When Mark Clayton first arrived at Oklahoma’s Norman campus, he looked more like a high school freshman than a blue chip recruit getting ready for big-time college ball. Not surprisingly, the 150-pound speedster from Arlington, Texas, had a brutal transition into the hard-hitting Sooner way of life.
Through countless hours of dedicated training, Clayton increased his strength and developed his frame. Within a few yearsalong with QB Jason Whitehe transformed the traditionally ground-dominating Sooners into one of the most dangerous aerial assault teams in the nation. Clayton strutted out of Norman as a 195-pound All-American, with school records in career receptions (221), receiving yards (3,241) and TDs (31).
The most prolific pass catcher in OU history was too good to pass up for the offensively challenged Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Clayton’s impact was powerful and immediate, as he balled out with 44 receptions and 471 yards for the best rookie receiver season in franchise history. Now, Clayton is looking for a true breakout year, where he can put his big-play ability on prominent display.
What kind of athlete were you growing up?
Clayton: I was more of a basketball guy when I was younger. I loved basketball, and that’s what I wanted to do. I started playing football when I was six, and I always played it well, but I just liked basketball a little better.
During my sophomore year in high school, the varsity basketball coach told me that I couldn’t play on his team if I played football. I wanted to play both, but I picked football, and that’s when my decision was made.
Are you goal-oriented when it comes to sports?
Clayton: Not really. I just go out and enjoy myself. Today, when I play football, it’s a passion. I’m out on the field doing my thing and having fun. It has never been, “I gotta do this,” or “I gotta do that.” It has always been about me having fun in the moment. Man, I just have fun.
At some point, did you start thinking ahead and dreaming about taking your game to the NFL?
Clayton: I looked up to NFL players, but I never really thought about being one. I wasn’t really preoccupied with it. In fact, the first time I ever watched a college football game was when I was going into my senior year in high school.
Can you talk a little bit about being recruited out of high school and how you decided to attend Oklahoma?
Clayton: My recruiting experience was interesting to say the least. We had a guy on our team named Shirdonya Mitchell. He was my best friendand he was Mr. Everything, a true all-star athlete. All the schools’ scouts would come to see Shirdonya and our quarterback, who was also pretty good. Because of the exposure they were getting, I got a chance to play in front of college coaches. The first time I was aware that someone was looking at me and taking notice was at a 7-on-7 tournament at Texas A&M one summer. Those tourneys were huge back in Texas, so it was a great way to stand out.
What was it like, heading off to college?
Clayton: Oklahoma was really scary at first, and it was hard to leave home. I went during the summer, because the coaches told me that it would be good for me to work out with the guys ahead of time. I had never worked out the way they did at that level, so it was tough for me. I got a full-body cramp during my first workout, and then I tore a pectoral muscle. It was one thing after another, and almost too much for me. I really didn’t want to stay. But then the season started, and things got a lot better. I made some great friends who helped me out. We realized we were all going through the same thing, so we stuck together and helped each other through it. That part was awesome.
What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?
Clayton: Winning the National Championship. That was pretty tight.
As a junior, you were up for the Football Writers Association of America Courage Award for your actions off the field. What was it like to be recognized for something outside of football?
Clayton: It was an honor, but the nomination came out of one of the scariest moments of my life. We just barely escaped a serious car accident. It was a really bad wreck, with a fatality. After everything settled down, my car was in the center median, right in the middle of everything. We looked around and figured we should get out to check if everyone was all right. We went over to a van that had a family in it trying to get out, and proceeded to help them.
How did it feel to hear your named called on draft day?
Clayton: That’s one of those things that I can’t really describe or put into words. The only thing I can say is that I’ve never felt that amount of joy and thanks before in my life.
You described a rough transition from high school to college. Was the jump from Oklahoma to the NFL equally as tough?
Clayton: No, not at all. It was weird though. Coming in, I was told that the NFL game is not just more physical but also more mental. I believed wholeheartedly that [teams] bring you in because they know that you can physically play at this level. But when I got here, I figured out how mental the game is too. After a play is called and I go line up, even a hint of hesitation in my step prevents me from being the player they know I am. When I finally understood my job and where I was supposed to be, I was able to play football the way I know how.
What goals do you have for this season?
Clayton: I just want to play my best and be consistent. That’s really important for me. After that, it’s just making the plays that will help my team win.
How do you deal with the nagging injuries you’ve been experiencing?
Clayton: I don’t let ’em get to me. I’m really spiritual, and God has provided for me in unbelievable ways. I know that I am here for a reason, and injuries won’t hold me from what God has planned for me.
What is your favorite part of being a professional athlete?
Clayton: I don’t really look at myself solely as a professional athlete. The ability to communicate with all different kinds of people and represent Jesus are the things I enjoy the most. I like being a good example for people. I want people to watch me play and think: “Man, did you just see what they did to him and he’s still smiling?”
How do you unwind in your free time?
Clayton: I love video games and movies. I also spend a significant amount of time with the Bible and The Word.
What kind of movies do you watch?
Clayton: I love comedies. Right now, at the top are Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Harlem Nights, Coming to America and Tommy Boy.
What’s your favorite thing to eat?
Clayton: I went into camp with four percent body fat and was having all these problems with pulled muscles. So they were like, “Boy, you need some fat.” I guess fat helps you retain water, so I’ve been eating cheeseburgers to help with that. Before that, it was strictly grilled chicken, baked chicken and seafood. I was doing that to stay lean, but those foods just happen to be my favorites, too. Now when I eat shrimp or chicken, I get it with Alfredo for the fat.
Drawing from your experiences, what advice can you offer young athletes?
Clayton: Hold on to your dreams. For me, it wasn’t that I always dreamed, wanted and desired to be in the NFL; but there were some things I went through that could have deterred me and made me question if this is what I really want to do. Hold on to those dreams, and just press on. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do. You decide.
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