When Jadeveon Clowney was picked No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft, he fulfilled a dream and bought his mother a 50,000 square foot house on 12 acres of land in their home state of South Carolina. A few months later, he called her with a nightmare.
"We can't spend no more money," he told her.
Clowney was slated to be the NFL's next great defender – a freakishly-gifted athlete whose helmet-popping college hit on an unfortunate Michigan running back is still a highlight etched into every football fan’s brain.
But Clowney thought his career might never get off the runway. A knee injury in his very first NFL game required microfracture surgery, a brutal procedure that has been cited with ending, or rapidly hastening the end of, numerous careers. Doctors told Clowney he had a 50/50 shot at returning to his previous dominant form.
More than nine years later, Clowney is having arguably his best season at 30 years old as a Baltimore Raven. At the top of Clowney's goals for the season was to play all 17 games, to get a full season to fulfill what he's capable of when healthy. On Saturday against the Steelers, he'll check that box.
"Here we are; 17 games, I made it. Thank God," Clowney said, raising prayer hands and his eyes to the ceiling of the Ravens locker room Wednesday. "I'm just happy to be here. It could have been over a long time ago."
'WE WERE REALLY SCARED'
The 2014 NFL Draft was absolutely stacked. Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Mike Evans, and more star players were taken in the first round that year.
Before any of them were picked, the Houston Texans selected Clowney at the top. The expectations were massive for a player who had just turned 21 years old two months earlier. Clowney had a great training camp that summer, "tearing everybody up," in his own words.
Then, on the 23rd snap of his first NFL game, Clowney stepped in a "hole" in the turf of Houston's NRG Stadium and his knee gave out. It was non-contact and he had never suffered a major injury playing football before. That snap altered Clowney and his career forever.
Clowney had surgery to repair a torn meniscus and missed the next six games. He returned to play in three games but there was a bigger problem. In December, Clowney underwent microfracture surgery, which entails having small holes drilled into the bone near torn knee cartilage to stimulate blood flow to the injured area and help with recovery.
The results have been hit or miss for professional athletes. For example, Greg Oden, the No. 1-overall pick of the NBA's Portland Trailblazers in 2007, had microfracture knee surgery during his rookie season and he sat out more seasons (four) than he played (three) before an early retirement at 26 years old. Clowney was in danger of being next.
Ravens OLB Jadeveon Clowney has had arguably his best season at 30 years old.
Clowney wasn't allowed to put any weight on his right knee for about two months. He required 24-hour assistance, so his mother, Josenna Clowney, moved back in with him. She and three nurses took care of him around the clock.
"We were really scared," Josenna said. "We didn't know whether his career was going to be over. It was devastating. We didn't know what was going to happen."
Jadeveon was scared too, but he didn't want his mother to worry. He told her he was going to get back out on the field. Deep down, he wasn't so sure.
"That was the first time in my life I had to face real adversity," Clowney said. "My whole life growing up, I was good at football – not just good, great. Just beating people.
"When I got off the couch, I'm like, 'I'm different now.' My body felt different. I had to become a new Jadeveon Clowney. That guy they drafted was gone the day I got hurt."
'THE VIOLENCE NEVER CHANGED'
Clowney was back on the field for the start of the 2015 season, but still wasn't right. His knee swelled up after every game, bothering him throughout the following week. Every week was a battle to feel good enough to play.
He flew around the country consulting different medical professionals, taking blood tests, doing anything he could to try to manage the pain. The biggest tangible change was his weight.
Clowney was a burly 270-275 pound defensive end at South Carolina. After the surgery, he would feel pain in his knee any time he was over 260. Clowney slimmed down to about 250-255. He looked more like a basketball player than the defensive end who blew up that Michigan running back.
Clowney's game was built on power. Now he knew he had to add more moves and more quickness to his game. The changes worked, as he put together three straight Pro Bowl seasons as a Texan from 2016-2018, with 24.5 sacks during that span.
Anthony Weaver, the Ravens' assistant head coach/defensive line coach, was the Texans' defensive line coach at the time, and he was quite familiar with Clowney's physical battle. Weaver, a Ravens second-round pick in 2002 who spent four seasons playing in Baltimore and three in Houston, saw his career end prematurely with microfracture knee surgery in 2008.
"If you watched Jadeveon his rookie year, the size of his legs and lower torso were completely different. There was an aspect of his game that needed to change. But the violence that he played with never changed," Weaver said.
"There are some people that when you come to the point of contact, they brace. Jadeveon has no governor. He runs through contact."
Weaver said much of the strategy was body maintenance throughout the week, not putting too much strain on Clowney. Weaver would tell his bosses they needed to be careful with him.
"He just went through 60 car wrecks when he runs a 4.5," Weaver would say.
That violence has made it tougher for Clowney to stay healthy. How he plays the game isn't good for him, but it's the only way he knows how. He just added more tricks to his arsenal.
Ravens Outside Linebackers Coach Chuck Smith, who was a longtime personal pass rush coach before joining Baltimore's staff, "stalked" Clowney all the way back to when he was in college. He wanted to work with somebody that big and talented for a long, long time but was getting nowhere.
