmates and Union County football teammates. He didn't leave anyone out and he broke into tears a couple of times, especially when he talked about his coach.
Then came the announcement that it would be Clemson. He reached over and grabbed the Clemson ball cap off Alexander's head and put it on. At first there was stunned silence in the gym, then came the applause. There were no loud roars of approval.
He said thanks and then returned to his seat where he buried his head in his hands and sobbed. The tears were tears of relief. The long ordeal was finally over. He made his choice and while it came as a shocker to everyone, including his own mother, he felt he had done the right thing.
There had been whispers for a week that Clemson might be stronger than anyone expected. At the front desk of the high school on Monday, Debe Stephenson, whom all the UCHS students swear runs the school, was "watch out for Clemson. I keep hoping Florida but I keep hearing Clemson."
And it turns out she was prophetic. Clemson finished first and Florida finished second. He chose Clemson for reasons that some may not understand. It's the place he believes that's the place where he'll grow the most spiritually. If you've ever met C.J. Spiller, you knew he's genuine when he talks about his faith.
"That was the main thing … their spiritual life," he said. "They've got coaches who wear their faith on their sleeve and that's the thing I love."
When it was over, Buddy Nobles shook his head and grinned. He never saw Clemson coming on this strong. He didn't know until C.J. said the words Clemson and put the purple ball cap on where his star pupil was going. A little bit later in the morning when he had talked with C.J., he understood.
"His faith is the most important thing in his life and he just went where he felt God was leading him," he said. "We can talk about things like football and they're not all that important in the long run but when we talk about going where God leads you and going where your faith can grow, that's about all the right things. I was surprised, yeah …. I was surprised … but he's going there for the right reasons so I'm proud of him."