The 1-in-10-Million-Billion Town
For some football players, the path to the NFL starts in Lamar.
By Jodi Helmer
The Lamar Silver Foxes don’t look much different than other high school football teams – the players take the field wearing helmets, pads and numbered jerseys, line up in their positions, and hope to win.
But from the moment of the first snap, players from the quarterback and wide receiver to the defensive tackle and the kicker are well aware of their school’s history of producing NFL talent.
“Youth in Lamar have seen examples of kids just like them becoming professional football players,’” says Lamar High School head football coach Stephen Burris. “The community has embraced these kids and embraced their dreams and anything that they can do to support that dream is what’s happening here.”
Lamar High School has a reputation for its top-notch football program that earns players college scholarships and coveted spots on NFL rosters. From 1986 – 2016, six players from Lamar High School went on to the NFL. It’s an impressive statistic for a town with fewer than 1,000 residents and a high school enrollment of just 275 students.
“The community is doing everything in their power to make sure that these young men have what they need to pursue those dreams,” Burris says.
Counting on Community
Before Levon Kirkland, John Abraham, Mike Hamlin, Marshall McFadden, B.J. Goodson and Decobie Durant earned college scholarships and signed NFL contracts, the community came together to make sure these Lamar Silver Foxes had top notch opportunities for coaching, practice fields, uniforms and competitions.
“This community does an exceptional job of pouring into these kids. It starts at the youth level with the people who are involved in building these players from the ground up,” Burris says. “From the time these kids put on a uniform at age six, they want to be a Silver Fox. It’s a very special situation they’ve created here in Lamar.”
In 2016, Yahoo! called Lamar “the 1-in-10-million-billion town” in reference to the odds that five (at the time) NFL players would come from the same small South Carolina town in just 25 years. Jeffrey Forrester, associate professor of math at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and one of the statisticians quoted, estimated that those players were 20,000 times more likely to be dealt a royal flush in a poker game than become professional football players.
The fact that so many football players from Lamar have beaten the odds is the reason the one stoplight town earned the nickname Football City, U.S.A.
Establishing football programs that ensure young fans have opportunities to learn the game has helped create strong teams that continue to hone their skills, according to Burris. As players reach high school, they have a solid understanding of what it takes to work as a team and win games.
“By the time they get to high school, we’re refining and tuning up…to elevate our play and elevate our execution to another level,” Burris adds.
It’s not just the players who give their all on the field that have made the Lamar Silver Foxes a competitive football team. Burris credits the dedicated coaching staff for committing to the kids, teaching them the basics and shaping them into skilled players as an essential element to the success of the program.
Past players have called out the influence of their high school coaching staff during national media interviews. Hamlin told Yahoo! that his coach, Shot Windham, “was the meanest coach ever” who ran practices “wherever there was a patch of grass.” The experience served him well; Hamlin played four seasons in the NFL before transitioning to coaching.
“These are the men that are giving up their time…and making sure that what they’re teaching these kids is what’s going to help them succeed in life and in football,” Burris says. “When those elite talent kids come through with the elite drive and elite work ethic, you get the perfect storm.”
Field of Dreams
Burris is coaching the Silver Foxes for the first time this season. He is aware of the coaching greats who had the role before him and wants to ensure the winning tradition continues while he is head football coach.
“We owe it to those who came before us—coaches like Junior Boyd, who was there for over 20 years and won three state championships, to Corey Fountain, who won two more state championships. Both have been the bedrock of all of this over the last 20 – 25 years,” he says. “The expectations are high [and] they deserve to be high. [The community has said], ‘Coach, you tell us what you need and we’re going to have it there, but we expect the product on the field to match what we’re giving you in support,’ and that’s fair.”
Burris has the experience to coach a team of football players who dream of going pro. Before taking the role as head football coach at Lamar High for the 2023-24 season, he coached Bryan Edwards, a wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints, at Conway High School and Hunter Renfrow, a wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders, at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach.
“It’s cool to see a kid realize his dream to play a game at the highest level [and] there’s a feeling that comes over you when you get to watch them on TV,” he says. “The thing I’m most proud of is that both are still highly involved in their communities, holding camps, signing autographs, taking pictures and doing whatever they can to make sure that they’re giving back. That means more to me than anything they’ll ever do on the football field.”
When he accepted the position in March, Burris told a reporter with The State, “Lamar checks the boxes of everything any coach would be lucky to walk in to. It’s a dream for a first-time head coach.”
After five months of intense practice, the Silver Foxes are ready to take the field. Burris knows the expectations are high and his goal is to preserve the strong football culture, bring out the best in the players and win games. The more grit on the gridiron, the higher the odds of capturing the attention of college scouts and taking the first steps to the pros.
Burris believes the current athletes benefit from the school’s reputation for producing top players, which increases their odds of getting noticed on the field.
“The tradition and history of Lamar makes it a little easier for the players because they’re able to capitalize off the things that were done before they got there,” he explains. “When you’re in a program that has a rich history and reputation of putting out quality players and quality young men, colleges are going to make sure those schools are priority.”
Burris encourages players to pursue college educations (and knows football scholarships can help make that happen) and shares the realities of the talent and hard work that it takes to get drafted to the NFL.
“Success is not meant for everyone,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices and do some things that others are not willing to do.”
Mostly, Burris hopes his players who go on to play football in college or make it to the NFL always remember how much the support of the Lamar community contributed to their success.
“It helps to have talent; that goes without being said. But there are a lot of places around South Carolina with plenty of talent that are not doing things that Lamar has been able to do in sending players to the NFL,” he says. “The community as a whole is doing everything in their power to make sure these guys have everything they need to pursue their dreams of playing professional football and maintaining a level of life success that is uncommon in many other places.”
From Lamar to the NFL
Over the past 30 years, six players from Lamar High School have been drafted to the NFL.
Levon Kirkland, class of 1986
- Inside linebacker
- Second round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers
- Played with the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles
John Abraham, class of 1996
- Defensive end
- First round draft pick for the New York Jets
- Played with the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals
Mike Hamlin, class of 2004
- Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys
- Played with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins
Marshall McFadden, class of 2005
- Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers
- Played with the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams
B.J. Goodson, class of 2011
- Drafted by the New York Giants
- Played with the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets
Decobie Durant, class of 2016
- Drafted by the Los Angeles Rams