South Carolina boasts of many renowned residents and natives from a variety of prominent professions: writers, artists, actors and, of course, athletes. Among our celebrated citizens are those whom have made it to national level Hall of Fame status by being among the very best in their given sports. Three such extraordinarily accomplished athletes have been in our midst.
2002 College Football Hall of Fame and 2006 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee
Most young men start playing football for many reasons: camaraderie, athleticism, strategy, or just an all-around love of the game. None of that, however, meant much to Harry Carson.
“It was more about football being a chick magnet,” he says.
Harry, a native of Florence, South Carolina, who played pro ball exclusively with the New York Giants, had an amazingly successful career as unarguably one of the best all-around NFL linebackers in the history of the game. But it all started with trying to get the girls.
In seventh grade, Harry went to a Wilson High School football game in Florence and watched as the players walked off the field. “You could smell the sweat and see the grass stains on their uniforms,” he says. “But then they went up to the field house to change, and that’s where all the girls were. So I thought to myself, ‘I want to be part of that!’”
Two years later, as a freshman at Wilson High, he tried out for the football team. It was not an auspicious start. “I quit on the first day of practice,” says Harry.
Abandoning the dream of playing football did not sit well with Harry, and he immediately started working on the stamina and strength he needed to make it through more than one day of practice. “I just didn’t like the feel of quitting in my gut,” says Harry. “That was the reason I went back, to redeem myself.”
The following year, his hard work and determination paid off, and Harry became a member of the Wilson Tigers football team. When desegregation laws took effect in 1971 and Harry was given a choice of staying at Wilson or going to play for McClenaghan High School, a school closer to home, he chose to make the transition to the new school.
“It was my first real experience interacting with white kids,” he says. “But you find out pretty quickly that football is football, regardless of the color of the individual who’s playing. When you wear a uniform, you cease to be black or white. You become the color of the uniform, and you fight for the uniform color.”
After high school, and with help from dedicated coaches and instructors, Harry was offered a scholarship to South Carolina State, where he set school records in tackles and sacks, served as team captain, and was the first defensive player to win consecutive honors for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. His main goal, however, was to get his degree.
“I studied to be a teacher,” says Harry. “In my senior year, I had already done my practice teaching and was certified to teach. Teams were scouting me for the NFL, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, if I’m drafted, fine. If I’m not drafted or I don’t make it, it was no big deal. I’ll be a teacher.’”
He was drafted, however, and spent the next 13 years playing for the Giants. In 2002, Harry was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. His inclusion into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, however, did not go as smoothly. He was first nominated in 1993, then 1994, then 1995, and every year afterward, each time making the semi-finals or finals cut without actually being selected. He finally grew frustrated by the process and asked to have his name taken out of consideration in 2004.
“The people who loved and supported me took it hard every time I wasn’t selected,” says Harry. “So I asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take my name out of consideration. I didn’t want to become the Susan Lucci of football.”
They ignored his request to be removed from consideration, and in 2006, Harry was finally elected and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Today, Harry lives in New Jersey and is very involved in sports consulting and promotions. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of football took a toll on his health, and in 1990 he was diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome. He is now an outspoken advocate for health problems that inflict other players of the game, and he does his best to visit South Carolina as often as possible.
“I like to go back to my old neighborhood,” says Harry. “I always remember that sense of community, and visiting is like going back to my real core, the place that made me the person who I am today.”
Like many highly successful people, Harry sometimes wonders why he made it so far. He jokingly credits the birthmark he had as a baby, a patch of grey hair on the right side of his head, that he was always told would bring him good fortune.
“Maybe that was it,” says Harry with a laugh. “Perhaps I was just born for good luck.”
1997 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and 2006 College Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee
He played 15 seasons in the NBA, was the first NBA player to score 2,000 points in eight consecutive seasons, was named to eight All-Star teams, and was the 1980s NBA most prolific point scorer. But Alex English’s heart still belongs to his hometown.
“I have a great love for the city of Columbia,” says Alex, “and I am probably one of the city’s biggest ambassadors. My NBA travels have taken me all over the world, but I have made Columbia my home.”
Born and raised in Cola Town, Alex’s parents moved north in search of better paying jobs, leaving Alex and his siblings in the care of their grandmother. “I grew up in a household of 13 brothers, sisters, and cousins, all under my grandmother’s roof,” he says. “It was a three-room house on Barnwell Street, which was the heart of the inner-city black community at the time.”
