What did the Buffalo Bills need C.J. Spiller for? ¶ They already had a pair of 1,000-yard running backs; one went to the Pro Bowl two seasons earlier, and the other was a heart-and-soul leader. ¶ The Bills went into the 2010 draft needing help at practically every other position. They took Spiller ninth overall. Comprehension over their decision was minuscule. ¶ Sure, Spiller was dazzling. Bills owner Ralph Wilson declared he was sick of watching a dull loser, that Spiller could spice up our monotonous Sunday afternoons. ¶ Spiller rushed for zero touchdowns as a rookie. He frequently got tackled for negative yardage. ¶ He seemed unnecessary. His production was unreliable. ¶ Two preseason games into his sophomore season, a message-board thread on the Bills’ website asked, “Is it safe to say Spiller’s a bust?” ¶ “It wasn’t coming as easy as I hoped,” Spiller said two weeks ago. He leaned back in a plastic chair under an awning, away from the training-camp sun and looked off in the distance. ¶ “But I never doubted my ability. There’s no way you can doubt yourself and play this game.”
Those close to Spiller are unanimous about the depth of his resolve. They say it’s anchored by his faith in God, the memory of his late grandmother and loyalty to his family, especially his mother and daughter.
Spiller maintains the same ambitions he brought into the NFL three years ago. He doesn’t like to discuss specific goals. Maybe he’s superstitious. Maybe he wants to avoid sounding audacious. Probably both.
But the coach who recruited him to Clemson rattled off a list of Spiller’s aspirations.
“He’s going to be a College Football Hall of Famer,” Dabo Swinney said from his office in Death Valley. “He wants to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He wants to be a multiyear Pro Bowler. He wants to break O.J. Simpson’s record.
“He thinks like that. This guy has vision for greatness.”
Big talk like that would’ve elicited giggles from most observers in 2010 and much of 2011.
But when a leg injury ended captain Fred Jackson’s season in November 2011, Spiller, well, happened.
Spiller morphed into some other-worldly force. Over the final six games, he performed at a Pro Bowl-worthy pace. He ran for touchdowns – long touchdowns.
“He feels as though he can’t be touched,” Clemson teammate and Oakland Raiders receiver Jacoby Ford said. “He’s just a man on a mission to make people look silly.”
Then he showed us his statistical flare up could be expected every week.
In last year’s season opener, he rushed for 169 yards, 5 more than he had in his first nine NFL games, and a touchdown. He turned in a phenomenal season, averaging 6 yards a carry, rushing for 1,244 yards and scoring eight touchdowns total. He went to the Pro Bowl.
Those lofty long-term goals don’t seem so comical anymore.
In NFL.com fantasy drafts, conducted by many owners who considered Spiller a bum two years ago, he’s the eighth player selected on average.
The Bills’ own website wonders if Spiller, who averaged 12.8 carries a game last year, can rush for 2,000 yards. New offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said, “We’re going to give him the ball until he throws up.”
Fewer and fewer people have doubts about Spiller every day.
“He has ‘it,’ ” said Buddy Nobles, Spiller’s high school football coach and father figure. “There are not many people that have ‘it.’
“Some people have what it takes genetically, but they don’t have ‘it.’ You can’t explain it. Words can’t say it. But C.J.’s got ‘it.’ ”
Treading a narrow path
Spiller’s life has been pockmarked by events that within most people would create doubt, excuses and justifiable reasons to quit. He has encountered circumstances that easily could have nudged him off the path. He has gone against his own mother on several critical decisions, yet all of those choices have appeared to be correct.
Nobles appropriately borrowed a biblical metaphor in describing how Spiller has defied the odds. Genetics don’t adequately explain Spiller’s journey.
“There’s a lot of people who want to be the best, but they don’t want to follow that narrow road that it takes,” Nobles said. “Only a few people can go down that narrow road. He’s going to go that narrow road, and that’s what makes him special.”
The Gospel of Matthew extols the narrow pathway to God’s glory: “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Many moments could have proved cataclysmic to Spiller’s career if not his manhood. Had an actuary considered the issues Spiller faced at the time of his birth, the calculated odds of him making it, whether to the NFL or to a college degree, would have been infinitesimal.
Spiller grew up in Lake Butler, Fla., “a dot on the map, exactly,” Nobles said. “It’s a small town.” Lake Butler, population about 1,900, is an hour’s drive from Jacksonville.
“I went to Lake Butler with him one time,” Ford said, “and I was, like, ‘Man, there is nothing. Out here. At all.’ It’s just a little, bitty town, and he’s their golden boy.”
