This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2012 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Football Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades.
Growing up in Lake Butler, Fla., C.J. Spiller could see options in the area were limited, with most of the jobs at the nearby prisons.
Instead of wearing a guard uniform, Spiller has concentrated on one with shoulder pads and cleats.
Spiller, who made the 2005 American Family Insurance ALL-USA first team as a running back at Union County (Lake Butler), has lived up to his athletic promise. Now in his third year with the Buffalo Bills, he leads the NFL this season with a 7.3 yards per carry average.
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“I grew up playing Pop Warner football in Lake Butler,” Spiller said. “I knew football was going to be my thing. When I wasn’t playing football, it was baseball.”
Spiller chose Clemson over Florida or Florida State, much to the consternation of many in Lake Butler, a community of around 1,900 that’s about an hour’s drive southwest of Jacksonville. He said he grew more in a place where he couldn’t go home every weekend.
“When you’re surrounded by Gator and Seminole country, it can be tough to go elsewhere,” Spiller said. “I’m glad that I made the decision I did, and that I wasn't influenced by anyone else.”
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Spiller fathered a daughter, Shania, when he was a freshman at Clemson.
“It made me grow quickly,” Spiller said. “I realized at that point I can’t do football just thinking about myself.”
One of only five major college players to get 7,000 all-purpose yards in his career, he was a Heisman candidate his senior year at Clemson, finishing sixth in the voting and was named the ACC player of the year. The Bills drafted him in the first round, the ninth player overall and the first running back selected.
With the Bills, the 5-11, 200-pound back splits time with Fred Jackson, which is fine with Spiller.
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“I’m in a good situation,” Spiller said. “We have another great running back. If you don’t play in a one-running back system, it prolongs your career. The healthier you can stay, the more years you can play in the league. At running back, they start considering you older and you’re only 28.”
Despite its winters, Spiller has adjusted well to Buffalo, he said.
“I was fortunate to play in Clemson, which is a small community, all four years,” Spiller said. “Now, I come to a small-market team and it feels a bit like Clemson. These fans stick with you through thick and thin. It’s like a home away from home.”
Though he’s only 25, he’s already thought of someday being the coach at Union County, where he was a ball boy before he played for the Tigers.
“There’s not too much there,” Spiller said of Lake Butler. “To come back and share my experiences would give some of those kids hope, to stress academics and tell them what kind of hard work that it takes to succeed.”
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @JimHalley.