Even a decade into his NFL career, Jadeveon Clowney will likely never match the heights of fame he reached in college, when “The Hit” captured the attention of the sports world.

When Clowney walloped Michigan running back Vincent Smith into oblivion in the 2013 Outback Bowl, he also catapulted himself into celebrity, winning an ESPY and becoming a tall-tale-type figure in Columbia, South Carolina.

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People wanted to meet him, wanted his autograph, wanted any piece of him they could get. They bought his jersey and shirts featuring his famous hit. Who knows how many dollars boosters donated to the Gamecocks football program because of Clowney, its most charismatic player.

Looking back on it makes Clowney shake his head: It’s too bad he came up in the era when he couldn’t take a bite out of all that money.

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“I think about it all the time,” Clowney told The Baltimore Banner. “I was saying the other day, if I was in college today, I’d make a killing.”

Black-tie stardom, shoestring budget

Now a Baltimore Raven, Clowney has made plenty of money in his career, about $83 million. His impressive performance this season as one of the team’s best pass-rushers puts him in line to cash in again next season, too: “I’m not trippin’ ‘bout it now.”

But Clowney’s story is a marker of how fast college sports have changed over the last decade, with name, image and likeness (NIL) revenue now not just permitted, but ruling the football system. A narrow upper crust of stars and recruits make millions while they’re still in school — there’s little doubt Clowney would have been in that elite class.

Looking back at Clowney’s origin story, certain details seem perverse just 10 years later. He grew up in a working-class household in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and even as he ascended to college football stardom, his mother still went to work at a Frito-Lay factory just across the state line. Clowney was known for gorging on fast food with a particular love for McDonald’s, but that was because it was the food he could afford. His father drove a suit down to campus for the 2013 ESPYs so his son would have something nice to wear when Clowney received an award for Best Play — not just in college football, but all of sports.

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Even as a college student, Clowney was aware that he was a huge economic boon for South Carolina football and other more nebulous vendors. When he Googled his own name, he could easily find reams of merchandise for sale, such as shirts adorned with his face or an image of The Hit.

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At the time, making a dollar off his own name would have been a violation of NCAA rules and could have prevented him from playing at all. It was, frankly, a ludicrous hypocrisy.

“Back then, we was all hurting for it — it was like nobody was making money,” Clowney said. “We’d fill the stands up, but go home and eat McDonald’s all week. That was my thing: I was tired of that. So I wanted money to take care of everyone. My mom was still working a 9-to-5, it was hard to watch everyone in the stadium wear my jersey.

“That was No. 7,” Clowney added. “That was my jersey.”

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, #7 of the South Carolina Gamecocks, stretches for a fourth-quarter fumble during a 33-28 victory against the Michigan Wolverines in the Outback Bowl Jan. 1, 2013 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In his final year of college football, there was a risk for Clowney: He famously took out a $5 million insurance policy before his junior season in case of an injury or disability. But the policy never covered if Clowney’s draft status dropped for a nonmedical reason.

Even though his stats fell off from his brilliant sophomore season, Clowney did wind up going first overall in the 2014 NFL Draft after his junior year, and his eight-figure signing bonus allowed his mother to retire from the factory. But he never quite reached the NFL’s elite tier (the Ravens are his fifth NFL team) and didn’t get the kind of contracts that some of the league’s top pass-rushers earn (teammate J.J. Watt, for example, wound up with nearly $130 million in career earnings).

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Pennies on the dollar

It would be naive to assume Clowney never got any benefit for who he was. Wild rumors of under-the-table payments by college boosters have been confirmed over the years, including by Johnny Manziel, who admitted to accepting at least $33,000 for signing autographs while at Texas A&M.

I pressed Clowney to learn a little more about this underground economy, not out of accusation but curiosity. Without confirming any specific benefit, Clowney told me, “Look how Johnny Football [Manziel] moved. I pulled some of that sometimes.”