Lake Butler wasn’t necessarily an obstacle for Spiller to overcome. Kids make the NFL from small towns all the time, especially from Florida. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the third overall draft pick in 2001, went to Spiller’s alma mater, Union County High. So did Andrew Zow, who left Alabama in 2002 as its all-time passing leader.
Spiller is fond of Lake Butler. He still calls it home. His family stays there.
But trouble is around. Family members and friends have gone to prison, been killed. Many others have been tripped up by a bad break or two and simply didn’t have the wherewithal to break through.
That various events didn’t knock Spiller off track is amazing.
At the time Spiller was born, his mother still was seven weeks away from her 18th birthday. She already had an older son and eventually would have three children with three last names. Spiller’s father had moved to Miami and mostly out of his life for the next 17 or 18 years.
When Spiller was 3 months old, he witnessed a murder. He doesn’t remember, of course, but the loss of his Uncle Clarence has been an inspiration.
Clarence Brown was a football and basketball legend at Union County. Spiller has heard countless tales about Brown’s dynamic personality and athleticism. He could have been a star.
“Them are some of the memories you sit back and wonder: What if things have been different?” Spiller said. “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to experience him in my life. The only way I know what he looks like is from pictures.”
Brown lived with his little sister and her two babies in a government housing project. He was only 19 years old when, according to a Gainesville Sun report, a neighbor came home from work and, upon learning his girlfriend was with Brown, chased him out of the apartment and stabbed him in the neck with a paring knife.
Spiller’s mother, Patricia Watkins, was there. Spiller was in her arms. She dropped him in the commotion while trying to help her brother.
“She ran in the house, and she just dropped me. Just forget me, right?” Spiller said with a grin that shows off brilliant teeth apparently carved from ivory. “I understand.
“Probably did something to my head. What he didn’t finish was passed on to me. All that drive and that determination, I think he had those traits.”
Of all the football honors he has received, none made Spiller more emotional than after his freshman year. Nobles presented him with the school’s Clarence Brown Award for being on the field for the most plays.
Devoted to Grandma Nettie
Watkins, without Spiller’s father or her big brother, was buoyed by her mother and stepdad. Hubert and Nettie Pearl Allen took a significant role in raising the children when Watkins began working as a nursing-home aide.
Grandma Nettie was a central figure in Spiller’s life. She brought her lounge chair to his Pop Warner games but had trouble staying in it. She would run along the sidelines when Spiller hit the open field.
She was a custodian at Union County High. Spiller looked forward to becoming a freshman so he finally could see her in the school hallways every day.
“She taught me everything,” Spiller said. “She made me the man I am today, how to respect people. She taught me how to be a man, how to treat women, how to treat your elders, how to be an influence to young people and understanding the spotlight.”
Spiller, with Watkins working nights, would get up at 5:30 each morning to accompany Grandma Nettie to work. His school day didn’t begin until after 7 a.m., so they would stop at Hardee’s for a sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit and an orange juice.
She called him her little guardian angel because they were alone in the dark school before sunrise.
“Cleaning the classrooms and vacuuming and taking out the trash and mopping the floors,” Spiller said. “She had to make sure the classrooms were ready for kids to learn. That’s why I think I’m a morning person to this day.
“It taught me so much respect for people who do that hard work. It takes great character to be able to do that and keep doing it. She always just wanted to be there for the kids.”
Four months before Spiller’s freshman year at Union County, Grandma Nettie died.
Spiller was there when she drew her last, difficult breaths. Frail from lung cancer, she stayed at Watkins’ home in the Hidden Oaks trailer park. Spiller was awakened before dawn by the sound of Grandma Nettie gasping for air in the next room. He climbed out of his bunk bed and watched another loved one leave his life.
“I walked in the room, and I knew what time it was,” Spiller said. “She passed right there. To actually see someone die, I went into shell shock. But I’m glad I was there with her.”
He went to school that morning anyway. But he was inconsolable and eventually went home.
“It was very unfair because … well, I don’t want to say it was unfair because that would be me questioning God,” Spiller said. “It was very difficult.
“I knew I would never see my grandmother again until I pass away. Now she wasn’t going to get to watch me play football. I’ll never know that experience like other people. I just sit back and wonder what those moments would have been like.
“You wonder why it couldn’t have been somebody else. I guess everybody questions that when they lose a family member like that. It was the most depressing time in my life, something I still think about to this day. It took me a long time to cope with losing her.”
Throughout his college career, Spiller scrawled the initials “NPA” on his wristbands so Grandma Nettie’s memory would be with him on the field. Before every Bills game, Spiller makes a sign of the cross and points to the sky.
“That just lets her know, ‘I’m fittin’ to go out here and represent our family in the best way, and I know you’re up there watching me,’ ” Spiller said.
