Movin’ on up
Johnathan Joseph and Ko Simpson share humble beginnings in Rock Hill. But a new world will open to them after next weekend’s NFL draft
By JOSEPH PERSON
— Johnathan Joseph turns onto Hagins Street and drives past the house where his grandmother has lived for the past 30 years.
There is a makeshift, wooden cross in the front yard of the modest, one-story home that is next door to Joseph’s great aunt’s house. As Joseph approaches the old Boys & Girls Club where he spent much of his youth, the man in the passenger’s seat uses the moment to ride Joseph about his humble upbringing.
“This is where the thugs hang out over here, huh?” Ko Simpson says. “It’s rough over here.”
Simpson can get away with such talk. He grew up in a similar neighborhood a few miles down Heckle Boulevard on Rock Hill’s west side.
“Pretty much in Rock Hill, everybody knows everybody,” Joseph says. “If you don’t know them, you’ve at least heard of them.”
Simpson and Joseph share more than a hometown.
Both grew up poor but had parents who worked most of their lives to provide for them.
Both took circuitous routes to South Carolina. Joseph came to Columbia by way of a Kansas junior college, while Simpson arrived a semester later than the rest of his class when Lou Holtz’s staff ran out of scholarships.
Both played in the Gamecocks’ defensive backfield, and they announced during the same teleconference in January that they were leaving school early for the NFL.
And soon after their names are called on April 29 during the first day of the NFL draft, both will come into the money and fame they dreamed about as kids darting around the grassy patches of Rock Hill’s pee-wee fields.
“That’s Ko’s dream. He’s been telling me that since he was 6 years old,” Eva Simpson said of her only child. “I told him all your little dreams have come true except that one.”
Joseph waited until his sophomore year at Northwestern High to share his premonition with his mother. “He said so many people don’t make it,” Vanessa Joseph said. “But he said, ‘I’m going to go all the way and, I’m going to be a first-round pick.’”
A neighbor on Pond Street had Joseph’s future success pegged long before he did.
“He said, ‘I know that little boy’s going to be something when he grows up because I’ve never seen a boy playing outside at 6:30 or 7 in the morning,’” Vanessa Joseph related.
That neighbor also probably never saw a 3-year-old boy try to cut the grass, as Joseph once attempted. When he was 8 or 9, one of Joseph’s elementary school teachers suggested that he be placed on “hyper pills,” as Vanessa called them. But John and Vanessa politely declined, and soon their son began channeling his energy into sports.
As a 9-year-old for the Raiders in the pee-wee division of the Gray-Y league, Joseph led his team to the regular-season title. The Falcons, quarterbacked by a 10-year-old named Simpson, knocked off the Raiders in the finals of the playoffs.
“I was hurt in the championship,” Joseph pointed out.
Joseph shared a room with his younger sister, Johnika, at the house on Pond Street. When the family moved to Soulsville Road in the nearby Boyd Hill neighborhood, their parents built an addition that allowed the siblings to have their own rooms.
While John worked the second or third shift at Springs Industries, Vanessa cleaned motel rooms. After a brief stint on Medicaid when she had Johnathan, Vanessa said, the family never accepted welfare or food stamps.
“We can’t live like the people across the street,” Vanessa recalled telling her son. “But you’ve got a place to stay, you’ve got something to eat, and you’ve got clean clothes.”
John, 68, retired several years ago after a 27-year career as a machinist at Springs. The 46-year-old Vanessa works for a company that cleans the Rock Hill school system’s transportation and operations buildings. Every day at work Vanessa sees Eva Simpson, a bus driver for the school district.
As a single mother, Eva always has configured her work schedule so she would be home in the afternoon to meet her son, whom she named Yukota because she liked the sound of it. She did janitorial work for 31 years at Celanase until the fiber plant closed in 2003.
Simpson grew up in a two-bedroom, brick house in College Downs, a community of small, one-story homes. In the field where Simpson first played football, there is a faded sign that reads: “College Downs. Families Working Together.’”
