- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Thomas Clayton said all along he needed just one more shot.

And now, after enduring repeated setbacks and obstacles, the former Kansas State running back has it.

Tomorrow, on the second day of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Clayton — who grew up in Alexandria — will get the chance to showcase his skills for more than 700 scouts, coaches and general managers. His sturdy 5-foot-10, 220-pound frame, 4.3-second 40-yard dash time and 440-pound bench press seemingly would make him a hot commodity. But the issue is more complicated than that.

Clayton enters the combine shrouded in mystery because of character issues and limited playing time at Kansas State. Four months ago it seemed unlikely Clayton would come this close to making it to the NFL. His once-promising college career ended in uncertainty.

A SuperPrep All-American out of Mount Vernon High School, Clayton accepted a full scholarship from Florida State. He appeared in four games as a true freshman, playing primarily on special teams, but decided to transfer when it appeared his playing time wouldn’t increase significantly the following year. He considered Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Michigan before settling on Kansas State.

“From the time I got to campus, Kansas State just felt right,” said Clayton, who sat out his redshirt sophomore season under NCAA transfer rules, then spent 2004 backing up current San Diego Chargers reserve Darren Sproles. “I loved everything about it and felt like it was the place for me.”

The 2005 season started in dream-like fashion but took a nightmarish twist.

Clayton led the nation in rushing for the first two weeks of the season, averaging 164.5 yards a game. Then in Week 5, the budding star got into an argument with a campus parking services employee. While driving away from the scene, Clayton struck the individual with his car and later was arrested and charged with aggravated battery.

After serving a one-game suspension, Clayton returned to the team but struggled to regain his early-season form. He finished the year with a team-high 637 yards, a 4.6-yard average and four touchdowns on 137 carries and welcomed the chance for redemption as a senior in 2006.

Clayton was rated as one of the top 10 returning backs in the country, but his senior year didn’t go as planned either. Coach Bill Snyder retired in the offseason and was replaced by former University of Virginia offensive coordinator Ron Prince. The running back and new coach never connected, Clayton said. And Prince, who failed to return repeated phone messages, suspended him for the season opener because of his misdemeanor battery conviction from the 2005 incident.

In his first action of 2006, Clayton rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against Florida Atlantic. The following week, he ran for 76 yards against Marshall, then ripped then-No. 8 Louisville for 119 yards — including a 69-yard touchdown run — on 15 carries.

But Clayton’s momentum came to a halt, again. This time he had a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Clayton was cleared to resume playing late in the season, but by then Prince had demoted him to third string.

“It was pretty tough for him,” says best friend and former high school teammate Carleton Cobey, now a safety at Sam Houston State. “First, he was trying to put his conviction behind him, but it was like nobody would let it go away. Then he had the surgery and when he was ready to come back, he kept trying to meet with his coaches and they kinda blew him off.

“But I think what happened to him in college was good for him. Kept him humble and made him more hungry.”

Told he wouldn’t be allowed to travel with Kansas State to the Texas Bowl on Dec. 28, Clayton — who totaled 1,075 yards and seven touchdowns on 232 carries in his college career — pondered his future.

“It definitely didn’t end the way I wanted,” Clayton said. “But it’s a business. [Prince] was a first-year coach trying to build for the future. He wanted to get the young guys he recruited a lot of reps so they’d be ready the next year. So I wasn’t bitter. I knew I just needed another shot. This was my dream. I wasn’t ready to give up.”

Clayton had dreamed of playing in the NFL before he started kindergarten.

“He was 5 years old and I was in the military stationed in Germany,” Thomas Clayton Sr. recalls. “I was playing semipro football at the time, and he came to me and said, ‘Dad, I wanna be a pro football player when I grow up.’ I told him it would take a lot of sacrifice and dedication, but I’d support him the whole way. He started playing 85-pound ball when we moved back here when he was 8 or 9. And he has dedicated his life to achieving his dream. So when all that happened at K-State, he just drew on his faith in God and kept believing.”

Clayton’s second chance began to develop two days after his season ended when he signed with sports agent Josh Luchs of the Gersh Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif. Luchs — who along with partner Steve Feldman represents New England Patriots running back Corey Dillon, Broncos’ back Mike Bell and 28 other NFL players — had Clayton on his radar screen before Kansas State opened the 2006 season.

Clayton’s past didn’t faze Luchs, who actually saw Clayton’s limited playing time as a plus.

“The fact that his play was sporadic means there’s very little tread worn off those tires. And he’s coming into the league with a lot less severe off-the-field issues than some players,” Luchs said. “I expect him to be a much better pro player than he was a college player. He’s got great size and speed. He’s so muscular, so explosive and a lot shiftier than people think. He has all the intangibles.”

The day after Christmas, Clayton received a written invitation to the NFL Combine. He then got a belated invitation to the Senior Bowl on Jan. 27 in Mobile, Ala., where he joined quarterback Troy Smith of Ohio State — the Heisman Trophy winner — on the North team.

“Those two things were huge,” said Clayton, who graduated from Kansas State in December with a degree in Art and Science. “I knew I was going to the NFL, but I wanted to be drafted, and drafted high, and I needed the combine and an all-star game to get that. It was a blessing.”

Clayton arrived in Mobile determined to change the perceptions about his character and supposed physical decline. With personnel from every NFL team observing every practice and interviewing prospects each evening, Clayton made the most of his opportunities.

In the 9-on-7 drills, in which the offense lines up at the 25-yard line and tries to score on four plays, Clayton said he got six carries and scored on five of them. He interviewed with personnel from the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Chicago Bears.

“In the actual game, it was hard to get a rhythm because everyone has to play,” Clayton said. “But the buzz was that I had an outstanding week. And I was glad to sit down with teams so they could get to know me and see who Thomas Clayton really is.”

Clayton, who since December has trained twice a day, six days a week with a group of fellow NFL hopefuls at Velocity Sports Performance in Redondo Beach, Calif., gets one final chance to impress teams this week. He believes he has boosted his stock enough to hear his name called in the second or third round of the draft. But some observers are less optimistic.

“He’s a work in progress,” said Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. “He got a break by getting the late invite to the Senior Bowl, which shows he’s a talented kid with potential. With his performance at the Senior Bowl, he went from being an undraftable kid before senior week to being a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round pick. Now, we’ll see how he does at the combine.”

Mayock said Clayton could further improve his standing with a strong week. But he also noted that an average of 22 running backs have been drafted in each of the last six years.

“You never know. If he performs well on the field and impresses in interviews …” Mayock said. “But from what I’ve seen, and from talking to people, he’s a mid- to late-second-day guy. I mean, let’s face it. There’s a lot of 5-10, 220-pound backs without off-the-field issues.”

Clayton puts little stock in the opinions of experts, however. He is focused solely on pleasing his prospective employers.

“As long as I put forth my best effort, I don’t see how I can’t succeed, and go in the second or third round,” he says. “They’ll see what I can do on the field, and talking to me, they’ll see there are no character issues. All I need is a shot, and I’m getting that because I’ve already been noticed.

“This is what I was born to do. Being at the Senior Bowl with the country’s best talent, I showed I belonged. Now I’ll prove it again at the combine.”

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