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College Football Playoff: Clemson's Artavis Scott leaves days of youthful strife far behind

Artavis Scott, who struggled to find himself while growing up in the bay area, graduates from Clemson last month. Scott has overcome anger and academic challenges to become a record-setting receiver with a promising NFL future.
Artavis Scott, who struggled to find himself while growing up in the bay area, graduates from Clemson last month. Scott has overcome anger and academic challenges to become a record-setting receiver with a promising NFL future.
Published Jan. 9, 2017

OLDSMAR

His cheering section comprised parents, godparents, siblings, teachers, coaches and friends. Most drove nine or more hours, navigating interstates and byways and small-town capillaries, to witness the moment they once considered implausible.

The angry, defiant, disruptive child in a previous life, graduating from Clemson University in less than three years. Artavis Scott, all-time leading Tigers receiver, pulled it off. The tantrums had been exchanged for a tassel.

"As soon as I saw him, I lost it," Debi Pearl, Scott's favorite middle school teacher, said of the ceremony, staged 3½ weeks ago on a bright South Carolina morning. "I just started crying, silently. It was just such a happy, fulfilling moment because I know what he had to do to get there."

Tonight's College Football Playoff national championship game, pitting Clemson against reigning champ Alabama for the second year in a row, is a tapestry of story lines: cautionary tales that segue into redemptive ones, stories of coping and conquering.

Scott's just might check all the boxes.

It's far too trite to suggest this game at Raymond James Stadium represents a de facto homecoming for the prep All-American at East Lake High. Before coming full circle, Scott, 22, had to come to his full senses.

He had to realize that his anger could dash his NFL dreams, or that his academic sloth could do the same. He had to wrap his arms around the support staff so eager to embrace him back.

The transition was gradual, yet steady. The makeover was completed Dec. 15, with two accessories tossed in: a cap and gown.

"I had a lot of support from my family," said Scott, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in communications. "Then I had a lot of people in my corner."

• • •

Unbeknownst to many, golf was Artavis Marquise "Tay" Scott's first love. He picked up the game at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy in Clearwater, devoted to at-risk children struggling academically or emotionally.

Scott spent several afternoons there as a kid, having wrestled with anger before he learned to read. It wasn't the malicious sort; his tongue delivered far more jabs than his fists.

"He would just more or less be (a pain) to the teacher," said his mother, Johnatta Daniels.

But it was severe enough for Scott to be placed in self-contained Emotional/Behavior Disorders (EBD) classes in elementary and middle school, and to be retained in third grade.

"He wasn't violent," said Cortney King, Scott's fifth-grade EBD teacher at Oldsmar Elementary. "He was just argumentative, and he would yell."

Pearl recalls Scott as the ringleader of her self-contained class at Clearwater's Oak Grove Middle School. If Scott worked, the other half-dozen EDB students worked. If he didn't, the day was hopeless.

"They couldn't control their mouths or their behavior," she said.

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Scott, seated at a ballroom table with a handful of Clemson teammates two days before last week's Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, acknowledged his anger issues. He remembers his defiant nature and how trivial annoyances set off emotional geysers.

"Most of the time I didn't even know what I was getting mad at," he said. "I mean, it just popped up."

Johnatta and Marlon Daniels — Scott's stepfather and a presence in his life since he was a toddler — have one theory.

Far too often, they recall Scott's biological dad assuring his boy he would be there to watch him play for the Oldsmar Falcons, where Tay first brandished his sleekness, soft hands and instincts. Antwon Scott, incarcerated at least four times, according to Florida Department of Corrections records, never showed.

"It blew him out of the game," Marlon said.

But the bench bothered him even worse.

Most Fridays at Oldsmar Elementary, Cortney King would take his class of 10 or so kids outside for roughly 30 minutes of football. King was all-time quarterback, and Scott the unquestioned star, when he wasn't forced to observe. King had a rule: loss of temper in class meant loss of playing privileges.

"As a special ed teacher in the class that I was in … you're always looking for ways to get kids to turn the corner, to become responsible students," King said.

A year or two thereafter, Johnatta took a cue from King: She made the third of her four children sit out an entire Oldsmar Falcons season.

They were on to something.

"I think that's when a change started occurring," she said.