Clowney called Smith out of the blue in 2020. Clowney had one of his most challenging years with the Tennessee Titans when he had zero sacks and his knee landed him on injured reserve midway through the year. The following season, this time with the Cleveland Browns, he had a resurgent season with nine sacks.
"He plays so hard he ends up hurting himself. He's so reckless and so violent," Smith said. "I always knew if you could teach this cat the moves, get him one skilled move with his power, he's going to kill it."
'A REJUVINATED ATHLETE'
When Clowney was younger, he didn't really take football seriously. It was something he did because it was fun and he was really good at it. The knee injury changed that.
"If you want to play the game you love, you better take this thing seriously," Clowney told himself. "My work ethic shot through the roof – shot through the roof. I had the mindset that I'm just going to outwork people. That helped me become more of a pro."
That work ethic carried Clowney throughout his career, and he took it to another level in recent years as more injuries, and his age, kept piling up.
In March of 2021, Clowney began training with Ben Fairchild at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston. He also began working with Toko Nguyen, a physical therapist and partner of Fairchild, at the Institute for Athlete Regeneration. Fairchild's specialty is tailored workouts for athletes such as Clowney, and his clients include J.J. Watt. The workout focused on strengthening Clowney's quads in particular, to take stress of his knee.
The daily regimen this summer, before signing with the Ravens in mid-August, was a 9 a.m. workout, Monday-Friday, followed by Pilates, and then a massage or IV treatment. On Saturdays, they would often head to the track for speed training. Fairchild said Clowney's physical output and health this year has been several years in the making.
"From an output perspective, in no way is he over the hill. In fact, I think he's nearing his prime," Fairchild said. "He's been so beat up from Game 1 of his rookie year and from there it was a cascade of injuries, one after another. Without being able to set aside the time and get into an appropriate program for what his body needs, he didn't really have a chance.
"With chronological age, we attach meaning to being 30 years old in the traditional sense. But I think in his case, I think you're going to find a rejuvenated athlete on the back half of his career. When we look back, we may see more statistical prowess than we saw on the first half of his career."
Over the past two years, Clowney said his knee pain has "kind of faded."
"Playing against people wasn't the hardest thing for me. My hardest thing was walking into that game, how would my body be? I always thought if I walked into a game not thinking about my knee, I would be OK," Clowney said. "I got to that point the last year or two. This year has been great. I love this game and I wouldn't trade it in for the world. As long as my body is feeling good, I would play forever if I could."
'I SHOULD BE LEADING THE LEAGUE!'
The Ravens have done a good job managing Clowney's snap counts. Even though he's played in every game, he's played just 57% of the defensive snaps. That's the lowest percentage since his rookie year.
It's been all about effectiveness, and Clowney has had plenty of that.
He already has a career-high 69 pressures, five more than his Pro Bowl 2017 season. According to ESPN analytics, Clowney has the fifth-best pass rush win rate among all NFL edge rushers, only trailing the Cowboys' Micah Parsons, Browns' Myles Garrett, Texans' Will Anderson, and Steelers' T.J. Watt.
Clowney ranks among the best pass rushers in the game, right where everyone imagined him a decade ago.
He hasn't made it a big thing, but Clowney has beaten all four of his previous teams this season – the Texans, Seahawks, Titans and Browns. He also lost to the Browns, but could get another shot at them in the playoffs.
The only flaw Clowney sees in his season is the sack total, which sits at 8.5. He badly wants double digits for the first time in his career and will have one more chance to do so against the Steelers, though it remains to be seen how much key veterans such as him will play. Clowney also reportedly would earn a $750,000 bonus if he gets at least a half sack in the regular-season finale.
Countless sacks have slipped through Clowney's fingers this season. Well, actually, he's kept count and can run through them with ease – two against Houston, two against Cleveland, one against Seattle, two against San Francisco (and there's more).
Watt and Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson lead the league with 17 sacks. Nobody finishes all their sacks, but Clowney has a legitimate case that he could've been right up there considering all the pressure he's gotten.
"I should be leading the league," said Clowney, who was named as one of ESPN's biggest Pro Bowl snubs.
Baltimore's defense is top in the league, and over the team's six-game winning streak, Clowney has been the Ravens' best defender, per Pro Football Focus.
As the Ravens enter the playoffs, Clowney will be a huge part of how far they go. It isn't his first playoff trip; he went twice with the Texans (2016 & 2018) and once with Seattle (2019), but he's looking for his first ring.
Now that he's checked off 17 games and proven what he can do when healthy for a full year, Clowney has a new goal. His 31st birthday is three days after Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
"My hard work is finally paying off and I'm happy to be here in Baltimore doing it right now," Clowney said. "I'm just glad to be here, 30 years old, Year 10, doing the things I still love to do and achieving goals I set up for myself.
"I'm excited to go to a Super Bowl and looking forward to this opportunity. I want to play my best football in January. I want to keep the ball rolling."