Dig Baton Rouge

Through Fire and Football

By Trey Mongrue

For many of the early years of Michael Clayton’s life, he was defined by what he did on a football field. After all, he was blessed with height, blazing speed, sure hands and the stubbornness to always believe that he could beat any challenge that came his way.

Friends, coaches, teammates all saw Clayton as a football player, and so did Michael himself.

Make no mistake; he was a very good football player. In his three seasons at LSU, Clayton set all kinds of records and helped lead the Tigers to their first national championship since 1958. He was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and went on to have a rookie season totalling over 1,000 receiving yards. He came in second for Rookie of the Year voting to Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

He would not experience statistical success on the football field like that ever again.

Last December, Clayton released a self-published autobiography, Chasing My Rookie Year, with the central theme focusing on his efforts to get back to where he once was as a rookie.

But there is so much more to it than that. It’s also about personal redemption, found through faith when he was at his lowest of low points.

As it turns out, the idea for writing a book popped into Clayton’s mind long before.

“I had the idea pretty much for the wrong reasons, when I had my rookie year and I was at the top,” he says an hour before holding a book signing at the LSU Barnes & Noble. “I wanted to write a book just based on everything that I went through as a kid.”

Clayton figured that the success he had in his first year as a professional football player was the perfect ending for a feel-good story.

However, that was put on hold when he received sobering words from his godmother, Betty Lodge, in the offseason following his rookie season.

“I was a knucklehead, so when God was trying to talk to me, I wasn’t hearing it, but He always put people in my life to be His liaison,” Clayton says of his godmother. “Everything that she said to me came to pass, so I was always a believer in her word.”

Clayton was barely 23 years old at that time and was already being labeled the face of the Tampa Bay franchise. Early success and all that can come with it has ruined many a good athlete in the past, and Lodge was aware of that.

“You’re going to go through hell,” says Clayton reciting what Lodge told him. “Find your purpose in life, stay close to God and I’ll see you in the north.”

“The north”, as interpreted by Clayton, meant finding that peace of mind and relationship with God that could survive any hurdle that would be thrown at him.

“My fairytale ending was me having a great rookie year in the league. The reality was my story had only just begun.”

A 40 Year Decision

If Clayton’s story begins after his rookie season in the NFL, then the prequel was his time at his hometown college, LSU, from 2001 to 2003. At Christian Life Academy, Clayton was an All-American in football and All-State in basketball.

He was viewed as one of the top recruits in Louisiana, but at that time LSU did not have the upper-hand in recruiting the state’s top prospects.

“I wasn’t coming to LSU. Florida State was my first option,” he explains. “They had just won a national championship, they were at the top of the throne then. I was going to Florida State.”

There were multiple reasons why the Seminoles seemed like a better fit for Clayton than LSU. For one thing, they were coached by the legendary Bobby Bowden and had just won a national championship in 1999. Another reason was because Clayton grew up in the same south Baton Rouge neighborhood as Warrick Dunn, who found success in the NFL after leaving Louisiana to play football at FSU.

On top of all that, Clayton was never a fan of LSU.

“My community didn’t accept LSU. It was more Southern University,” he recalls. “There was a cultural divide here and I just didn’t want to deal with it.”

His heart was set on moving to Tallahassee – that is, until LSU second-year Head Coach Nick Saban showed up at Clayton’s home one night.

“His pitch to me was, ‘We need everyone. No one can leave’.” Clayton recalls. “He said, ‘Mike, I understand how you feel, I understand how LSU is perceived, but I’m here to change this. Everything that you could accomplish at Florida State, you can do it right here in your home. Make a 40 year decision, not a four year decision’.”

At that moment, Clayton saw something in Saban that he had not seen during Bowden’s multiple visits.

“When he told me that, I started to get chills. I looked at him and I could see the sincerity in his eyes and in his heart. I saw a guy trying to build a program.”

After that, Clayton committed to LSU, later signing as part of the 2001 recruiting class.

Despite the likes of Josh Reed entrenched as the Tigers’ go-to receiver, Clayton was still able to shine as a freshman. He caught 47 passes for 754 yards and six touchdowns, and LSU won its first SEC Championship since 1988.

He put up similar numbers as a sophomore. He knew he had made the right decision.

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Hometown, Title Town

Clayton can pinpoint the exact moment when he knew that LSU was poised for a national championship run in 2003. The funny thing is, that moment did not occur during the 2003 season.

It came at the end of the previous regular season, when the Tigers let a 20-7 lead and a second straight SEC Championship appearance slip away at Arkansas by giving up a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute.

“When we came back for the next season, we worked like crazy – I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it,” recalls Clayton. “Everyone was working hard, we were hurting during the summer, but everybody was motivated.”

The Tigers put together an unprecedented 12-win season to win another SEC Championship and earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl. There they beat Oklahoma, 21-14, to capture the program’s second national championship.

“Coach Saban instilled the knowledge and we instilled the work and it was a perfect a marriage. It was just a great situation.”

2003 was by far Clayton’s best season as a Tiger. He led the SEC with 78 catches for 1,079 yards and was second in the conference with 10 touchdowns. At the time, he became just the fourth LSU receiver to record over 1,000 yards receiver.

It was apparent that he was ready for the NFL.

That Rookie Year

As the fifteenth overall draft pick in 2004, Clayton walked into the Tampa Bay locker room with high expectations. While the Buccaneers had been a notoriously abysmal NFL franchise since their inception in 1976, that was turned on its head when they won the Super Bowl in 2002, in head coach Jon Gruden’s first season. Clayton was brought in to help continue the winning.

While the Buccaneers finished with a 5-11 record that season, Clayton took advantage of a week one injury to top-receiver Joey Galloway and thrived in 2004. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, after leading the team with 80 receptions for seven touchdowns and a rookie record 1,193 yards.

