By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the NFL, there’s a fraternity made up of UVa alumni, a distinguished group that includes such players as Thomas Jones, Chris Long, Ronde Barber, Heath Miller, James Farrior, Eugene Monroe, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Matt Schaub.
For 11 seasons, John St. Clair was an active member of that fraternity.
“It’s like a family,” St. Clair, 34, said this week. “All the guys that still play in the league, we represent Virginia. You want your college to do well.”
The Cavaliers, who went 4-8 last season, remain in rebuilding mode, but things were different when St. Clair wore the blue and orange. A four-year letterman (1996-99), St. Clair played on teams that won 30 games and beat Virginia Tech twice.
He contributed heavily to UVa’s success during that period. As a junior, his first season as a full-time starter, St. Clair was named to the All-ACC second team at center. As a senior, he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, awarded annually to the ACC’s best blocker, and became the first center in school history to be named a first-team All-American.
Also a first-team All-American that season was UVa tailback Thomas Jones, still the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“Thomas Jones wouldn’t have rushed for all those yards without guys like him,” former Cavaliers coach George Welsh said this week when asked about St. Clair.
When Virginia (0-1, 3-2) hosts 12th-ranked Georgia Tech (3-0, 6-0) in an ACC game Saturday, St. Clair will be back at Scott Stadium for the first time in seven years. This is no ordinary game for the Roanoke native.
At halftime Saturday, he’ll become the 18th former UVa player to have his jersey retired. About 40 friends and family members are expected to join St. Clair, who wore No. 50 for the Wahoos, at Scott Stadium.
“I’m humbled by it,” St. Clair said. “When I started [at UVa], they didn’t know where to put me, as far as my position.”
He worked at tight end while redshirting in 1995 and appeared in eight games as a backup at that spot in ’96. The next spring, the 6-5 St. Clair moved to defensive tackle, and he was happy at his new position.
“Then George Welsh called me and said he was going to move me to center,” St. Clair recalled.
Welsh said: “I’m sure he didn’t want to go to center — they usually don’t — but it worked out best for him.”
St. Clair backed up Matt Link for most of the 1997 season, then took over as the starter in ’98. He admits now that he wondered occasionally, early in his college career, if UVa’s coaches would ever find a permanent home for him.
“They kept telling me I was too athletic for my own good,” St. Clair said. “I could play any position. But at the same time that hurt me, too, because they didn’t know where to put me.
“But it was good. I’m thankful. That helped me out in the league, too. I started every position on the offensive line. That’s one of the things with versatility. If you’re able to be versatile, you can play.”
In the NFL, St. Clair played for St. Louis, Miami, Chicago and, finally, Cleveland before retiring this year. He started 79 of the 132 games in which he appeared. He played in Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams and in Super Bowl XLI with the Bears.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said St. Clair, who carried about 320 pounds as an NFL player. “Thank God I got an opportunity to play in two Super Bowls. I’ve started a lot of my career. I’ve been on championship teams. Even [on many of] the teams that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, we went to the playoffs.
“I was thinking about retiring after I got 10 years in, and I was blessed enough to play another year. Playing 11 years in the NFL and never having surgery, it’s a miracle. I’ve broken my thumb and had dislocations in my finger, but nothing that required surgery.”
He spent most of his NFL career at tackle, but St. Clair started games at guard and center, too. The former tight end even caught two passes as a pro, on tackle-eligible plays. In 2003, a pass from Rams quarterback Marc Bulger to St. Clair gained 18 yards. In 2007, the Bears scored a touchdown on a 2-yard pass from Rex Grossman to St. Clair.
“It goes back to that versatility thing again,” St. Clair said.
He played only one season with the Dolphins, but St. Clair and his wife, the former Shannon Shelton, also a UVa graduate, have been based in Miami for the past seven years, and they have no plans to leave anytime soon.
“Never say never,” St. Clair said by phone from Roanoke, but “we got our business down there, we’re doing well down there, and we do a lot of things in the community down there.”
St. Clair and his wife own a jewelry company (www.ShannonSaintClair.com) whose products, handcrafted by Shannon, are popular in the Miami area. When he was with the Bears, St. Clair took business classes at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and he has invested his money wisely.
He plans to start a foundation in Roanoke “under my name,” St. Clair said, “just to help kids graduate and go to college. So I’m busier now than I ever thought I would be. I’m trying to keep it that way.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UVa in May 1999 and competed as a graduate student that fall.
“I’ve always put education first,” St. Clair said. “From Day One, I’ve had a plan. I didn’t let football represent my life. I knew one day football would come to an end. I didn’t know I would play [11 seasons in the NFL], but I knew one day that I’d have to do something else. With my investments, I’m fortunate to be in a position I don’t have to work for the rest of my life. Everything I do now is to add on to the pie. I’m blessed to be in the position we’re in.”
St. Clair’s teammates at UVa in 1995 included a senior defensive back named Paul London, whose older brother Mike is now in charge of the program. “I haven’t met him yet,” St. Clair said. “It’ll be good to meet him. For all I hear and what I read, he’s the man for the job.”
His NFL obligations made it difficult for him to get back to Charlottesville during football season, but now “that I’m retired,” St. Clair said, “I’ll have a chance to attend a lot more games, be there and be in support a lot more than I have in the past.”
St. Clair treasures memories of his days as a Cavalier. The camaraderie among the players was special, St. Clair said, and UVa’s coaches and administrators, including Welsh, Gerry Capone, Tom Sherman and Danny Wilmer, made a lasting impression on him.
“All the men who were there, and the coaches, they really did care about the players,” St. Clair said. “It wasn’t just about football. They loved the players, and they wanted the players to be the best they could be.
“Coach Welsh ran a professional program, and he didn’t play around. You got your work done, or else. We laugh about that now, but I thank Coach Welsh for all that he did, because it helped me be the man I am now. Because he really pushed guys. He didn’t play around.
“He’s a great coach. Sometimes when you were playing, you were mad sometimes, but when you get older and look back, he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”