By LES EAST
August 06, 2012
NFL training camps are under way, but former LSU wide receiver Michael Clayton was conducting his first football camp at Christian Life Academy on Saturday rather than preparing for his ninth professional season.
The uncertain future of Clayton’s playing career was an appropriate context, given “the mission” he explained to his campers.
The mission doesn’t deal so much with how he became one of the most decorated players in Tigers history or an NFL first-round draft choice or a Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants last season.
Clayton returned to his alma mater to surround himself and his campers with former football players who can deliver a different message than the one offered at a typical here’s-how-you-can-become-an-NFL-star camp.
“The guys that I brought out here to help are the guys who have played college ball that didn’t make it to the pros, went through adversity and maybe fell short,” Clayton said. “Those are the type of people I want the young people who are interested in me as a player to hear from. I want them to hear their story because it serves as an example that not only did they go through adversity, not only did they miss out on an opportunity that they wish they could have had, but they’re still taking the time to come back to make sure that these young kids don’t make the same choices and decisions as them.
“It gives a different perspective. I think at a lot of camps you have these big-time players and kids just come out to get autographs and the purpose of the camp is sometimes overlooked.”
Clayton’s message was less about how to become a successful football player than it was about how to use the traits learned in football — discipline, overcoming adversity, etc. — to become successful in life. It’s a message Clayton has written about in his forthcoming book, “Chasing His Rookie Season.”
Though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Clayton with the 15th pick in the 2004 NFL draft and he easily lived up to the lofty expectations of him in his rookie season, his career has featured far more adversity than his entry into the league would suggest.
“I’ve only had one good year,” Clayton said. “Throughout my career, everybody has talked about my rookie year. Everybody I’ve met in the past eight years has said, ‘Man, when are you going to get back to your rookie year?’ I was able to learn so many things through my trials and tribulations. Those were the most important things that I learned because I had to learn how to be a man. I had to learn how to deal with adversity.
“I’m really explaining to young people how to deal with adversity. It’s not all about the glamour and the touchdowns. I appreciate the hard work that I had to put in because the hard work is what made me successful my rookie year.”
As a rookie, Clayton caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns, but hasn’t come close to duplicating that productivity since.
That was the only season in which he played in all 16 games. Clayton was limited by injuries in his second season and caught just 32 passes. He caught 33, 22, 38 and 16 in subsequent seasons in Tampa Bay before being released him at the outset of the 2010 season.
Two months after his release, he was playing for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, which he called “the bottom of the bottom.” But, Clayton said, his experience there was a blessing in disguise.
“I had a great mental disposition,” he said. “It would have killed a lot of guys, pride-wise, discouraged them, but I knew how to carry myself because I had already been through it with the Bucs and from that I got an opportunity with the New York Giants.”
The Giants signed Clayton late in the 2010 season and he played in six games, catching two passes. They cut him at the end of training camp last year, but brought him back early in the season. He played in only five games and didn’t catch a pass before going on injured reserve during the Giants’ title run.
On Saturday, Clayton was wearing his Super Bowl ring, but that was the only symbol of the glamorous part of Clayton’s career on display at his camp. Clayton and Richard Mann, who was his position coach with Tampa Bay, sat on benches in the small Christian Life weight room, organizing pass routes they would utilize during the camp.
“It looks no different,” Clayton said of the weight room. “I remember putting my first 25-pound weights on and barely lifting it up. This is where I started lifting weights. There are great memories. We helped build this facility when we were young and having success here in our football program.”
Clayton, the first inductee into the Christian Life Hall of Fame, didn’t wear any Bucs or Giants garb to the practice field. He chose to wear an LSU football T-shirt featuring the No. 14, which he wore while catching what was then a school-record 21 touchdown passes from 2001-03.
“My university has never left my side,” Clayton said. “It’s where I started. I can’t go back into a Bucs facility. I can’t go back into a New York Giants facility. But this is always my home.”
Clayton, who turns 30 in October, said he “absolutely” would like to play again. He said the Tennessee Titans contacted him a couple of weeks ago but never followed up to schedule a workout. With training camps under way, if another opportunity comes, it probably won’t be until injuries create a need for a wide receiver for some team.
“I’m still training,” Clayton said. “We’ll see what happens. ... Right now I’m making the transition. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if anything happens I’ll be fully prepared.”
One thing appears certain. Clayton’s first football camp won’t be his best one the way his first NFL season was his best. He said he plans to build on Saturday’s camp, whose proceeds went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I would definitely like to see this be a weekend event,” Clayton said. “We have a couple of kids from Alabama and Mississippi who have already traveled long ways to be here. So in the future we plan on coming up with sponsorships to make it an event that kids can come to and learn all aspects, and it’s definitely going to get bigger.”
Mann, who’s retired, said he didn’t hesitate to make the trip from his home in Atlanta when Clayton asked him to help with the camp.
“He’ll talk to the kids about paying your dues,” Mann said. “He was a hard worker himself. Even though he was a first-round draft choice, he came in and he was a blue-collar worker. He’s what I refer to as a war daddy, which means he was willing to do it all and not just catch passes. He was a good blocker and a good receiver. Sometimes that combination is hard to find.
“I know he’s a free agent. I don’t know if he’s going to play anymore, but he had a good career and he was a good player.”