But come on: Whatever Clowney made illicitly was pennies on the dollar. Steve Spurrier made $3.3 million during Clowney’s final season with the Gamecocks. South Carolina’s athletic department spent about $89.1 million that year. The Gamecocks sold out all their home football games in an 11-2 season.

In the NIL era, he’s not sure he would have stayed at South Carolina: “I’d have stayed in the portal,” Clowney laughed. “I would have found the highest bidder every year. It’s part of the game, man.”

Look at what players make now: Spencer Rattler, the current quarterback at South Carolina, has a $1.5 million NIL valuation by On3 based on an algorithm taking market size, social media following and other factors into consideration. While quarterbacks are the leading money makers in college, it’s not hard to imagine Clowney’s viral fame would have made him among the most marketable players back in 2013. Instead of merely eating McDonald’s, he could have been selling it.

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As a college student, Clowney never saw a dramatic change in his economic class. His girlfriend Najah Re Martin would cook for him — one of his favorites was pork chops, rice and gravy — using groceries she bought with food stamps. Today he and Martin are still together with three children.

“She used all them [food stamps] on me and took care of me for like two years,” he said. “And I appreciate her for that, now I’m taking care of her.”

A rapidly shifting landscape

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (24) attempts to block a pass by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew (10) at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Many figures in college sports are feeling overwhelmed by the changes to the economic model in just the last few years, and it doesn’t seem like the evolution is about to slow down.

Jason Stahl has pushed for players to organize and potentially unionize in coming years through his advocacy group, the College Football Players Association. He’s worked with players who have not been as fortunate as Clowney to have a lengthy NFL career after their college days, and he’s tried to work at the grassroots level with players to give student athletes an idea of what unionizing might look like (the CFBPA is not, itself, a union).

Last season, Penn State football players listened to one of Stahl’s presentations, but Stahl said it is difficult to organize teenagers around labor principles, especially when they cycle out every three to five years. Stahl said that many younger players don’t think about issues like compensation or post-career health coverage when they’re playing, which is why he’s tried to connect former players with athletes who are currently enrolled. He doesn’t think college athletics will change significantly until enrolled athletes broadly organize.

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“You need one team to take a leap to try to change the future,” he said. “It’s really hard when they’re immersed in that world. I think the key to it is slow build.”

In the courtroom, college sports is bracing for a slugfest in House v. NCAA. The case recently received class-action status for Division I athletes seeking back pay for wages they say were artificially limited by the NCAA. While it could take years to play out, several thousand athletes could stand to make billions in damages.

In theory, it’s the exact kind of lawsuit that could benefit marketable college athletes like Clowney was — only the class being considered starts in 2016, two years after Clowney was drafted to the NFL.

Clowney doesn’t begrudge any modern athlete for indulging in the NIL deals he could only dream about cashing in on back in the day: “Everybody deserves to get paid for their talent and playing, even in college. I felt like that when I was there, too. Hats off to them guys, they changed the game and their era has come around with guys getting paid.”

Clowney also harbors a surprising notion: It might not have worked out for him in the NFL if he had gotten paid at the height of his NCAA stardom.

“I feel like today, that’s hurting some of the kids, too — getting paid early when you go to college,” he said. “They might lose that drive to get to the league. And that’s what kept me hungry, knowing that I might not have that money right now, but I’m gonna get it. All I gotta do is stay down, stay driven and stay focused. And that helped me get to this point.”

C.J. Stroud, #7 of the Houston Texans, runs the play against Jadeveon Clowney, #24 of the Baltimore Ravens, during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 10, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

To be clear, Clowney believes athletes deserve every dollar they can get.

The message he’s trying to send? Don’t just settle.

“I just don’t want everybody to lose their focus and feel like they won the lottery because they got two or three million dollars,” he said. “To me, that ain’t a lot of money now on this stage. But back then, you tell a 17-year-old that $2.5 million ain’t a lot, you’d be lying. So I just don’t want them to lose their drive.

“Don’t forget the big stage,” Clowney added. “That’s the stage you want to get to.”

kyle.goon@thebaltimorebanner.com