They call it Football City, USA. Football City doesn’t have an NFL stadium, but it has enough native sons who played in the league it seemingly could field a team.
And, at long last, Football City has its starting quarterback.
Rock Hill, S.C., native Brett Mason Rudolph makes his first pro start Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., not only for the Pittsburgh Steelers but for Football City.
According to the York County (S.C.) Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, 18 players from the Rock Hill area have played in the NFL — 16 of whom have played in a game since 2000 — and Rudolph will be the first quarterback to start one when the Steelers play the San Francisco 49ers at 4:25 p.m.
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As fate would have it, Rudolph’s first start for Northwestern High School was against the same South Pointe High School that produced the area’s other two active NFL players: Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Rudolph’s first NFL game action was against Clowney’s Seahawks. Moreso than his first snap, first completion or first touchdown, it was facing Clowney that Rudolph said he will remember most from his pro debut.
“A guy from my hometown and a guy that I’ve looked up to since high school,” Rudolph said. “He was about five years older than me as an idol, and then to get to play against him? He’s a good dude. We kind of became friends over the last couple years.”
Someday soon, if all goes as planned, the next generation of kids in Football City, USA, will be idolizing Rudolph. Especially, those at Northwestern. And days before his first pro start, Rudolph reflected on his first high school action.
“I came in and played pretty well,” Rudolph said. “We ended up losing, but I kind of gained some confidence and went into the next few weeks and was the starter the rest of the way.”
That sounds a lot like what happened during Rudolph’s first action in college — and what he’s embarking on now in the pros.
If Rudolph can follow the same path for the Steelers, he will be an All-Pro.
Rudolph was a state champion in high school, and he was given the Johnny Unitas Award as the country’s top senior quarterback at Oklahoma State.
Three years prior, Rudolph’s first college start came on the road against the No. 6 team in the country, Baylor. Similar to this season with the Steelers, circumstances evolved quickly to result in Rudolph’s debut. He had been No. 3 on the depth chart but eventually was turned to because of injury.
Rudolph was OK as a true freshman that day: two touchdowns, two interceptions, 281 passing yards. One of those touchdowns was to James Washington, who remembered how Rudolph quickly seized command of an offense that was filled with upperclassman that day.
“When you’re in that huddle and you’re the quarterback, you’re the head guy,” Washington said this week. “You’re the leader. So that’s what Mason does.”
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When Rudolph entered last week’s game to begin the second half after Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow injury, he stepped into a huddle filled with veterans. The other 10 players combined for 58 seasons and 682 games worth of NFL experience. Seven were in the NFL already while Rudolph was still playing high school ball in Football City, USA.
“He was the general,” 11-year NFL guard Ramon Foster said. “(Center B.J. Finney) made a comment about, ‘Oh, he’s getting a little spicy.’ Well, you’re damn right. He’s the starting quarterback now.”
Over the course of the 16 months he has been part of the organization, Rudolph has earned a reputation among offensive teammates of being detail-oriented, dedicated and a maniacal student of the offense.
“He’s fully in. That kid’s committed,” 10-year veteran Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “And you always like kids like that who are hungry and want everybody to look at him as a great quarterback.”
Veteran receiver Donte Moncrief predicted Rudolph “is going to be a great quarterback” — and not just because of the myriad physical attributes he possesses.
“You can see that in his eyes, the way he’s practicing and the way he’s been practicing,” Moncrief said. “He just got that swag with him. You can tell he’s gonna go out there and make plays. He’s ready, I can tell you that much.”