He first started playing basketball in junior high but at that young age was still trying to get his equilibrium. His lack of success simply made him work harder between his eighth and ninth grade years. While he hit the court running when he started at Dreher High School, he was not cognizant of his natural talent for a few more years.
“I didn’t recognize that I could make a living out of basketball until I got to my junior and senior years in high school,” says Alex. “Then I started getting offers from people who wanted me to play for their schools.”
After visiting a few colleges and universities, Alex made the decision to stay in Columbia and signed with the University of South Carolina. In addition to spectacular success on the court, Alex developed a love for writing. His published works include: Sometimey Feelins Sometimes, published 1978, four years out of college, but written mostly during college; Let’s Share, published in 1982; and, If I Show You My Tenderness, published in 1986 with art collaboration by the late Larry Lebby.
Basketball beckoned, however, and Alex was drafted in 1976 in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. The team was going through some changes, and Alex almost lost his spot on the team.
“That first year, they were going to cut me,” says Alex. “But on my way to the arena to be released, fate stepped in and they decided to keep me. From there, I went on to have an exciting career.”
Exciting indeed. Playing for the Bucks, the Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets, and the Dallas Mavericks, Alex’s ability to rack up the points was staggering. In a decade that included such legendary players as Julius Erving, Larry Bird Johnson, and Magic Johnson, Alex held the record for being the top NBA scorer during the 1980s. Leaving the NBA in 1991, Alex played one additional year in Italy with Basket Napoli before retiring as a professional player completely.
“That last year in Naples was fun,” he says, “but I had enough of playing. I do miss it, but 15 years is a long career in the NBA.”
And while he may have left the court, Alex has not left the game. He currently runs a basketball camp in both Columbia and Lexington, where not only are the basics of the game covered, but also a strong educational component is stressed. “They need to understand that it is a tough career,” says Alex, “and your chances of making it are going to be slim. You need to be able to do other things as well, because you may not make it there.”
Having traveled all around the world, he wants young people to appreciate that despite many differences, tremendous opportunities exist in the United States.
“We are so diverse,” says Alex. “This country is like a gumbo. We have everything we need, all kinds of good things that make us beautiful, that make us great, that make us awesome.”
1997 College Football Hall of Fame Inductee
Some people dream about having one street named in their honor. George Rogers has two.
The legendary University of South Carolina and NFL running back, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner, and 1981 first overall NFL draft pick also has a statue of his image standing proudly on the street in Columbia that bears his name. The other George Rogers thoroughfare is located in the city where he was first introduced to the sport that made him a superstar, his hometown of Duluth, Georgia.
“It’s cool, I admit it,” says George. “But the only reason that it happened is because of the other guys I played with. Those guys were as good, if not better, than I was, and they made me look good.”
George may have started in Georgia, leading the Duluth High School football team to the 1976 state finals, but he made USC his home. During his tenure as a Gamecock, George was awarded the highly prestigious Heisman trophy, earned All-American honors, and was the first player to have his jersey, number 38, retired while still a student at the school.
“I just wanted to play,” he says. “All that stuff was great, but being the center of attention was not my thing.”
After having the phenomenal honor of being the first round, first pick, George went to play for the New Orleans Saints, earning a spot at the All-Star Pro Bowl game and being named Rookie of the Year.
“Going to New Orleans was probably the best time I had,” says George, “although I got into a little trouble there.”
His troubles stemmed from drug addiction and subsequent problems with law enforcement, but he managed to overcome such hurdles and today uses those experiences to help others who have stumbled along the way. After four seasons with the Saints, George was traded to the Washington Redskins. In 1988, he and his teammates defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. For George, who suffered a series of injuries during his time as one of football’s most successful running backs, the Super Bowl win seemed like the perfect place to end his remarkable career, and at the age of 29 he officially retired.
“I was beat up,” he says. “I had knee injuries, shoulder injuries, arm injuries. I was just beat up.”
And where did he go after stepping off the field and forever hanging up his NFL helmet?
“I came back to South Carolina because that is where everything started,” says George. “I wanted to come back to my university, and I started working with them.”
As part of the university recruitment staff actively involved in the athletic department, George has had many opportunities to mentor young NFL hopefuls. He stresses that the only reason to play the game is an absolute love for it because physically players pay a price for playing in the end. That is why he also advises that they not neglect their education along the way.
“If you are good enough to play college football,” says George, “you have got to get that degree. Those books are going to get you a lot further than football ever will.”
Few among us, however, have George’s level of talent and dedication that would eventually pave the way to a couple of street names and a statue.