Nic and Chris Clemons soon may be able to claim something few brothers have accomplished. And for that to happen, all Nic has to do is be active for the Washington Redskins in a regular-season game.
That would put Nic, a 25-year-old reserve defensive end, and his brother, Chris, a 23-year-old backup outside linebacker, among the rare siblings to play on the same team during an NFL game.
“Once we’re out there for some plays together, what we’ve accomplished will really sink in,” said Chris, who had three sacks in limited duty during his 2004 debut and who blocked a punt in last week’s game at Denver. “My biggest dream is sharing a sack with Nic, but right now I just want to see him play.”
Though the Clemons brothers are 21 months apart and both attended the University of Georgia, they have played only seven games of organized ball together.
Coming up the hard way
The Clemons brothers grew up in Griffin, Ga., 45 minutes south of Atlanta. They didn’t know their father. Even with their mother, Mattie, making tires during the day and moonlighting at various jobs at night, there were times when there was no electricity or hot water in the Clemons’ household.
“Things were never the way for us that they were for a lot of people,” Chris said. “Nic and I had to borrow clothes from my uncles because we were oversized young guys. My mother never saw me play until senior night my last year in high school because she was always working. It was the way life was. That’s what has driven me since I first put on a pair of cleats. That has been the chip on my shoulder.”
That drive apparently runs in the family. Mattie’s brother, Charlie, was a linebacker for St. Louis, New Orleans and Houston from 1997 to 2003, and Chris took to the sport immediately.
“Chris loved football from the moment he started playing when he was 8 years old,” Mattie said. “He was a good player right from the start. He just loved the physicalness of it.”
Not so with Nic, who always has been more laid-back. Nic played basketball mostly because he was 6-foot-3 when he started high school, but the passion wasn’t there.
“I just lived life,” Nic said. “I wasn’t really into sports.”
So while Chris got straight A’s and starred in football and track, Nic made some bad choices in friends and fell far behind academically. He dropped out midway through 11th grade.
“Mama was really upset, but Chris was doing so good it kinda took some pressure off me,” Nic said.
Said Chris: “I didn’t think Nic was a knucklehead for dropping out. I always had the utmost respect for my brother. I looked to Nic as an example of what not to do. Nic was basically a follower. He found out the hard way not to follow anyone not on the right path.”
Straight and narrow
Chris became a starter as a sophomore for Griffin High School, which produced NFL standouts Jessie Tuggle and Willie Gault. His life was proceeding as planned. Nic’s, however, wasn’t.
“I’d be out on the streets with my homeboys until 6 o’clock in the morning,” Nic said. “But after sitting at home for a whole year, I decided I wanted to do something with my life.”
Griffin coach Steve Devoursney had been an assistant at Georgia Military College, which specializes in taking troubled students and preparing them for college. Devoursney called GMC coach Robert Nunn and told him about Nic. At the urging of Mattie and both coaches, Nic obtained his GED to become eligible for GMC, which has produced recent NFL players Lorenzo Bromell, Peppi Zellner and Odell Thurman.
“I fell in love with Nic because he’s such a good kid,” said Nunn, now the defensive tackles coach for the Green Bay Packers. “He played sparingly at first, but as he got bigger and stronger and grew into his body, I told him he had a future in football.”
And if Nic had any wayward thoughts after football season, Mattie made sure to bring him home every weekend.
“When I started playing football, I really didn’t like the physical part, but I kept with it,” Nic said. “I had the support of my mom, my brother and my uncles. If it weren’t for football, I think I would still be hanging out on the streets and working at a mill.”
Chris, an all-region linebacker as a senior, chose Georgia over Kentucky. When he was a sophomore, Nic joined him in Athens, where they were backups in 2001. Chris became a starter in 2002, while turf toe ended Nic’s season after just two games. Chris, however, was so focused on football that he got in trouble academically, making it unlikely he could play in 2003. With Nic’s eligibility expiring, Chris decided to leave school for a shot at his NFL dream.
Chris heard from a few teams, including the Redskins, as the second day of the 2003 draft proceeded. Nunn, at the time the defensive line coach in Washington, urged defensive coordinator George Edwards to consider Nic. The brothers went undrafted, but that night they both signed with Washington as free agents.
“I had stopped watching the draft because I was feeling so bad for Chris and Nic,” Mattie recalled. “I was at my sister’s house when they came and told me they were both going to the NFL and to the same team. I couldn’t stop crying I was so happy.”
Signing was the easy part. Nic was so raw he was destined for the practice squad as a rookie. Chris was laid low first by appendicitis, which caused him to miss a week of training camp, then by a hip injury that left him on injured reserve.
After the season, Edwards and Nunn were let go. But Chris impressed new defensive boss Gregg Williams with his gifts as a pass rusher, while Nic’s potential kept him on the practice squad for one more year.
“Chris [6-3, 240 pounds] has rare burst and speed, and Nic has such a big frame [6-6, 278] and a big reach,” Williams said. “They’ve both made a lot of strides in the year and a half I’ve been around them. If Chris can stay healthy, he can have a productive career because he can do some things rushing the passer that a lot of guys can’t. Nic’s tenacity and aggressiveness elevated drastically this training camp. When he develops a little more power and a little more flexibility in his hips, then he’ll take the next step.”
Different enough in looks and personality — Nic loves scary movies and “chillin’,” while Chris prefers game films and doesn’t like to rest — that it’s hard to tell they are anything more than roommates, Chris and Nic present opposite challenges to blockers.
“Chris is a smaller guy who’s extremely fast,” Redskins H-back Mike Sellers said. “Nic is tall with long arms. I try to quick-step Chris to keep him from getting up the field too much because his first step is as good as anyone I’ve blocked. You’ve just got to face up Nic and hold on to him. I loved blocking him last year when he didn’t have the technique, but he has made large strides this year.”
While Chris has been promoted ahead of three-time Pro Bowl pick LaVar Arrington as a pass rusher, Nic hasn’t made enough progress to be activated for a game. But starting ends Renaldo Wynn and Phillip Daniels are both over 30, and Demetric Evans is the only other backup, so Nic can afford to be patient.
“I’m still learning football,” Nic said. “Right now I’m insurance in case someone gets hurt. Hopefully one day I’ll get a chance to break out.”
Just like Chris. Not that he’s content being a backup.
“I’ve made a whole lot of progress at linebacker since I’ve been here,” Chris said. “A year ago you would only have seen me rushing the passer. Now you could see me actually being a linebacker.”