When it matters, Ravens' Clayton shows big heart

First-round draft pick brings aggressiveness to wide receiver position

Pro Football

April 25, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

At his introductory news conference yesterday, receiver Mark Clayton spoke about generating big plays with his ability to run after a catch.

But there was a time when the Ravens' first-round pick refused to run.

In June 2003, Clayton and an Oklahoma teammate were returning to school from a trip to Texas when they witnessed a fatal car crash they wouldn't soon forget.

A car crossed the median on an Oklahoma interstate and struck a van head-on, an accident Clayton had to swerve to avoid. The driver of the car was killed, but a family of five was trapped in the van.

Clayton and defensive tackle Lynn McGruder rushed over, and despite a small fire in the engine and a potential explosion, they broke a window and dragged everyone to safety.

"It was death behind him, a fire in front of him and he was in the middle," said his mother, JacQuetta Clayton. "Mark has always been a good kid, but it changed his outlook on life itself, what life is all about as opposed to taking things for granted."

From that moment, Clayton, who transformed himself from a skinny, 150-pound college freshman to a physical NFL starter, understood the importance of seizing every opportunity.

"Playing football is great, but life is more important," Clayton said. "I learned life can be taken at any moment."

Clayton plays with that urgency in games, whether it's dodging tacklers to turn a short gain into a big play or running furiously downfield to throw a block on a safety.

That aggressive mind-set has been lacking for a long time in the Ravens' receiving corps, especially the ones drafted by the team. Receiver is one of the few weak spots for the usually draft-strong Ravens, who have watched Travis Taylor (2000 first round), Patrick Johnson (1998 second round), Brandon Stokley (1999 fourth round) and Ron Johnson (2002 fourth round) underachieve.

"He's a special kind of kid," Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting, said of Clayton. "I think he has the personality to be a success at the receiver position. You have to have a tough mentality to be an elite receiver and I think he has that. He's going to block, return punts and kicks, and he does it with passion."

Toughness was once nonexistent in Clayton's game.

On his first day in Oklahoma's weight room, he tore a pectoral muscle trying to bench-press a little more than 100 pounds. Then, in his first practice, he remembers wincing when a cornerback put a hand in his chest in press coverage.

His mother still has a picture of Clayton's high school graduation when his shirt was too big for him.

"Now, every time he comes through that house, he's getting bigger and bigger," his mother said. "He'll continue to put in the work. He does what he needs to condition his body and mind to be able to compete at the next level."

Clayton got bigger, beefing up to 195 pounds and benching 270 pounds. He got faster, improving his 40-yard dash time from 4.7 seconds to 4.4.

What hasn't changed is his size. He's still 5 feet 10, a slight he's had to fight for most of his playing career.

But every time he's been asked about his size, his responses have been cool, calm and confident.

"A lot of people told me coming out of high school, `You're too small to play football,' " Clayton said. "I know my heart and my will to do great is far greater than what anybody else has to say about it."

His determination was evident at the Senior Bowl practices in late January, when he proved to be the best wide-out there with his route-running, quickness and sure hands. One scouting service said he was the "greatest playmaker at any position, let alone wide receiver."

DeCosta remembers walking up to Ozzie Newsome after those practices and hearing the Ravens' general manager say, "If that little guy is there, we're going to pick him."

The Ravens got their wish, using the 22nd overall pick on Clayton, a receiver short in stature but long on tenacity.

"I'm living life to its fullest," said Clayton, alluding to the impact of the accident. "Now, with a new city and a new team, I'm just really excited."

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