There were other elements at work in the neighborhood, as well. Namely drugs and crime.
“You had a lot to get into,” Simpson said while sitting in front of his mother’s house on Duckett Court. “I used to be out here running with these boys. But I was good in sports.”
“I let him get out there, but I’d go check on him,” Eva added. “But Ko wasn’t a bad kid.”
At her son’s request, Eva decorated Ko’s bedroom in a Dallas Cowboys theme one year, complete with a wallpaper border featuring the Cowboys’ trademark, blue star.
“I used to wake him up to go to school, and he used to have a football under the cover with him.”
Simpson was less likely to keep a book with him. Never much of a reader, Simpson learned why during his junior year at Rock Hill High when he was diagnosed with a reading disability.
“He’s not a dumb kid. But he has to learn orally, not through reading,” former Rock Hill coach Jim Ringer said. “He’d been able to fake his way through up until that time.”
The diagnosis allowed Simpson to take the SAT orally, which helped him make a qualifying score, Ringer said. Simpson signed with the Gamecocks in 2003 but did not enroll until January 2004 because Holtz signed too many players.
Joseph arrived at USC that same year following a two-year stint at Coffeyville Community College, where he played with his cousin, Arkee Whitlock, now a running back at Southern Illinois.
Neither Simpson nor Joseph would be long for USC.
Few were surprised when Simpson announced he would give up his two remaining years of eligibility to enter the draft. A free safety who was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 with six interceptions and two touchdown returns, Simpson led all conference defensive backs with 103 tackles as a sophomore.
Joseph’s decision seemed like more of a reach. After missing all but two games in 2004 after breaking his foot against Georgia, Joseph briefly lost his starting cornerback spot this past season.
He came back to tie for the conference lead with four interceptions, then shot up NFL draft boards by running the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the Indianapolis combine.
“Four months ago it was, ‘Ko’s making the right choice, but what’s Johnathan doing?’” said Jason Chayut, the New Jersey-based agent for both players.
Most draft analysts project Joseph as a late first-round pick, with Simpson expected to be selected in the second round.
The two spent this past week jetting across the country for personal workouts with several NFL teams. They plan to take it easy on draft day, opting for low-key gatherings with their families rather than big parties.
Both have bought the obligatory luxury sedans — Simpson a BMW, Joseph a Mercedes — whose sticker prices probably are higher than what their parents paid for their houses.
“The pre-draft purchases, I don’t like that stuff. I let them know that,” said Chayut, who also represents Philadelphia Eagles cornerback and former USC star Sheldon Brown.
“Even Sheldon will not call me and tell me he made another purchase because they don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
Chayut said the ability to give back to their families was a big reason Simpson and Joseph decided to come out early.
Joseph has a 2-year-old son named Jaybion who lives in Rock Hill with the boy’s mother. Simpson, though raised by his mother, stays in touch with his father, James Shivers, who lives in Chester.
Both are interested in following the lead of Brown, the Fort Lawn native who built his mother a home in a residential neighborhood near Northwestern High.
“I told Ko I’m content living here,” Eva Simpson said. “But if that’s what he wants to do, I can’t do anything but accept it.”
At the end of the impromptu tour of his hometown, Joseph pulls into the parking lot at Northwestern. The sun is shining brightly for the start of the Easter weekend, and the ping of aluminum bats from a baseball game at the school can be heard nearby.
He and Simpson are done with their workouts for the day, and the conversation turns to their cars, both of which still have the dealer tags on the back.
As the sun glints off the metallic finish of his black BMW, Simpson notices that the pollen and dust are more visible on his paint job than on the silver finish of Joseph’s Mercedes. Simpson passes on this observation to Joseph, who takes a glance at Simpson’s car and concurs.
With that, the two 22-year-olds climb into their sleek sedans and drive back to their old neighborhoods and the new worlds that await them.
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.