He also genuflects in the end zone after a touchdown, says a short prayer and points to Grandma Nettie again.
From Spiller’s home in Hidden Oaks, where Grandma Nettie died, you could throw a rock and hit Pritchett Trucking’s headquarters.
Eight mornings ago, Hubert Allen Jr., Grandma Nettie’s husband, went to Pritchett Trucking and shot another man, authorities said. Allen, a former employee, went on a rampage. He killed two men, including owner Marvin Pritchett, and wounded two more before returning home and killing himself, authorities said.
Buffalo played a preseason game at Washington that afternoon. As Spiller did when Grandma Nettie died, he got dressed and showed up where he was supposed to. He started and scored the Bills’ lone touchdown.
“That was his family,” Nobles said. “It’s just a raw deal for him.
“The only thing people can fall back on is their faith, and I think that’s what C.J.’s going to fall back on.”
Spiller left the team briefly to grieve with his family and wasn’t expected to return until today. He hasn’t spoken publicly since the shootings. The interviews for this story were conducted the week before the shootings.
Inventory of goals
Spiller wishes he still had that scrap of paper he kept on his bunk bed back in high school. He has that list of goals mostly memorized, but for sentimental purposes or perhaps to double-check his inventory, he’d love to see it again.
“All the things I wanted to achieve in my life,” Spiller said with a laugh that sounded more like a sigh.
He wanted to break all the Union County High records then go off to college and break just as many records there. He wanted to be in a position to let his mother retire. He wanted to be married, have a big house, two or three children and two dogs. He wanted to start a foundation that helped underprivileged kids.
Circled and in bold letters: NFL.
“C.J. is the most unique guy I’ve ever recruited,” said Swinney, now Clemson’s head coach. “He was different in that he knew what he wanted. Most young people don’t really know. He was focused and wise beyond his years.”
Even so, potential roadblocks continued to emerge on Spiller’s narrow path. Early in his senior season, with college recruiters salivating for him, Spiller’s girlfriend tearfully informed him she was pregnant.
“That process,” Swinney said, “will change a lot of young people. A lot of them don’t know how to handle all that.”
Spiller recalled jumping in the shower for some solitude and to collect his thoughts. He prayed out loud as the warm water washed over him. He asked God for strength.
Spiller didn’t know his mother was listening outside the bathroom door.
“My mom was very upset,” Spiller said. “Here, you have your son who’s 18 and about to go off to college.
“She knew how girls were and didn’t know if it was a trap to set me back. I said, ‘I’m going to go fulfill my dreams. This is just going to make me grow up faster than my peers.’ I was fine with that. I knew what I wanted to do and what it took to do it.”
Fatherhood frightened Spiller, but he promised he would not repeat the same mistakes his dad made.
Clifford Spiller met Watkins while in Lake Butler with the Job Corps. C.J. Spiller said his father tried to convince Watkins to move to Miami with him, but she declined. Clifford Spiller, 21 when C.J. was conceived, moved anyway.
“I resented him for a long time,” C.J. Spiller said. “He could have obviously made the decision to move closer, but he chose not to. That was his decision.
“I want you to be here to teach me those things that a son’s supposed to be taught from his father. I always had this fire burning inside me, when I would see other kids with their dads at their games. You get jealous. It made me have a grudge that lasted all the way up until high school.”
A teenage C.J. (short for Clifford Jr.) is the one who went out of his way to connect with his father, who drives garbage trucks for Dade County. C.J. Spiller said forgiveness is a critical component to being a good Christian, but admitted that principle forced him to reach out. His decision didn’t come naturally.
Asked to describe their father-son relationship now, C.J. Spiller thought for eight seconds before speaking.
“Uh, our relationship’s done got better. I can say that,” Spiller said. “It wasn’t always the best relationship that a father and son will have.”
C.J. Spiller was fine with his father being interviewed for this story and supplied a cell number. Clifford Spiller did not return messages.
Devoted to his daughter
Shania Spiller was born in March 2006. She lives in the Atlanta area with her mother and recently began the second grade.
C.J. Spiller acknowledged the similarity with his father having a child young, not marrying the mother and living apart. But anyone close to C.J. Spiller quickly points out how committed he is to Shania.
“I’m going to be totally different,” Spiller said. “That’s not to bash my dad, but the things he done, I’m going to do differently.
“I’m going to spend as much time with my daughter as I can. I’m going to be there for her. I talk to her every day, and after the season she’s with me just about the whole time. I want to make sure that she grows up to be the woman she needs to be.”
Spiller says he might have a budding actress on his hands. Shania is enamored with makeup. She’s into gymnastics, takes swimming classes and loves to run.
