CLEMSON, SC — Nick Saban rarely gushes.
But during the week leading up to the 2018 national championship game, even he couldn’t help himself.
Saban had recruited Clemson wide receiver and Phenix City, Ala., native Justyn Ross “with as much enthusiasm as possible” before Ross committed to Clemson as the top player in the state of Alabama. In Clemson’s national semifinal game that season, Ross had torched Notre Dame’s defense to the tune of six receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl. Even with Tee Higgins on Clemson’s roster, it was Ross who was morphing into quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s most dangerous vertical threat at the most critical point in the season.
“He’s a big target; he’s very crafty for a guy that is just a freshman,” Saban said at the time. “We’d love to have him here.”
Ross caught six passes for 153 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide en route to a 44-16 Clemson victory for the Tigers’ second national title in the College Football Playoff era. Even arguably the best head coach in the history of college football had no answers.
JUSTYN ROSS IS A GROWN MAN pic.twitter.com/658c9uspno
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 8, 2019
“I mean, we tried to cover No. 8,” Saban said of Ross’ 74-yard touchdown. “He caught the ball, made a big play.”
That made last week all the more jarring, when Ross, a former four-star receiver, wasn’t selected in the NFL Draft. Even as the flurry of free-agent signings became public, Ross didn’t get picked up until Monday afternoon, when the Kansas City Chiefs signed him as an undrafted free agent.
Ross’ fall is a direct result of learning in the spring of 2020 that he had a congenital fusion in his spine, something that previously had gone undetected. He underwent surgery in June 2020 to treat a bulging disk, missed the entire 2020 season as he recovered and returned to football in 2021 after fearing he never would play again. Because he will have the fusion for the rest of his life, NFL teams were leery of taking a chance on him. How his NFL career unfolds remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Regardless of what happens at the next level, Ross not being drafted provides a reminder we all need in college football.
This is why NIL was — and is — championed.
It’s a shame Ross’ life-changing diagnosis came before his big payday, but this is the type of change lawyers and members of Congress set out to bring when they first backed the idea of NIL.
Since July 1, when the NCAA lifted restrictions and allowed players to start profiting off their name, image and likeness, NIL has flipped college sports upside down. Collectives have changed the landscape of the sport, and boosts essentially can buy recruits through auction sales, such as the $8 million recruit The Athletic reported on in March.
Just days ago, debates raged on after the agent of Miami guard Isaiah Wong told ESPN that Wong would consider entering the transfer portal unless he received a better NIL deal. (He did not enter.) ESPN also reported Saturday that Pittsburgh officials believe USC could be tampering in an effort to land star Panthers wide receiver Jordan Addison. (Schools have until Tuesday to enter players’ names into the database.)
College coaches who believe college athletics are combusting in wild, Wild West fashion because of NIL will continue to receive pushback from critics who are quick to point out that coaches make millions of dollars and can be bought at any moment themselves in a capitalist market. But no one can argue against NIL in cases such as Ross’.
As frustrating as it is that Ross missed the NIL window in 2018 when his stock was at its highest, it’s equally encouraging that won’t be the case for players behind him. Players should have some sort of protection against unforeseen diagnoses or injuries, especially when they’ve built a brand as Ross did after his freshman year.
“I’m not on Twitter and that stuff, but Jerry Rice evidently tweeted out, ‘Shout-out to Justyn Ross,'” Swinney said the morning after the 2018 national championship game, illustrating just how large Ross’ brand had gotten. “That’s pretty cool right there. You catch Jerry Rice’s attention, that’s pretty neat for a young guy.”
Ross you killing me. Nice meeting you Saturday!!!
— Jerry Rice (@JerryRice) January 8, 2019
Even if NIL were around in 2018 when Ross was at the peak of his college career, he likely wouldn’t have come close to making the type of money that comes with being a first-round draft pick.
But imagine the endorsements Ross would have raked in as a true freshman after leading Clemson with 1,000 receiving yards despite never starting a game. Imagine all of the local businesses in Clemson and Alabama that would have wanted to work with him, in addition to the bigger national brands reserved for the sport’s best stars, especially after Rice tweeted about him.
When former Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow caught the game-winning national championship pass in 2016, he couldn’t buy dog food in Clemson without being bombarded with autograph requests. Ross, also a slam-dunk contest winner in high school, had a similarly high stock in 2018.
“It’s unbelievable. He’s gifted. … He’s something,” Swinney said in 2019. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
Ross eventually got a deal with Raising Cane’s and Ingles, a Southeastern grocery store, and also started his own custom merchandise line in 2021. To say he missed out on NIL entirely would be inaccurate. Still, the last wide receiver taken in last week’s first round was Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, who went to the Tennessee Titans at No. 18. Per Spotrac, Burks’ total value is projected to be around $14.4 million, and his signing bonus is expected to land at just north of $7.6 million. Ross had more catches (46), receiving yards (1,000) and touchdowns (nine) as a true freshman than any of the six wide receivers who went in the first round, including Drake London, the first receiver off the board at No. 8 to the Atlanta Falcons.
Even if NIL paid Ross just a fraction of what the last receiver in the first round taken will receive, he maybe could have made at or around seven figures.
We shouldn’t lose sight of that as the NIL arguments ensue. There are undoubtedly consequences to the new legislation, but if a player like Ross is able to better set himself up for future financial stability because he can earn money off his name, image and likeness, that’s a victory for the sport.
It stinks that Ross has become a cautionary tale, caught in the middle of the amateurism model that existed for so many years before this new era. But when you think of NIL and all the arguments around it, you’ll always think of him — and what could have been.
(Photo: John Byrum / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)