Running Back/Kick Returner, 2006-09
By Matt Fortuna
C.J. Spiller was doing some winter cleaning when Dabo Swinney called to catch up. There was nothing unusual about the call. Swinney had recruited Spiller to Clemson more than a decade ago, and he had recently hired him to the Tigers’ coaching staff and frequently enjoyed checking in with his pupil.
But Swinney asked to speak with Spiller’s wife, Daysha. And when Daysha got on the line, Swinney began reciting accolades that she undoubtedly already knew.
“Your husband was my first five-star recruit at Clemson,” Swinney told her.
“Your husband was my first NFL Pro Bowler,” he continued.
But what he said next stopped her in her tracks. And left her husband speechless.
“And now your husband is my first College Football Hall of Famer,” Swinney said with excitement.
Spiller grabbed the phone back right away and did a double-take, asking Swinney to repeat what he had just said.
Yes, Spiller is a Hall of Famer — the fourth player inducted from Clemson. The man credited with kick-starting this unprecedented run of success in Death Valley has yet another distinction to his name.
“It still truly hasn’t honestly hit me yet, just because it happened during my transition of becoming the running backs coach and trying to settle into that position,” Spiller said. “But I’m pretty sure as we get closer and closer to the awards dinner in December that’s when it all will probably start settling — to be among some of the greatest to ever play this game, it truly is an honor to be even mentioned.”
Spiller is integral to the story of Clemson’s rise from a sleepy agricultural school in South Carolina to a regular national championship contender. He was a top-20 national prospect when being recruited out of Lake Butler, Florida, in the class of 2006. Swinney, then the Tigers’ receivers coach, was the point-person on Spiller’s recruitment, developing a father-son-like bond that netted Clemson a prospect who was initially believed to be out of its league.
“I really just try to do my best to not brush it off in a bad way but I just tell people, hey, listen, when I came to Clemson, honestly I was coming there with a focused intention, and that was to be the best version of myself, both as a player and as a person,” Spiller said of the attention that comes his way. “I never thought about becoming what some people call a trailblazer; it never really crossed my mind.
“And I did my research when I was going through the recruiting process. I knew Clemson was a great school. Obviously, they hadn’t had (this) kind of success lately when I was coming out, but I knew it was a great school and a great program from both an athletic standpoint and an academic standpoint. I always just try to tell people, hey, I’m standing on the shoulders of guys like Jeff Davis and the ’81 championship team, the Danny Ford years when they were winning all those ACC championships. I’m standing on the shoulders of those guys.”
The ironic part is that Spiller holds as special of a place in Memorial Stadium as anyone, as he is one of three players to have his jersey number (No. 28) retired.
Spiller delivered from Day 1 in Death Valley and never really slowed down, amassing 7,588 career all-purpose yards, the third-most in FBS history. In his senior year of 2009, Spiller posted 2,680 yards, an ACC single-season record. He was a unanimous First Team All-American, the ACC player of the year and sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. Spiller had 21 career touchdowns of 50 yards or more, including an NCAA-record tying seven kickoff return scores. He was the No. 9 pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2010.
And now he is back at Clemson, having come full-circle to coach running backs, and to perhaps find another C.J. Spiller in the future.
“I think there's nobody more invested in your program than those who have put their blood, sweat and tears into it,” Swinney said. “So, all the way from Tony Elliott who I coached, who was a captain for me, I think we've got 22 former players that are either full-time coaches, coordinators, P.A.W. Journey, strength and conditioning, player development, analysts, whatever it may be. I think their perspective is priceless. They've lived it. They've done it.”
C.J. SPILLER: UP CLOSE
- Earned unanimous First Team All-America honors as a kick returner in 2009.
- Named 2009 ACC Player of the Year, setting 31 Clemson records by career’s end.
- Amassed 7,588 career all-purpose yards, ranking first all-time in ACC annals and third all-time in NCAA history.
- Played for head coaches Tommy Bowden and Dabo Swinney.
- Becomes the fourth Clemson player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.