Over twenty years ago, Curly Neil of the Harlem Globetrotters inspired a boy to dream big and allow possibilities. The game was held at LSU and, as young Michael Clayton sat in an aisle seat next to his father, the icon known not only for his moves on the court but also for his bald head and infectious smile, approached and spun a basketball on Michael’s finger. But then Curly did something that changed a life― he put a wristband over Michael’s small hand.
“I was a star when I wore that wristband. It was extra motivation,” he said. “I took practicing so seriously, and it was all based on that one experience.”
In 2003 Clayton set school records for touchdown receptions at LSU, where he was part of a national championship team, and when he left he held LSU’s career touchdown reception record. Clayton is the only player in LSU history to have at least 700 yards receiving in three consecutive seasons. In 2004 he was a first round draft pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and went on to lead all NFL rookies with 80 receptions and 1193 yards. He was a wide receiver for the Bucs for six seasons.
Although Clayton won a national championship and experienced the highs and lows of contract signings, being released from the NFL and playing for the UFL, he is thankful for the opportunities such experiences offered.
“I was able to learn so many things: confidence, the nature of the business, how to be a leader. Then I signed with the New York Giants,” he said. “It was more exciting going from the bottom back to the top.”
Although he feels he did not have the natural athletic talent of many of his peers, Clayton learned about hard work and dedication at an early age. “I had mentors, parents, and a lot of people who cared about me,” he said.
Soon after he started playing for LSU, his sixth-grade reading teacher and former principals asked him to return to the schools where he once attended. Michael made connections with the kids. He became actively involved in their education and motivation to learn. Test scores went up.
“I like to get into the psyche and really know what a kid is going through,” he said. “God gave me a talent. I like to use it to the best of my abilities and help when I can.”
While with the Buccaneers, Michael and his wife Tina started his Michael Clayton Generation Next Foundation, a non-profit organization to assist local charities such as The Tampa Bay Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile. Sadly, several of the children he became close to passed away, and those experiences deeply affected Michael.
“I learned a lot from that and how the kids and families went about their lives. You never would have known they had cancer. It was just important for me being in their presence.”
Life After Football
The Claytons may not know what “Life after Football” will mean exactly, but through their experiences with the recent lockouts and understanding firsthand the realities of football’s rough spots, they have been able to keep their central focus on their children. Tina and Michael are creative thinkers and know that football won’t always support them.
“The mindset for life after football keeps me going,” said Michael.
He and Tina have been working with Dianne Paulson of the Safety Harbor Model Placement Center. Dianne finds agencies for models, which might sound completely opposite from what one might expect a football player to do after leaving the game, but Michael contacted Diane when he needed a press kit, and he needed someone who knew how to help.
“I’ve never really stepped out to get the media recognition,” Michael said. “it’s tough to find a person to represent you. When I got to New York a lot of people started to take interest. They flew me to L.A. I met with a couple agencies in Los Angeles and New York and I started to see different opportunities. Gatorade wanted me in. I needed a press kit but didn’t know what one was. It was for my debut as a model when I called Dianne. What a great experience. For me, it’s life after football.”
No matter what life after football will look like, Michael and Tina Clayton will continue to be involved in the Tampa Bay community they call home.
“I like taking advantage of being a community role model and the opportunities from that to utilize the greater good. I know what type of impact one meeting can have with a kid. Curly didn’t say two words to me, but that experience changed my life.”
As an update Michael Clayton is now a co-host for Good Day Tampa Bay on Channel 10 weekday mornings.
By Laura Kepner
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