• • •

To this day, the walls of Scott's cluttered boyhood bedroom are bedecked with college football posters and newspaper clippings, most featuring him. In one corner, shelves sag beneath the weight of football trophies dating to his prepubescence. Two large cardboard boxes, teeming with recruiting letters, occupy another corner.

"Football was everything," Marlon Daniels said. "I'm talking eat, sleep — everything was football, football, football."

As high school loomed, Scott realized his anger and academics could deprive him of his passion. Intelligence never was the issue, teachers insist. Incentive was, even after his mother sidelined him for a season.

Then, a watershed moment, in eighth grade: Pearl recalls a day when her frayed nerves collided with Scott's petulance. Through tears, she let her frustrations spill.

Why aren't you giving your all? I know you're a great athlete, don't squander that gift! Don't you know I'm on your side?!

Scott began crying, too, on Pearl's shoulder. Within a day, she says, she had lobbied hard enough to get him back into mainstream classes.

In just the nick of time. At his next stop, East Lake High, grades were a prerequisite for football eligibility.

"His ninth-grade year, he was still kind of rocky," Johnatta said. "But right after that …"

"Different kid," Marlon said.

Grades and football started complementing each other instead of clashing. Scott's commitment to both intensified. He befriended East Lake quarterback Pete DiNovo, and soon became like a surrogate son in the DiNovo home.

In the summers, the two would spend mornings throwing and catching on East Lake's practice fields and the afternoons lifting weights and doing speed workouts. When darkness arrived they would grab a basketball, hit the gym and play one-on-one, sometimes until after midnight.

Seven days a week.

"I'm not exaggerating, that's how it was," said DiNovo, a backup quarterback at UCF. "We would just compete, and he was one of the most competitive guys you'll ever meet."

Eventually, the raw skill he displayed in youth football became refined at the varsity level, where Scott played four seasons. The behavioral issues surfaced occasionally — Scott was benched a game or two as an underclassman — but ultimately dissipated.

"We had to wrestle with it — to a degree," East Lake coach Bob Hudson said. "It wasn't, like, uncontrollable. … Tay is one of the most competitive people I've ever been around, and that competitive spirit would just come out in different ways."

He ultimately amassed 5,330 all-purpose yards, more than 3,000 as a receiver, and helped lead East Lake to a 13-1 record as a senior. In track, he qualified for the Class 4A state meet in the long jump and triple jump as a junior. ESPN ranked him the state's No. 9 football recruit.

Between workouts, he took virtual classes so he could graduate early, a trend among prominent college football recruits. Less than a decade before, the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health had reported only 40 percent of students with EBD graduate high school.

Scott earned enough credits to graduate from East Lake in January 2014, with a GPA hovering around 3.0, according to Hudson.

"So proud of him, man," Hudson said.

Before arriving at Clemson that same month, Scott already had befriended a rangy fellow freshman, a quarterback from Georgia named Deshaun Watson. The two became roommates — and significant on-field contributors — right away. Watson wore No. 4, Scott No. 3.

"I think Deshaun was at a little different point maybe from a maturity standpoint than Artavis was at the time," Clemson receivers coach Jeff Scott (no relation) said. "And I think they were good for each other, and I think Deshaun was able to kind of mentor Artavis a little bit, if you will."

Both earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference academic honors as freshmen. Both were first-team All-ACC picks by media and coaches as sophomores. Both graduated with communications degrees the same day.

And both have carved their way into Clemson immortality. Watson owns the best winning percentage (31-3, .912) of any Clemson starting quarterback. Scott has 242 career receptions, a Tigers record.

"He's just changed his whole mind-set and just his whole demeanor," said Watson, who has come home with Scott on a couple of spring breaks and spoken to the teams at East Lake and Dunedin. "And that helped him as a person but also as a player, too."

Tonight marks the pair's final game before both embark on pro careers. Tay, who never has played in Raymond James Stadium, will try to help bring Clemson its first national title in 35 years. The task is daunting; top-ranked Alabama (14-0) has won 13 of its 14 games by at least 10 points.

A Clemson triumph would defy odds.

It's one act of defiance that would make Tay Scott's supporters beam.

"He is my biggest success story," Pearl said, "and made all my teaching worthwhile."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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