As Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took the stage at New York’s Radio City Music Hall a few weeks ago to shake hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, best friend Dee Hart was right there in his best friend’s cheering section.
Hart was happy for his childhood buddy, celebrating Clinton-Dix’s new chapter as a member of the Green Bay Packers.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Hart was supposed to be walking across the stage that night, as well. He was supposed to be wearing his own NFL team hat and they were supposed to be celebrating their futures ... together. It was to be the night that both had made it. Clinton-Dix out of tiny Eatonville, and Hart from the streets of Pine Hills. They started the dream together and together they were supposed to waltz into an NFL future with NFL paychecks.
The former Orlando Dr. Phillips stars had always taken similar paths. They were both high school football all-Americans and both signed to play at the University of Alabama. That’s where they were both supposed to hone their craft en route to the NFL, winning national championships along the way.
Clinton-Dix followed the script. Hart’s course has been met with detours.
Injuries hampered Hart early at Alabama, and he had two knee surgeries in the first two years. He also had a run-in with the law in February, arrested for providing false identification and, subsequently, charged with marijuana possession. He was in a bad place.
“We’ve always been tight. That’s my boy. We’re tight right now … like this,” Clinton-Dix said of Hart, interlocking his middle and index fingers to show his unity with his best friend. “He just got in with the wrong crowd there for a while and made some mistakes, you know, like we all do growing up.
“He’s fine though and he’ll be back. He’s graduating. He did that in three-and-a-half years. That’s hard. I haven’t even graduated yet. A lot of us haven’t. That’s pretty impressive right there.”
By the end of June, Hart said he’ll have his diploma, and then it’s off to the future. But this tale will not end with a degree and a job search. Hart has two seasons of college eligibility remaining and he intends to use them, somewhere.
“Right now I have a lot of different options and we’re talking to a lot of people, but I don’t really know where I’ll end up,” Hart said.
Rumors have swirled that he could end up at UCF, although the Knights have not publicly acknowledged any conversations. The running back simply said anything was possible and did not count UCF out of the mix, but the Knights would likely have trouble finding scholarship room.
With his degree secured at Alabama, Hart will be eligible immediately at any other school. Colorado State is another school often mentioned as a possible landing spot.
As for the charges from the February incident, Hart said the issues have been resolved.
“Yeah, I made some mistakes and stuff but that’s all taken care of and cleared up now,” said Hart, who did not have anything negative to say about Alabama or Nick Saban and his coaching staff, even though the school released him from the team at the completion of the season.
“Coach Saban is the best. He’s helped me get things straightened out, helped me with a lot of different things. He’s the best coach ever. I owe a lot to him. Alabama was good to me,” said Hart.
He was was in Orlando this past week for induction into the Dr. Phillips Athletic Hall of Fame. Clinton-Dix and another former teammate Kenny Shaw, who played at Florida State and also won a national title, joined Hart in the DP Hall of Fame class of 2014. Also inducted were former Panthers basketball star Shane Larkin, who is now with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, and retiring DP principal Gene "Mr. T" Trochinski.
In a twist of irony, Hart was the lone athlete in attendance at the ceremony. Clinton-Dix and Shaw were both at NFL rookie camps, Shaw having signed an undrafted free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. It probably hurt a little bit for Hart to be in attendance instead of also being at an NFL Camp, but he doesn’t see it that way. It was the same that night in New York City.
“I’m happy for [Clinton-Dix]. To be able to be there with him and see him accomplish what he has, I’m very proud of him. It wasn’t hard at all to be there,” Hart said of his trip to join Clinton-Dix at the NFL Draft. “I’ll get mine someday. I’ll be back.”
I don’t doubt that he will. Dee Hart was the best running back I’ve ever seen at the high school level. The October night in 2010 when he weaved through the Orlando Boone defense for 267 yards and four touchdowns was the best performance I had seen. On a 55-yard screen pass for a TD, Hart made 12 guys miss on his way to the end zone. Yep, 12, one of them missed twice. Probably the most amazing run I've ever seen.
Sure, I saw Alabama star Derrick Henry, too, racking up his all-time high school record at Yulee. He’s also special, but in a different way. Henry could carry five guys on his back for 30 yards. Hart would leave those five guys dazed in confusion as they watched him scamper away.
He still has a lot to prove, however, and he intends to do so. He doesn’t want to be that guy who was the greatest high school running back. That label would always be sprinkled with shortcomings. Hart’s label is still pending. He’s about to get his second chance. He’s determined. He also has four-year-old Dee Jr. to think about.
Little Dee will watch his father’s every move and he’ll be able to remember what happens. Big Dee has more to play for than ever.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun