The 1-in-10-million-billion town

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAMAR, S.C. — The old men gather here every morning, with their sun-baked caps and their soda cans. This is their country club: the Gay Ann convenience store at the Exxon station, at a folding table by the stacks of beer cases. The cashier runs the store and pays them little mind. The men talk about the weather and whatever, as old folks do, but lately they've been talking about the kid who used to work at this place: B.J.

There's only one main road here in this town, and it passes by the Gay Ann and by City Hall, which is across from the Piggly Wiggly. Inside is one hallway with three doors on the left. The nameplates read: "Mayor," "Chief" and "Judge." There's a courtroom too, with folding chairs, and three photos on the wall outside. They are pictures of the state champion Lamar High School football team.

Another group of men gathers a little further away, at Lamar High. They are beloved and feared, authoritarian guys with military backgrounds, offering stern looks and calloused hands. One is nicknamed "Shot," another is "Big Daddy," a third is J.R. Together they have produced an incredible feat: four NFL players from a high school of roughly 300 kids over a span of less than 25 years. Levon Kirkland (Class of 1986) was the first, then John Abraham ('96), then Mike Hamlin ('04), then Marshall McFadden ('05).

Clemson's B.J. Goodson is ready to take his place among the greats from Lamar. (AP)
Clemson's B.J. Goodson is ready to take his place among the greats from Lamar. (AP)

Soon there will be a fifth, Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson ('11), who wowed scouts at the NFL Combine last month with 30 bench press reps at 225 pounds and a 4.69 40-yard dash. He went from off the radar to a possible third-round pick.

How rare is it for five NFL players to come from one town of 1,000 people (989 to be exact) in a span of 25 years? Yahoo Sports asked a handful of experts and mathematicians around the country. One couldn't come up with an answer. Jeffrey Forrester, associate professor of math at Dickinson College (Pa.), put the chances at approximately 0.0000000000797. Yes, that's 10 zeros. (Forrester notes the odds of being dealt a royal flush are 0.00000154, or about 20,0000 times more likely.) Dominic Yeo, who is studying math at Oxford, approximated the probability as 1 in "ten million billion."

Each of the five came out of Lamar with a style of play built on persistence and punishment, a trademark of this old farming town that has somehow become Football City, U.S.A.

"It's teensy, teensy, tiny," says Jana Pye, editor of the local newspaper News And Press. "You wouldn't even know it unless you're there."

"Our town," Goodson says, "is famous for football."

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It wasn't always that way. Lamar – which sits an hour from Columbia, two hours from Charlotte, N.C., and four hours from Atlanta – was the unlikely setting for one of the more troubling events in the state's civil rights movement. In February of 1970, a fight over the desegregation of local schools boiled over into the toppling of two school buses. No one was seriously hurt, but the news reverberated all over South Carolina and gave the tiny town a slice of history that it didn't want.

The odds that a town of 1,000 would produce five NFL players in 25 years are long. Really long. Like 1 in 10 million billion long. Here are a few things with better odds:
The odds that a town of 1,000 would produce five NFL players in 25 years are long. Really long. Like 1 in 10 million billion long. Here are a few things with better odds:

"It was terrible," says Janie Howell, a long-time local resident.

"It was not Lamar people," she says. "We had people who came in from neighboring places who were the instigators."

At that point, little Lamar could have gone in any direction. Desegregation went ahead, and it meant the Spaulding High kids would be going to school with the Lamar High students. That would affect a child born only a year before the disturbance broke out. His name was Levon Kirkland.

"My ninth-grade year was when they consolidated," he says now. "I was a guy that was slotted to go to Spaulding; I was one of the ones to start it."

He started more than he ever imagined.

Something else began during Kirkland's childhood: a man named Shot Windham began teaching kids football in 1976. Windham served in Vietnam and owned a large chunk of farmland near Lamar. He loved children and he loved football too. So after school, he started a tot team and helped them learn the game.

"He was the meanest coach ever!" joked Mike Hamlin, a Shot student, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 draft by the Dallas Cowboys.

Many years before heads-up tackling because a common phrase, Shot would tell 5- and 6-year-olds to "bite the football," or keep their chins jutted forward at all times for safety. When the kids got old enough to hit, he would run drills under bleachers, to emphasize staying low through the tackle. There weren't a lot of facilities to work with, then or now, so Shot ran his practices "wherever there was a patch of grass."

Shot's wife eventually got upset with all his time spent coaching, and made him an ultimatum: "the kids or me." Forty years after he started this, long after four of his players have made it to the NFL, he likes to remind her, "I must be doing a pretty good job, I still got both of you."

Hamlin looks back with a laugh: "He was wild and crazy, in a good way."

Corey Fountain, a Shot disciple who is now the state champion head coach, said his fifth-grade teacher once asked him if everything was all right at home, because he had some bruises on his arms. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "I was just practicing football with Shot."

