This article appears in the September 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Morris senior Jamie Cumbie knows how much his family loves South Carolina. In fact, anyone who looks at the right arm of Jamie’s dad, Rhett, can see how much the Cumbie family loves South Carolina.
On that arm, Rhett has tattoos of Clemson’s logo and South Carolina’s state tree, the palmetto.
So it was clearly a tough decision for Rhett and Jamie’s mom, Michelle, to move the family from South Carolina to Illinois in January 2004. But because it was for the family, it was the best decision.
“My mother’s parents lived in Mazon, Illinois, and they were telling us what a great school Morris was and that I’d have a better chance getting recruited there,” Cumbie says. “And my dad also got offered a better job.”
In hindsight, Cumbie probably would’ve been recruited if he lived in Antarctica. After all, he’s now a 6-foot-7, 255-pound defensive tackle/tight end who’s rated the No. 1 recruit in the state and No. 72 recruit in the nation by SchoolSports.com.
“You never know what you’re getting when you get transfers,” says Dan Darlington, who wrapped up his 28th and final season as the head coach at Morris last fall. “Sometimes they’re all talk and no action. But he was the real deal.”
Sure, Cumbie proved to be all action in the end. But Darlington made him prove his worth. The legendary coach wasn’t about to coddle the new kid just because he looked like a Division I prospect. If anything, he worked Cumbie harder.
But through it all, Cumbie never cracked. He did all the winter conditioning, played baseball in the spring and then came back for more in the summer.
“He was 275 (pounds), and we thinned him down to 250 in winter conditioning,” Darlington says. “We train real hard and absolutely pushed him to see what would happen, and he hung in there.”
George Dergo, who has been an assistant coach for Morris since 1985, is taking over the head coaching reins from Darlington this year. Dergo, who has lived in Morris since 1966 and has seen plenty of football studs come and go, knew Cumbie earned his starting spot and didn’t get anything for free.
“No one’s gonna just step in here and play,” Dergo says. “He’s taking a spot from a Morris kid who has dreamed all his life about playing here. Morris is a football town, and there are second-stringers that are working to get out there. He didn’t have a free ride. But with the way he played, it was easy for him to fit in.”
It wasn’t always easy for Cumbie, who left the only life he knew down in South Carolina to come play for Morris. But he adapted pretty quickly. His outgoing nature, not to mention his prodigious talent, made sure of that.
“For sure, you grow up in a town and the first couple weeks in a new place are tough,” Cumbie says. “But it worked out well. The first day, they introduced me to a few of the guys, and they accepted me right away. From there, everything fell into place.”
By the time football season rolled around last fall, there was a gigantic payoff for both the team and the man-child known as “King James.”
Cumbie played like a man possessed, particularly on defense. He finished last season with 77 tackles and 14 sacks while catching 14 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns on offense. The Redskins, meanwhile, rolled to a 13-1 record and a spot in the Class 5A state championship game, where they lost to Joliet Catholic, 17-0.
“His future is on the defensive side of the ball,” Darlington says. “His intensity is what I really like about him. Football is an emotional game, and he plays with such intensity. In high school, a lot of guys his size are passive, and he isn’t at all.”
That intensity combined with his size and quickness had nearly every college coach in the country after Cumbie. Darlington, who has sent numerous players to major Division I programs and even had one former player, Ed Brady, make the NFL, says Cumbie has the potential to be the best.
But the funny thing is, with nearly every top school coming hard after Cumbie, the one he wanted most and the one his family has ties with — Clemson — took some serious convincing.
Darlington sent the Clemson coaching staff a tape of Cumbie’s many highlights. He never heard back. He called once, left a message and never heard back. Called again, telling the Clemson staff he had the best player in Illinois and that Cumbie wanted to become a Tiger. Never heard back.
Now, Darlington is not the type of man to beg. So he tried one last time.
“Finally, after about five weeks, I called for the third time and said, ‘This will be the last phone call, if you don’t want to check this out, I don’t care,’” Darlington says. “Two days later, they call me all fired up.”
So was Jamie.
Apparently, the Tigers sensed the urgency in Darlington’s tone because they were all over Cumbie. And when Cumbie verbally committed to Clemson toward the end of his junior year, his athletic upbringing came full circle.
“We’ve talked about taking official visits and flying to places he’s never seen before,” Dergo says. “But toward the end, he said he didn’t care about any of that and just wanted to get it over with.”
And why not? After a couple years away from South Carolina, Cumbie will get to go home. By his own admission, Morris has been better than he could have ever imagined. Especially if he leads the Redskins to a Class 5A state title this year after coming so close in 2004. But there’s no denying he’s remained a South Carolina kid at heart.
You see, from the time they were big enough to hold a ball, Cumbie and his brothers, Matthew and Mitchell, were raised to love sports. Clemson sports in particular.
But as passionate as he is about Clemson, there’s a chance he might never suit up for the Tigers.
Cumbie isn’t just some big brute who punishes people on the football field. He’s a great athlete who also excels on the baseball diamond as a pitcher and could get drafted in the 2006 MLB Draft. And if he goes high enough, he might choose green over Clemson orange.
“If I get drafted in the first through third round, that’s a lot of money, so we’ll have to wait and see what pops up,” Cumbie says. “But for now, I’m a football player for the Clemson Tigers.”
With the chance to create memories as permanent as the ink on his father’s right arm.