As Ha'sean Clinton-Dix, the man they call Ha Ha, stood underneath the huge, digital billboard along Interstate 4 in Eatonville, he just shook his head.
"It's pretty amazing," he said, flashing his big, infectious smile.
The prediction is a little early, but no one doubts the billboard's claim. It reads, "1st rounder, Congratulations, Eatonville's Own, HA-HA CLINTON DIX."
Clinton-Dix is widely expected to be a first-round pick Thursday night during the 2014 NFL Draft at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
"One minute I'm nervous, one minute I'm crying. … It's just a dream come true, so I have mixed emotions about it all the time. I'm just happy and blessed to have the opportunity to go to the NFL," Clinton-Dix said.
Clinton-Dix's grandmother gave him the nickname Ha Ha and he now prefers it over his formal first name. It's one of many signs how much Clinton-Dix's roots mean to him.
"It feels good [coming back,]" Clinton-Dix said during a recent visit to his old stomping grounds. "It keeps me humble just to know exactly where I came from and all the hard work I had to put in to be here. It feels good to reminisce about the past."
He has come a long way from his boyhood days growing up in the Orlando suburb of Eatonville. He started his career at Edgewater High before transferring to Dr. Phillips High, where he became a star high school recruit. Then he became an All-American safety and two-time BCS national champion at the University of Alabama.
"I look at the rings every day, every chance I get when my mom lets me grab them," Clinton-Dix laughed.
There once was another young football star who graced the fields of Eatonville, the first incorporated all black city in the nation. Deacon Jones honed his early football skills in the town before urban sprawl made Eatonville just another extension of the Orlando metro area.
He starred at Hungerford High in the late 1950s. The "Secretary of Defense," who was drafted in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft and was later inducted into NFL Hall of Fame, died last summer at the age of 74.
Clinton-Dix never met his idol. Jones spent his final years at his home in California. However, the former football star and civil rights activist still had an immense impact on Clinton-Dix.
"It means a lot. Deacon Jones grew up a street over from my grandfather, where I was raised," Clinton-Dix said. "Just growing up knowing about Deacon Jones, the top guy from Eatonville, Fla., it really means a lot to know that I'm about to be the next person up."
A long line of promising football players have left Central Florida and vaulted to NFL stardom. The list includes Warren Sapp (Apopka), Brandon Marshall (Lake Howell), Max Starks (Lake Highland), Kenard Lang (Evans), Jeff Blake (Seminole), Wes Chandler (New Smyrna Beach) and Chris Johnson (Olympia), just to name a few. Chandler, drafted No. 3 out of the University of Florida in 1978, is the highest draft pick ever to graduate from a Central Florida-area high school.
This could be the third time two Central Floridians have ever been taken in the first round.
UCF quarterback and Oviedo product Blake Bortles and Clinton-Dix are both expected to be first-round selections. Clinton-Dix and Bortles share the pride that goes with their unique status.
"That will be crazy. Blake is one of the top quarterbacks in this draft … so I'm pretty sure he'll be in the first round," Clinton-Dix said. "Me, there's ifs and buts, but it will be very exciting to see both of us go in the first round, [both] being out of Central Florida."
Most NFL draft analysts seem sold on Clinton-Dix as a first-round pick. Of the eight prognosticators featured on NFL.com, four suggested Clinton-Dix would go to the Rams at No. 13, three predicted he would go the Lions at No. 10 and another predicted he would go to the Bears at No. 14.
"It doesn't matter at all," Clinton-Dix said of where he might end up. "I'm just blessed to be in this spot and to have the opportunity to play in the league and be in the first round, so whichever one of those 32 teams decide to take a chance on me, I'm going to be ready to play and go all out."
Regardless of where he lands, Clinton-Dix will always remember how his career began back in Central Florida.
Clinton-Dix said he has fond memories of his high school days, which started at Edgewater High. Then-head coach Bill Gierke wanted Clinton-Dix to be his star running back.
"I wanted to play defense," Clinton-Dix said. "So when I asked Coach Gierke if I could play defense, he said, 'No, you're 70 percent of our offense and we need you on offense.' … I just said, `Yes sir,' continued to practice for two days. But then I talked to my mom about it and she said, 'OK, we'll move.' So I moved to Dr. Phillips."
Dr. Phillips defensive coordinator Rodney Wells, who is now the Panthers' head coach, was certainly happy to have Clinton-Dix on his defense.
"Coach Wells, he means everything to me," Clinton-Dix said. "He gave me a chance to play DB, which is what I always wanted to do. He always believed in me and pushed me to my limits. He'd do anything for me. He took me on college visits … took time out from his day to help me out and I really appreciate him for that."
Clinton-Dix doesn't know where he'll play next, but he's ready to represent his roots. He's always been locked in on the task.
"Ha'sean was always so low key, if he didn't talk, you didn't even know he was in the room," Wells said. "He's just one of those kind of guys. He's a person of high character who never got in trouble. That's just him. He never had to be at every party, never had to be on the scene … just how he is."
He just hopes to be on the scene in the NFL. Most experts think he will be. By most accounts, he is the highest rated safety in the draft.
Clinton-Dix is ready to make his presence felt at the next level, all the while making those back home even more proud of what he has done.
And of course he's well aware of the street named Deacon Jones Boulevard that rolls through Eatonville.
"I could have my own street name in Eatonville," he said while laughing. "So hopefully I'm next up in line."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun