How poor Vincent Smith is alive today, no one except God Herself could explain. The kid is 5-foot-6 and 175 pounds. In Tuesday's Outback Bowl, when he took a handoff for his 38th carry of the season, he was struck by a meteor. It came at warp-speed from a distant place in the universe. That, or God replaced the law of gravity with a law of magnetivity that reversed poor Vincent’s motion and flung him flat on his back against the earth, all done so quickly, like one of those dust-raising stadium implosions, that you wondered whatever happened to whatever it was that was standing there an eyeblink ago.
As to what it sounded like, one witness thought it sounded like a deer hunter snapping a wounded deer’s neck. Someone else said, “It sounded like a car wreck.” Which reminded another guy of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the movie, when the big ol’ snake-mean football star, Charles Jefferson, walks out of school and sees that what he thinks are rivals from Lincoln High have destroyed his car and spray-painted on its windshield, “Lincoln Kills.” That night, exacting a linebacker’s revenge, Jefferson brutalized Lincoln’s ball carriers. Turned ‘em on their earholes. Convulsions ensued. Stretchers arrived. Ridgemont won, 42-zip.
The great thing about that scene is that it’s a movie and if we get lucky we see it happen in real life and it’s always better than in the movies. We got lucky in the Outback Bowl. What the South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney did to the Michigan tailback Vincent Smith was the kind of football-porn thing that causes boys and grown men of all ages to scream like little girls and curl into fetal balls, both hands over theirs.
Smith had lined up deep for a first-down play at his own 42-yard line after a controversial official’s call that infuriated South Carolina. The call allowed Michigan to keep the ball with about nine minutes to play and a 22-21 lead. On the snap, Smith took two steps forward and made the mistake of taking the handoff.
He had no way of knowing that at that moment his linemen had screwed up. They gave Clowney a gap. A gap? Jadeveon Clowney don’t need no frickin’ gap. His coach, Steve Spurrier, suggested that Clowney is so quick off the ball that offensive linemen usually can do no more than watch in a state approaching awe. “When they come at him,” the ball coach said, “they get nothing but air.” And when they get nothing but air -- and when Jadeveon Clowney, like Charles Jefferson, is hellbent on vengeance -- somebody is going to pay.
Instantly, if not sooner, Clowney arrived to collect payment from poor Vincent Smith. Clowney is a foot taller,100 pounds heavier, faster, stronger, and, if my instincts are right, a kajillion times happier to hit people so hard -- as Dan Jenkins once said of such work -- “the sumbitch will be left-handed for the rest of his life.”
I have no use for football’s jack-‘em-up fetish. I loathe the mentality that cheers a blindside block on a helpless defender whose eyes are locked on a kick returner. I have seen cheap shots and I have seen Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair. But what Jadeveon Clowney did to Vincent Smith was none of that. The old Michigan State coach, Duffy Daugherty, once said, “Football’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport.” By that definition, Clowney’s tackle was as pure a demonstration of the game’s truest nature as we’re likely to see.
The instant Smith took the handoff, Clowney brought down the collision. He struck the runner from the front, perfectly squared-up, a shoulder into Smith’s chest. It was textbook, it was beautiful, and it was scary as hell. Smith was lifted off his feet and taken backwards. As Clowney drove through the tackle, his shoulder caught enough of Smith’s facemask to pop the helmet’s chin-strap restraints. The helmet came off Vincent’s head, happily without the kid's head in it. After a short sub-orbital flight, the helmet returned to earth 33 feet away.
OK, scary. It got even scarier in the sense that we were in the presence of a preternatural force. Not only did Clowney come from eight yards away to deliver the hit, he was still down, atop Smith, when he reached out, with his massive left hand, to palm the ball fully intending to run with it. All this in two eyeblinks.
Steve Spurrier then did what all great coaches do when they’ve stepped on the other guy’s throat. He stepped harder. First play, a touchdown pass for a 27-22 lead. From there, South Carolina won, 35-28, and there began every sportswriter’s attempt at explaining the inexplicable wonder of what Jadeveon Clowney had one.
SBNation's website carried the headline “There is no understanding Jadeveon Clowney’s hit.” The writer Spencer Hall pre-emptively forgave Vincent Smith if he never again played football: “I don't even know whether to give Vincent Smith credit for getting up. I will, but that's a personal choice left to you because that kind of violence, even in a violent sport like football, is not part of the expected contract between you and the game. You expect contact, even violence, and always the pain of random injury. You do not expect a sasquatch on the hunt to apparate from thin air at 20 miles per hour. It is not part of anyone's plan ever, and Jadeveon Clowney is officially unreasonable to expect on a football field.”
In the paragraph's next-to-last sentence, there's the word "apparate." Perfect. Apparate. It’s a word seldom seen in sportswriting. For one, it’s hard to spell. Besides, no one other than Spencer Hall knows what it means. But look it up. Apparate. Yes, by damn. Clowney did that. He apparated. From nowhere came this apparition. From nowhere, as if by teleportation, came Jadeveon Clowney, this young man, 19, a sophomore, a defensive end who wears a wrong number, a 7, a dancing quarterback’s number, but who’s going to tell Jadeveon Clowney he’s wearing a silly number? Not poor Vincent Smith.