The road to the national college football championship runs through — Whale Branch.
In the eyes of the world, nothing good comes from Whale Branch. It’s in the rural reaches of northern Beaufort County, where the poverty level is high and test scores are low.
Maybe an old football game can change the way the world sees Whale Branch.
Nyles Pinckney and Dee Delaney were Warriors teammates on the Whale Branch Early College High School team. But this Saturday night, they’ll be trying to beat each other when Clemson and Miami face off for the ACC championship. The winner is expected to make the four-team playoff for the national title.
That’s a long way from little Class 2-A Whale Branch.
But football — with Pinckney the bulging defensive tackle wearing No. 44 for the Clemson Tigers and Delaney the speedy cornerback wearing No. 3 for the Miami Hurricanes — is not the story. They first had to beat an older foe: stereotypes.
Yes, they are in that tiny sliver of high school students who earn athletic scholarships to a major university.
But they also earned academic scholarships.
Delaney, who graduated seventh in the Whale Branch class of 2013, earned a business degree from The Citadel in four years. He moved on to Miami this fall with one year of football eligibility left, and is to leave in May with a master’s degree in business.
Pinckney graduated from Whale Branch a semester early in the class of 2016, and is now on track to earn a Clemson degree in criminal justice in 2018.
Both earned the state LIFE academic scholarship. Both were in the National Honor Society. And both earned college credits while still in high school.
“It can be done,” said Whale Branch principal Mona Lise Dickson, former principal at Whale Branch Middle School who seems tired of hearing what Whale Branch can’t do.
“And these two gentlemen prove it can be done, regardless of what the naysayers and negative people say,” she said. “We say let the haters be your motivators.
“Both had support from their families and the community. They decided to make choices for themselves that they wanted to go to college, and it’s not an uncommon thing. You should come out and meet our students and see that they cannot be judged on one test they take one time.”
The football stars were taught that school work comes first.
Delaney had an uncle who picked him and his twin brother, Jevonta, up from school when they were 6 and 7 years old.
“Before they could go outside, he sat them down at the kitchen table to do algebra,” said Delaney’s mother, Leslie Bing.
At Pinckney’s house, his mother, Ramona Pinckney, has four master’s degrees, including one in divinity.
“We told Nyles that the NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,’ ” said his father, retired state Department of Corrections officer Anthony Pinckney. “His teachers challenged him. So did the principal and Coach Jerry Hatcher. The coach told them, ‘The higher you go, the better you grow.’ ”
Delaney went off to The Citadel, where he became an all-America football player, with his Whale Branch classmate Trey Nelson, who earned a degree in engineering.
“They were told that if they quit they would set a bad example for all the Whale Branch kids,” said the school counselor at the time, Geri Henderson. “Now we have eight Whale Branch kids at The Citadel, including our first female, Brooke Everly, who went in as a junior because of the college credit she earned in high school, but still had to do the knob year.”
Pinckney, who is a redshirt freshman playing second string on the highly-rated Clemson defense, has a new baby boy.
And Delaney’s fiancee is about to enter the Navy with an eye on becoming a doctor.
Delaney now gives back to the Whale Branch community, speaking to kids at the elementary school, middle school, high school and alternative school, about putting grades first. Two weeks ago, he spoke to Parents Night at Whale Branch Middle via Skype from Miami.
Henderson has rationalized her support for Miami in Saturday’s game because its Delaney’s last season in college ball, and Clemson already won a national championship trophy last year.
Anthony Pinckney said it’s going to be great seeing the boys share the same field one more time.
“I told Nyles to say, ‘I love you, brother Dee, but we’ve got to come and get this ACC championship.”