ROCK HILL, S.C. – It was a typical Wednesday afternoon for Steve Gilmore two weeks ago when he got a not-so-typical phone call from his son, Stephon Gilmore, who’d just met with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Stephon: “Dad, I’m coming home.’’
Steve: “What you mean you’re coming home?’’
Stephon: “I’m coming home.’’
Steve: “All right. What time you coming?’’ (Thinking it was just for a visit)
Stephon: “I’m coming home to be a Panther.’’
Gilmore grew up in Rock Hill, a 25-minute drive across the South Carolina-North Carolina border to Charlotte’s Bank of American Stadium where the Carolina Panthers (3-3) play. It’s also where owner Panthers David Tepper is moving the team headquarters in 2023.
It’s always been Gilmore’s dream to play for the Panthers.
That became reality on October 6 when the Patriots traded the Pro Bowl corner to Carolina for a 2023 sixth-round draft pick after failing to reach an extension with the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
That started a whirlwind of texts and phone calls, not only among the Gilmore family, but the entire Rock Hill area. It’s here where Gilmore was a star quarterback for South Pointe High School before going to the University of South Carolina, where he developed into an NFL first-round pick at cornerback.
“I expect to see Stephon up on billboards,’’ said Perry Sutton, who coached Gilmore when he was a 7- and 8-year-old, of the excitement in Rock Hill. “I’m wondering why they’re not up yet.’’
Coming home to Football City, USA
Yes, there’s a buzz in what the locals call “Football City, USA.’’
Few cities the size of Rock Hill (population 73,334) can match them in terms of producing NFL players -- 37 from three high schools since the 1950s, according to the county website.
In 2013, eight players from the city were on opening day NFL rosters, including Gilmore, a 2012 first-round pick by the Buffalo Bills. There were six in 2019.
But until now, none have played for the Panthers.
“I was in the grocery store and I heard some people call his name,’’ said Linda Gilmore, Stephon’s mother. “I knew they didn’t know him, but they were talking about him coming to the Panthers.
“I said, ‘Man, this is a hot topic.’ ’’
As a Panthers fan, Gilmore grew up a fan of Carolina stars Steve Smith Sr., Jake Delhomme, Stephen Davis, Julius Peppers and Tim Biakabutuka.
One of his favorite childhood moments came in 2003 when the Panthers played the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston.
“That didn’t end well,’’ recalled Gilmore of the 32-29 New England win on a last-second field goal. “But it was a big moment for the organization.’’
Acquiring Gilmore also was a big moment. Many believe he will start a pipeline of Rock Hill stars, such as Cleveland defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Atlanta wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, to Carolina.
“Instead of being the Carolina Panthers, they can be the Rock Hill Panthers,’’ the elder Gilmore said with a laugh.
Where it all began
Several kids were playing on the football field next to the Children’s School at Sylvia Circle in Rock Hill just like Gilmore did more than 20 years ago -- only then rocks were on the field and there was a swale that held water.
“As you’re seeing, they’re knocking the snot out of each other,’’ Sutton said. “There ain’t no touch out here.’’
This is where Gilmore began playing quarterback and running back for the Sylvia Circle Demons. It’s where he and other future NFL players like Clowney, Chris Hope, Rick Sanford and Anthony Johnson got their start.
It’s where many still return to hold football camps.
“You would see Stephon running up and down Ogden Road with what we call a sand sack on his back working out,’’ Sutton recalled.
Gilmore spent more time scoring touchdowns than he did breaking them up back then.
“Stephon didn’t play much defense in Rock Hill,’’ Sutton said. “The shiftiness, we saw all that. But to be able to turn and cover, we didn’t see that back then 'cause we didn’t ask him to do it.’’
Gilmore the tone-setter
Bobby Carroll was an assistant coach at Northwestern High when he saw Gilmore playing a junior high game for Saluda Trail. Clowney also was on that team.
“I said, ‘Holy cow, man! Where are those guys going to high school?’ ’’ Carroll asked. “They all said they were going to South Pointe.’’
Northwestern and Rock Hill High were among the top high school football programs in the state. When South Point was formed in 2005, there was concern it would dilute the talent for all the schools. There also was concern players would move to avoid going to South Pointe.
“He was the backbone and the spine of that entire South Pointe building,’’ Carroll said.
Gilmore set the tone with his work ethic that remains a part of his DNA. He had a key to the weight room, so he worked out on Sundays when others were off.
Gilmore played quarterback for Carroll, but he could have played anywhere.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do,’’ Carroll said. “We had to put him at quarterback to make it all work.’’
Al Leonard, the first principal at South Pointe, recalled Gilmore scoring on a 72-yard scramble on the first play in school history as a ninth grader against Rock Hill. That helped prove the school belonged with the biggest programs in the state.
“He helped set the tone for what you want in a high school,’’ Leonard said.
As a senior, Gilmore rushed for three touchdowns in the 2008 state championship to cap an undefeated season in which he had a combined 37 touchdowns rushing and passing.
He graduated in December so he could enroll early at South Carolina, where by his third season, he helped the program to a school-record 11 wins and first-ever top-10 finish.
Among the players he helped bring to the Gamecocks was high school teammate DeVonte Hollomon, now the head coach at South Pointe.
“If there was a definition of a classy football player, his picture would be in the dictionary,’’ Carroll said. “There’s just not enough adjectives to say about him.’’
Coming full circle
“I can’t even put into words how good of a player he is,’’ defensive end Morgan Fox said.
Carroll knows. He was an assistant coach at Northwestern High when he first met Gilmore, then age 9.
“I said, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ ’’ Carroll recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to play in the NFL.’ ’’
During Gilmore’s senior year at South Pointe, Carroll took his quarterback and wide receiver Charles Holmes to Bank of America Stadium for a halftime competition.
It was Gilmore's first time at the Panthers’ stadium.
“He threw a bomb to Holmes,’’ Carroll recalled. “Fifty yards. I said, ‘Would you like to play here?' He just shook his head [yes] and smiled.’
“It’s come full circle.’’