By Alex Norman
There were more than a few folks in Knoxville rooting for Clemson in the National Championship Game last week. Not only because a Tigers win would mean an Alabama loss, but because a local kid would get to win a title.
Former Knoxville Catholic standout Amari Rodgers had two catches for 30 yards, as the Tigers crushed the Crimson Tide 44-16. One of his catches was good for 26 yards. It came in the second quarter on third and 7 from the Alabama 31, a grab which set up Clemson’s fourth score of the game.
That wide receiving corps torched the Alabama secondary. Rodgers, a sophomore, was one of seven receivers that combined of 17 catches and 313 yards.
“We were legendary all over the board,” Rodgers told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game. “Justyn Ross, (Oak Ridge HS grad) Tee Higgins… just making plays when we needed them. Big third downs, making catches down the field and just executing our plan. If we didn’t play well we weren’t gonna win. So we had to come out here and ball out.”
Watching the game back in Knoxville was Rodgers’s coach at Knoxville Catholic, Steve Matthews.
“I was just proud. It took me by surprise how gratifying it was,” said Matthews. “I remember when he was 13 years old just coming in here and it seems like yesterday. He was finding his way on and off the field, and watching him mature into an outstanding man and excellent player. I’m really proud and very happy for him and his family.”
Matthews added, “My first year at Knoxville Catholic was his eighth grade year. I kept hearing how great this eighth grader was but you never know how it’ll pan out. About his junior year he started to really get serious in the weight room and I remember a run he had against Webb or CAK, and you saw the explosiveness. From there it took off. He was unstoppable in high school.”
Rodgers’s Dad is former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin. Back in 1999 he led the Vols to a National Championship. Nearly two decades to the day, Rodgers earned a ring of his own.
“It means a lot. It feels great,” said Rodgers. “It’s great to represent my family like that, and represent him, so it is a great feeling.”
Amari Rodgers could have followed his Dad to Southern Cal, where Martin was an assistant coach during Amari’s recruiting process. And Rodgers was at one time a verbal commitment to the Trojans. But he flipped to Clemson, deciding to chart his own path.
“We talked about it and all we said was do what is best for you,” said Matthews. “I said, ‘You will be there in the dorms and around the culture and the facilities.’ I knew USC was tempting and he was excited about that for a long time, but he met (Clemson head coach) Dabo Swinney and (wide receivers coach) Jeff Scott and went there… it felt like every week he was going there. I knew he’d end up going there. Those guys did a great job recruiting him.”
Rodgers now has two years left at Clemson. There will certainly be more chances for team success, while hopefully setting himself up for a career in the National Football League.
“I spoke to their coaches about that and they love him,” said Matthews. “He might be a guy that doesn’t have all the numbers because they are so loaded at wide receiver and rotate their guys to get as many guys out there as they can. The NFL guys are getting taller and taller but there’s still a spot for a guy like him. Clemson’s coaches feel confident that he and Tee Higgins will get their shots.”