South Carolina sophomore running back Juju McDowell has an appreciation for the little things, such as sleeping in his own bed. After his mother died when he was in high school, McDowell didn’t always have a consistent place to lay his head at night.
“It meant a lot to come to college. I had become accustomed to the couch being my home. I’m still trying to grow out of it. Coming to college and having my own little bed was just,” McDowell’s voice trailed off as he thought about how far he has come.
“My mom was my baby,” McDowell’s voice perking up as he speaks of his mom. “That was my girl! She was my rock. Any problem, no matter the circumstances, she would help me. She did anything in her power to help me. She took away from her needs to provide for me and my little brother (Corey). That’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
McDowell grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia, and was raised by his mother, Latorya, until she passed away in 2018.
“She was diagnosed with sickle cell,” McDowell said. “She wasn’t aware of it for a while, and she was getting treatment for it at the time when Hurricane Michael hit my city bad, and we didn’t have power for about two months. Trees were everywhere, and she couldn’t get there to get her medicine and treatments. She ended up passing. I was 15. I had been through a lot in life, but I was never prepared to face anything like that. It has made me who I am today.
“I’ve realized a lot about myself and about life in general.”
“No matter what I do, I’ll always have these thoughts of her.”
When his mom died, his future was uncertain.
“After that, it was complicated,” McDowell said. “It was a mix between my father and my grandmother. My younger brother had to go with my father, so I ended up staying with him for maybe a couple of months. After that, I was on my own a lot. I was going from house to house with teammates, family, and friends. Wherever I could find stability.”
McDowell worked through some personal struggles in high school and then found a home at the University of South Carolina.
“No matter what I do, I’ll always have these thoughts of her,” McDowell said. “With that, I’m always reminded that I have a little brother to take care of. I have to make sure he doesn’t grow up like I did. I got in a little trouble when I was a kid.
“It’s been a humbling and maturing process. Coach (Shane) Beamer helps tremendously. He knows the back story. I try to be a glue person who brings a lot of positive energy, but when I have some days where I’m slipping, he can always sense it. Coach Beamer could be a psychologist. Whenever we need something, he will open the door to his office, or even if we’re at home, he’ll call me.”
As a rookie last year, McDowell played in 12 games with two starts and earned Freshman All-SEC honors. That motivates him to keep working.
“With a year under my belt, it’s reassuring,” McDowell said. “I feel a lot more comfortable coming into this year. I’m looking forward to doing as much as possible to contribute to the team. I don’t have any goals for just myself. I’m pushing myself towards the team goals. I want to win game after game.”
Of course, he wants to be on the field as much as possible, and he knows that means he’ll have to continue to work on all parts of his game, even when the ball is not in his hands.
“This year, I want to be a lot better in pass protection,” McDowell said. “I can run and catch the ball, but one of my biggest focal points was getting better at protecting the quarterback so we can have some more explosive plays.”
Juju’s birth name is Caleb Bernard McDowell, but whatever he is called, he’ll be thinking about his mom and how he can honor her by making her proud.
“My mother originally got my name out of The Bible,” McDowell. “The warrior Caleb was from the village of Judah, so that’s where I got ‘Ju.’ Eventually it stuck. My grandmother is really the only one that calls me Caleb.
“I think about my mom before games. That’s mandatory. The whole day before the game, I try not to dwell on her because I know the mindset it will bring me to. When it’s the final countdown before we take the field, she is racing through my head. We run out on the field to ‘2001,’ and I go pray in the endzone. After I do my prayer, it’s game time. Memories. I know there will be a lot of them, and I can’t wait to make them!”