Sapakoff: Clemson football P.A.W. Journey should be model for all SC | Clemson

Our beloved college football pastime comes these days with urgent real life questions:

Why don’t players have lifetime insurance for brain trauma and other participation injuries?

Why is name, image and likeness compensation legislation taking so long?

Why didn’t players speak out more on social issues earlier?

But Clemson’s P.A.W. Journey — a pet program within one of America’s most prominent sports programs — offers one beautiful answer.

Not just for football players or other college athletes, but for life itself.

Adoption of something similar to head coach Dabo Swinney’s life-enrichment lab ranging from career development to home life, would make a great way for South Carolina universities and high schools to help less-privileged students.

Non-athletes and athletes.

Or privileged students who also grapple with questions about personal growth aimed at creating better household and community leaders.

What college or high school student wouldn’t benefit from a concentrated nudge including micro-internships and marketplace knowledge, perhaps wrapped around a service trip abroad?

It’s a great idea anywhere.

“No question,” Swinney said. “Absolutely.”


Try running P.A.W. Journey basics by someone on the front lines of our struggle to save lost youth, those involved in organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, South Carolina’s Guardian Ad Litem program or your local prison ministry. Ask someone from a department of social services.

While trying to plug leaks in the dam, they will probably see immediately why this P.A.W. (short for Passionate About Winning) plan attracts visitors taking notes in pursuit of duplication.

Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney (44) is a “P.A.W. Journey Ambassador” who has two bachelor’s degrees (Criminal Justice and Sociology). Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

‘Life is happening’

Swinney founded P.A.W. Journey as The Player Relations Program on the evening of Oct. 13, 2008. That day, he was hired as Clemson’s interim head coach, an audition opportunity after Tommy Bowden resigned.

At 38, Swinney thought players needed more than football skills and scouting reports to succeed in college and later.

“Life is still happening,” Swinney said. “I just always felt like kids didn’t have enough outlets and places to go talk about things.”

This from a former walk-on receiver at Alabama who had to cope in high school and college with an alcoholic father.

“Some coaches are great coaches,” Swinney said, “but maybe they’re not quite as equipped to deal with certain other life issues that a player may be having.”

So Swinney went next door in his Clemson cul-de-sac to pick the brain of neighbor Jeff Davis. The co-captain of the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team was already involved in student enrichment programs on campus.

Davis was hired to “coach life” within the football program.

Twelve years and two national championships later, Davis is joined on the P.A.W. Journey staff by Savannah Bailey and former Clemson players Rashard Hall and Travis Blanks.

“I’m going to tell you what, man, Jeff Davis and his staff, they’re some of the most beautiful and spirited people you’ll ever meet,” Swinney said.

P.A.W. involves three major categories tailored to development aspects:

  • Personal growth. This fosters “each individual’s sense of purpose and the man they aspire to become.” Emphasis is on overcoming adversity, utilizing influence, having confidence and building character.
  • Life skills. Here, Bailey stresses financial wellness, practical professionalism and network expansion. Service projects have stretched from South Carolina to Costa Rica (building homes and infrastructure in 2018) to Thailand (working with children in 2019).
  • Professional skills. Executive strategy, planning, career analysis. A continual connection to Clemson and its resources is promoted, too.

“We always talk about ‘life after football,’” Swinney said. “But life is happening during football.”

Swinney said P.A.W. Journey principles come first at Clemson, before winning. In his heart, sure, but P.A.W. expansion needed winning, and a winner’s pedestal can help sell this idea statewide and beyond.

Selling is necessary because it isn’t cheap: $235,000 for the 2019-2020 academic year, funded by Clemson’s IPTAY booster club and Clemson athletics.



So worth it.

Jeff Davis, Clemson’s director of player relations and external affairs, heads up the Tigers’ P.A.W. Journey (short for Passionate About Winning), a life-skills and personal growth program. Davis was a team co-captain on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team. Provided/Clemson athletics

Dabo World view

You know that palatial, $55 million Clemson football building, the Reeves Football Complex?

Dabo made sure the first thing people see upon entering Dabo World is the P.A.W. Journey suite.

New York Business Week is an annual P.A.W. thing.

If not for COVID-19, the plan this spring was to send 51 Clemson players to 15 companies spread over 12 states.

It is a great model for all college football, Swinney said.

And beyond.

“It would be great for anybody to have that type of model,” Swinney said, “whether it’s just normal school students or any athlete.”


High school.

Any Neighborhood, USA.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be called P.A.W.

It could be called …

The Cool, Comprehensive Plan To Help Young People Enjoy Better, Happier, Kinder and More Productive Lives.

But any name, it’s a smart investment for South Carolinians and the young people they love.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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