"Oh," the teacher said. "OK."

"Our parents knew it was going to create a toughness," Fountain says.

At Lamar High, J.R. Boyd and Big Daddy Poole picked up where Shot left off. The offenses weren't always scintillating, but the defenses, where each of the Lamar five played, were often ferocious. The 2004 team allowed 31 total points in 15 games, and Boyd laments how that total would have been lower if Lamar kept its starters in.

Goodson, born in 1993 and old enough to remember that vaunted team, is the latest product.

Goodson's education went beyond Shot and the Lamar coaches, though. Hamlin was in junior high when 6-year-old B.J. would come over to his yard and want to play with the bigger kids. They had been mentored by Shot, of course, and they were just as "mean" as the old tobacco farmer.

"When Shot saw I could hit, he would make me go against bigger guys; I had to hit bigger guys," Hamlin says. "I had to pass that to B.J."

B.J.'s goal was to be the next Mike Hamlin, the next John Abraham, and finally the next Levon Kirkland. He had a poster of Kirkland on his wall. "I was practicing against a ghost," he says now.

Kirkland, a second-round pick in 1992 and now an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals, believes the tradition of tough defensive players comes from the way Lamar people worked. There was no movie theater, not even a fast food joint. Football was more than a sport; it was a reward. Coaches would direct players who got 77 or lower on a test to "tutorial" instead of the practice field, so that upped the incentive to fly right.

"Trying to make men out of them, that's what we do," says Big Daddy Poole. "We work hard here."

Kirkland grew up stacking tobacco plants and sweeping up his dad's barbershop, just hoping to finish each day so he could play. Teenagers would come into the scalding-hot weight room after working in the fields, squatting barbells in bare feet while the mud and sweat dripped onto the floor.

"The guys from Lamar are workers," Kirkland says. "If you think about most guys from an area like that, they know how to work hard. Football, it's not really work. It's not the hardest thing they've ever done. Football is more of a release, not a chore."

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The "It Takes A Village" cliché has lost a lot of its meaning, but it works in Lamar. Goodson was raised by a parole officer and power plant worker, coached as a little boy by a Vietnam vet, and supervised by football players who pushed him and toughened him. That was all before he got to a high school that produced not just NFL players, but NFL veterans.

Between Shot Windham, Big Daddy Poole, J.R. Boyd and current coach Corey Fountain, there are 138 years of football coaching experience in Lamar. And now there's a trove of NFL experience too. Abraham went to the Pro Bowl five times and was in the league for 15 years. Kirkland went twice and made the NFL's All-Decade Team in the 1990s. He and Hamlin are still coaching in the league.

Levon Kirkland's  jersey hangs in the cafeteria at Lamar High School. (Yahoo Sports)
Levon Kirkland's  jersey hangs in the cafeteria at Lamar High School. (Yahoo Sports)

"You have to be determined," says Kirkland. "A lot of guys, their whole goal is to hug Roger Goodell. I feel you have to get better at what you're doing. Have a growth mindset."

What's even more odd about this progression from Lamar to the league is that the top level of the sport has embraced the kind of linebacker that the town has produced for a generation. The only NFL product from Lamar in this era who isn't a linebacker is Hamlin, and he says NFL coaches often considered moving him to that position from safety. (He played at 6-2, 205.)

The Lamar players were almost geared more toward the pro game than the college game, and that shows in Goodson, who wasn't highly touted out of high school and wasn't well-known at Clemson.

"I'm a powerful guy," Goodson says. "Levon says I move better than he does. We both carry that strike and that power. Something we call country strong."

Most of the folks here will mention some other football stars who didn't make the pros. Some decided to go to the military. Some had fate or finances in the way. Some were just passed over, maybe because the town is so small. This is not a place where people brag, so word of mouth doesn't travel all that far. When Goodson got his offer from Clemson, he didn't even tell his coaches about it. After some sleuthing, they learned B.J.'s mom had placed the letter in her Bible.

The town honored Goodson last month as a future business leader. He had to be tricked into coming because people worried he'd be too reserved to accept an award from his town. But he accepted the tribute, and he says he wants to build a community center after he gets established in the NFL. He wants the other kids in Lamar to have what he didn't: a place to go every day, rain or shine, and play.

"You grow up with a lot of male examples in Lamar," he says. "I want to fall in line."

On that ugly day in 1970, it was impossible to know what was coming. How could this "teensy, teensy" town bequeath anything but more strife? Nearly a half-century later, Lamar feels as proud as any small town in the South.

"I think football now is one of the common bonds," Kirkland says. "It became more of a community when they put us together. I think overall it was the best thing that could have happened. I don't think both schools could have survived by themselves."

In a historical sense, it's a tiny miracle how the one-in-ten-million-billon town contributed so heavily to the NFL. But if you talk to the people at the Gay Ann, or at Lamar High, or the players themselves, there is nothing miraculous about it.

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