On Friday night, Oak Ridge High School basketball teams hosted Campbell County at Wildcat Arena in Oak Ridge, TN and a former Oak Ridge star was in the building.
Feb. 1, 2019 was a special night for both Oak Ridge basketball teams as each got a 30-point plus win over rival Campbell County, but it was also a special night for former Oak Ridge two-sport star athlete Tee Higgins, who had his No. 5 football jersey retired at halftime of the boys game.
Higgins made lots of shots in Wildcat Arena for head basketball coach Aaron Green and caught many passes on nearby Blankenship Field for head football coach Joseph Gaddis during his career(2013-16) at Oak Ridge.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore receiver is now a star at Clemson and some college football fans are still talking about his three catch, 81 yard, one touchdown performance in the National Championship game win over Alabama and his four catches, 53 yards and one touchdown Cotton Bowl game. For the season, he led the Tigers in catches(59) and touchdowns(12) and finished second in receiving yards with 936.
Before Higgins, a member of the All-ACC second team, sprinted by and jumped over Alabama and Notre Dame cornerbacks in the College Football Playoffs, he was a two-time Mr. Football recipient in Tennessee for Oak Ridge on Friday nights and holds many school receiving records including catches(157), yards(2,626) and touchdowns(43) in a career.
Camillia Stewart, Higgins mom, was courtside in support of her son wearing a No. 5 Clemson jersey nestled in a crowd of friends, family, cheerleaders and others donning No. 5 Clemson and Oak Ridge football jerseys.
Stewart said she was notified by athletic director Mike Mullins and head football coach Joseph Gaddis about the school’s intention to honor Higgins with a special day and subsequent jersey retirement. She admitted being surprised by all of the news, but appreciative of the Oak Ridge staff for everything and excited for Tee. Stewart once told me previously that she was proud of her son’s athletic accolades, but she was most proud of how he handles himself away from football.
When he decided to take his talents to Clemson, she was very supportive and liked Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and after two years, she still likes Swinney. We asked her simply, what do you like about him most today? And she simply said, “It’s teaching my son how to become a responsible young man.”
Coach Gaddis helped deliver the jersey retirement ceremony news to Stewart, and he was also on hand to present Higgins with his framed No. 5 jersey. Gaddis on what he remembered most about the young, tall receiver.
“I remember the unbelievable catches he made in practice on an almost daily basis. He took a lot of pride, even as a sophomore, in becoming a good blocker, which isn’t always the norm for a very gifted high school receiver,” said Gaddis. “Lastly, as talented as he was, he worked extra hard to become the best that he could possibly be, which made him not only a great receiver, but a great leader.”
Gaddis continued, “All that being said, I always felt he was an even better person than he was a football player. He can be a success without football, and he will be a success and a star, with it.”
Coach Green enjoyed coaching Higgins, a very good basketball player at Oak Ridge, who recently showed off his hops in an intramural basketball game video that was widely shared on Twitter. As a senior, Higgins received scholarship offers to play basketball at Auburn, Louisville and Tennessee.
Green does miss watching Higgins on the court and thinks he could’ve been more than just a scholarship player on the college level.
“There is no doubt in my mind. He would be an impact player on the hardwood at Clemson as well,” said Green. “He is one of the best basketball players I’ve ever coached. He’s not only a great athlete, but very skilled and fundamentally sound.” Green went on to discuss briefly the impact Higgins made on the hardwood at Oak Ridge. “Over the course of his career, he had several highlight dunks that you will rarely see at the high school level. But more importantly, Tee helped lead us to a state runner-up, Final Four, and an Elite Eight.” Green concluded, “He was also a Mr. Basketball Finalist, and will go down as one of our programs best players.”
Heather Jenkins, the Assistant Principal at Linden Elementary School, has seen Higgins mature while he developed a special friendship with her son Casen Jenkins. Casen, 11, known as Higgins’ #1 fan, wants to follow in his footsteps. And, yes, that includes a stop in Clemson too. We asked Heather to give us her most memorable moment in Higgins’ Oak Ridge football career.
“There are so many moments that stand out in Tee’s high school career that it’s hard to focus on just one. He was just a play maker,” she said before speaking about his pass catching abilities.
“You would watch the quarterback drop back to pass and think there’s no way Tee can make that catch. Somehow, he snagged the ball every time,” Jenkins continued. “Oak Ridge fans have been watching Tee make one-handed catches throughout his playing days at ORHS. It just thrills me now that he’s making those plays on the national stage.”
Since Higgins committed and signed with Clemson, Heather and Casen, also Tennessee fans, added another shade of orange to their wardrobes and another team to support on Saturday’s. Both have attended games inclusive of the Cotton Bowl, and Casen attends Dabo Swinney’s camps in June.
With her time working in the Oak Ridge school system, she’s had a first hand look at Higgins’ entire athletic career and his character off the field.
“Tee’s a phenomenal athlete but still remains such a humble person off the field. He always takes the time to sign autographs and talk with fans after the games. He was like that even in high school. I am so thankful for the role model he has become for so many of our Oak Ridge kids and kids across the country. He’s living proof to Casen that “Big Dreams “ really do come true,” said Jenkins.
Casen was in attendance last night with Heather to watch his friend Tee be honored. Casen has always had his own Higgins’ Oak Ridge jersey, and he probably wore the first unofficial Higgins’ No. 5 Clemson jersey on the planet.
Higgins has made a difference in Casen’s life by staying in contact with him despite being a high profile, busy college athlete. He continues to make time for Casen by seeking him out before and after Clemson football games and makes visits to the Jenkins’ home on his few trips back to Tennessee during the college football season.
If anyone doubts Tee’s influence in Casen’s life just look at all the Clemson gear in his closet, visit his bedroom where he sleeps with Clemson gloves given to him by his favorite receiver, watch him play receiver on his age level team, watch him play basketball with his Clemson sleeve on his left arm, or watch him train with Dunstan Kendrick, owner of D-Block Training in Knoxville, TN.
Ahead of Higgins’ big night, Casen reflected on his fondest memories of Higgins on Friday nights at the Blankenship Field.
"I remember thinking he was the best player on the field no matter who they played. I couldn’t believe that Tee made catches like A.J. Green and Odell Beckham Jr. as a high school senior. I loved waiting for the players to walk down the steps at Blankenship, so I could give Tee a high five ✋before the game. It became a tradition for me to have my picture made with Tee after every football game. I miss those days. I told my mom that Oak Ridge football would never be the same without Tee."
Stewart, Gaddis, Green, and Jenkins all praised Higgins’ behavior off the field and his relationship with Casen is a direct reflection of what they were saying about his character and a representation of Higgins being more than just a football player.
Their relationship and Casen’s dedication to succeed could have Stewart, Gaddis, Green, and Jenkins back to Wildcat Arena one day to honor Casen, and Higgins would likely be there wearing Casen’s jersey like Casen wore his on Feb. 1, 2019, “Tee Higgins Day.”