“And when she’s around me she can pretty much get away with anything,” Spiller said. “If anybody tells her ‘No,’ she’ll just ask me, and I’ll tell her she can do it.”
Spiller doesn’t buckle to all the women in his life. Three essential times he has defied his mother’s wishes.
She wanted him to attend nearby University of Florida. She didn’t learn his choice until an assembly in the Union County High gymnasium was held for Spiller and his teammates to announce their commitments.
Spiller wrote “Clemson” on a slip of paper and handed it to his mother right before his announcement. She sat there, stunned.
He chose Clemson because it’s in a small town. Swinney, then the receivers coach, got to know Spiller because Swinney had been on Alabama’s staff when Zow was there. Spiller felt comfortable in Clemson, comfortable with Swinney and head coach Tommy Bowden.
“He went against his family,” Swinney said. “He went against what the world thought was the right thing to do by going to Florida or Florida State.
“He’s got incredible guts and a rock-solid faith that is really unshakable.”
But Spiller was homesick and wanted to be closer to his infant daughter. He told Watkins after his freshman season he would transfer to Florida. She ripped Clemson’s coaches in the media. She had no clue Spiller would change his mind and return to Death Valley.
“That,” Spiller said of leaving Clemson, “would have been a coward move.”
He rebuffed his mother a third time after his junior season. He was projected as a first-round pick. The money would’ve changed his family’s life. They weren’t broke down in Lake Butler, but Spiller conceded there were “a lot of Ramen noodles” being eaten.
“You see what you’re going through as a family, and I had an opportunity to make it better,” Spiller said. “But at the end of the day, I knew my grandmother was really big on education.”
Spiller declined to enter the 2009 draft, returning for his senior season. He set more Clemson records and graduated after the fall semester – a half year early – with a sociology degree.
Clemson’s board of trustees gave him a standing ovation. He had been named Academic All-ACC and was on the dean’s list. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t play football in the seventh grade because he was academically ineligible.
“He had a whole bunch of people in his ear, telling him what to do and pulling him each way,” said Ford, who also ran track with Spiller at Clemson.
“That’s a hard decision to make, and I think he made the best decision by staying and getting his degree and still being a first-round pick.”
Clemson retired Spiller’s No. 28, only the third jersey in school history, during the Bills’ bye week his rookie year. That afternoon, he donated $100,000 to his alma mater.
Aiming toward Canton
That list of goals Spiller kept on his bunk bed became obsolete while on a summer trip with the Nobles family.
Spiller had become such a part of his head coach’s family that Nobles said he does not recall a 12-year-old Spiller coming to live with them for a week or so because an auto accident put Watkins in the hospital.
That’s because Spiller always was at the Nobles’ house anyway. He grew up and played football with their oldest son, Kasey Nobles, since kindergarten.
“His last name’s not Nobles,” said Nobles, now a high school coach in Georgia, “but if he ever said he wanted to be a Nobles, I’d say, ‘You already are.’ ”
The Nobles planned a family vacation that would include campus visits to Tennessee and Ohio State for Kasey and C.J. They went to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, and dashed over to Canton for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Spiller was mesmerized. He spent extra time studying the bronze busts of running backs such as Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson.
“It was almost a church atmosphere the way he walked around and our kids walked around and I walked around,” Nobles said. “It’s the ultimate of the sport that he plays and I coach. It was humbling to watch him and now know that he’s playing pro football.”
Raising his standards
There, inside football’s shrine, Spiller’s career aim shifted upward.
Merely reaching the NFL wasn’t enough.
Merely being great still isn’t enough.
“He’s not in that league to be just another good player,” Swinney said. “His goal every year – and he might not say it – is to be the best. He wants to lead that league in rushing. He wants to lead the league in yards per carry. He wants to lead the league in big plays. He wants to be a Pro Bowler.
“His standard is to be the best, and that’s the way he’s always been. That’s how he’s wired. But it’s his ability to pay the price. It’s how he lives his life off the field.”
Spiller is only interested in being elite. He wants to break Simpson’s club record and become the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards.
He wants to win a Super Bowl for a franchise that’s been mostly irrelevant for four presidential terms.
The so-called 2010 draft bust works with the mental image of seeing his bust in Canton someday.
He doesn’t care whether or not people write off his wish list as foolhardy.
“There are a lot of great people,” Spiller said, “but there are only a few special people. To be able to get into that category and be a special individual – not with just what you do on the field, stuff off the field – that’s the category you really want to be a part of. That’s my mind-set.
“I know that takes a lot of hard work. That takes a lot of team effort. I’m willing to sacrifice a whole bunch to get into that category. I’m a long way from there, but I’m definitely working towards it.
“Once I’m done playing, what will people say was special about it?”