The thought by many, including himself, was that he could only go up from here.

“One of the Lowest Times in My Life…”

Clayton would spend six more seasons with the Buccaneers, but never would he come close to putting up the numbers that he did in the 2004 season.

Injuries played a big part in that. In the offseason following his rookie season, he was forced to undergo knee surgery. Just when it seemed like he was fully recovered from that, he picked up a turf toe injury in the final game of the 2005 season.

His 2006 season was cut short midway through, when he was put on injured reserve thanks to a dislocated finger.

“I always believed that I was a great football player – I was a great football player,” he maintains. “It was just a bunch of things that I had to deal with.”

The injuries were bad enough, but because of it, he was not producing on the field and his relationship with Gruden suffered.

“Having a head coach who always asked, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ so our relationship wasn’t the best in the world, though I had to respect his authority,” Clayton explains. “I didn’t like how he treated me at times and I didn’t think it was fair.”

On top of all that, the Buccaneers went through 11 different quarterbacks during Clayton’s time with the team, so there was no consistency or continuity for him and the rest of the receivers.

What was worse, Clayton had to face the fans.

“Everybody that I would meet would always ask, ‘When are you going back to your rookie year’?”

In 2009, Gruden was fired, and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was promoted to the head coaching position. Despite Clayton’s lack of production, Morris and the Buccaneers still showed that they had faith in the then-26-year-old by giving him a five-year contract worth $26 million, with $10.5 million guaranteed.

But just one season into the new contract, the Buccaneers cut ties with the Baton Rouge native, although he doesn’t use the word “cut”. He was fired.

“It was one of the lowest times in my life when I got fired from the Bucs and facing my family,” he says. “Not knowing how to tell them that I’m not in the NFL anymore.”

The words that his godmother spoke to him so many years ago rang true. For Michael, this was hell. The sport that he defined himself by for so long had kicked him to the curb.

Finding Faith in Omaha

After his unceremonious departure from Tampa Bay, Clayton tried to hook up with other NFL teams. He had workouts with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Chicago Bears, but nothing materialized from those.

His agent had brought up the prospect of joining the newly created United Football League, but Clayton did not think much of it.

“I had fought the UFL,” he says. “My agent had told me about three or four times and I would always say, ‘Hell no, I belong in the NFL’.”

With few other options, Clayton decided to go back home to Baton Rouge. It was there that his mother, Marjorie, gave him something that changed his life forever.

“My mother was a prayer warrior her whole life,” laughs Clayton. “When I went home, she gave me this passage that read, ‘Have faith, my son. I’m going to open doors for you but you have to have the courage to walk through them’.”

Just as he finished reading it, his phone rang. It was his agent trying one last time, begging him to give the UFL a chance. The passage and the phone call was more than a coincidence to Clayton.

If this was God’s way of showing him a door, who was he, not go through it?

“That’s when my life changed.”

Clayton signed with the Omaha Nighthawks midway through their season in October of 2010. It was football, but it still a bit of a culture shock to him. The team played at Rosenblatt Stadium – a baseball field – but practiced at the local community center.

“It was cold, there were potholes in the field, gravel, rocks. It was all kinds of stuff that was just unheard of in the NFL – unheard of in high school,” he said. “But when I got to the UFL, the Lord spoke to me once again – be a leader amongst men that you don’t know.

“I had to carry myself as if I was in the NFL. I saw how the guys gravitated towards me even though they had been there the whole season and I had only been there for a month. I was their influence.”

Ending the Chase

After three games and three losses with Nighthawks, Clayton’s leadership was put to the test when he received a call from the New York Giants, requesting a workout.

Another chance to punch a ticket back to the NFL was staring him right in the face. However, the Nighthawks had one final game of the season to prepare for. And Clayton knew that, if he was a true leader, he wouldn’t desert the team.

He told the Giants that he was unable to make it that week, but if the opportunity were still there in the week after the Nighthawks’ final game, he would be available.

The Nighthawks would go on to lose their final game, and Clayton’s phone would not ring in the week that followed.

“Saturday comes, they don’t call. Sunday comes, they don’t call,” he says. “I’m thinking, what did I just do? I’m stupid.”

But on that same Sunday, the Giants would lose their third starting receiver of the season. They dialed Clayton’s phone Monday, looking for a veteran receiver.

He signed with the Giants that week and finished out the 2010 season with them. He was brought back for the 2011 season and went on to win a Super Bowl.

His stats in New York were not spectacular. In fact, in those two years with the team, he caught just two passes for 19 yards. But while he may have never recaptured the success of his rookie year from a statistical standpoint, his chase was still successful.

For the first time since that 2004 season, Clayton was having fun again.

“I lost the love for the game, going through that time. I found that love back at my lowest moments, and it brought me a Super Bowl.”

A New Chapter

Presently, Clayton and his family enjoy their home in Tampa. He has been out of football for two full seasons, but this time, the departure was on his own terms and he is comfortable with that decision.

“That chapter of my life is done,” he says. “Football is done.”

Of course, Clayton means that as a player. There are still other avenues within the sport that he is interested in pursuing, whether it is coaching somewhere or going the media route as a college football analyst.

He mentions that the SEC Network, which is set to launch this August, is something he would like to join. But even if he does stick with a football-related field, he knows that the sport no longer defines who he is.

With the chase for his rookie year completed, a new chase has begun.

“It’s those doors that I want to go through to expand my legacy so that my kids understand that Daddy was not just a football player. Daddy was a passionate man who was in service to others. Daddy was a man of God and Daddy, with his principles, was successful in life.

“That’s my chase now.”

Just as was the case immediately after his rookie season, Michael Clayton’s story has only just begun.

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