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4 • THURSDAY, AUGUST 26, 2010


Samford Homecoming



Clay Plays College Football In Familiar Surroundings BY CARY ESTES



ohn Michael Clay has been running around the Samford University football field for 20 years. Which is saying a lot, since he is just now entering his senior season as a defensive lineman with the Bulldogs. But as the son of two Samford alums, Clay said Seibert Stadium was his second home as a small child. His parents attended most of the games while he was growing up in Vestavia Hills, and he said he has been sliding down the grassy hills surrounding the playing field “since I was a baby.” So it’s only appropriate that for the past three years, Clay has been just as much a fixture on the Seibert Stadium field as a player as he once was in the stands as a fan. Clay has played in 32 of the Bulldogs’ 33 games since his freshman season in 2007 and has started 21 of the past 22 games. “He’s been one of the staples on our team since I got here,” said Samford head coach Pat Sullivan, whose first year with the Bulldogs coincided with Clay’s freshman season. “We always know that John Michael is out there. We don’t worry about what we’re going to get from him.” All of this seemed like an unlikely scenario just five years ago. As a freshman on the Vestavia Hills football team, Clay kept experiencing pinched nerves in his neck, known as burners or stingers. He finally received an MRI and was diagnosed with cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. The situation wasn’t overly serious, but doctors suggested it would probably be best if Clay didn’t participate in a violent contact sport like football. So Clay spent the next two years working with the football team as a student coach, while continuing to compete for the Vestavia Hills wrestling and baseball teams. Then before he began his senior year, new tests revealed that Clay’s condition had improved, and he was cleared by a neurosurgeon and a cervical specialist to play football. Despite some anxious moments from his mother (“She was scared at first,” Clay said), he returned to the football field just in time for a farewell season with the Rebels. That one season was enough for Clay to show what he was capable of doing on the field. He had 82 tackles, four quarterback sacks and two fumble recoveries. He was named to the All-Over the Mountain first team and received honorable mention allstate honors. Clay’s performance caught Sullivan’s attention, and Samford was one of the few teams to offer Clay a football scholarship. “You could see the potential for him to be what he is today,” Sullivan said. “You saw that big ol’ frame with that tough mentality. It was just a matter of him getting the reps and some time to put the weight on.

John Michael Clay has played in 32 of the Bulldogs’ 33 games since his freshman season in 2007 and has started 21 of Photos courtesy Samford Athletics the past 22 games. And now you have a really good player. “He comes to play with a wrestler’s mentality. Every day, he’s giving it everything he’s got. You know what you have with him every time that you tee it up.” Clay agrees with the assessment that he plays football with a wrestler’s mentality. After all, he spent more time at Vestavia Hills wrestling than he did playing football, and he said much of what he learned from the sport has carried over to his college football career. “To be a wrestler, you have to understand that your body has a limit, and then you have to be willing to go much further,” Clay said. “If you can accept that and then use it on the football field, it gives you an even bigger edge on outworking your opponent. Because you’ll never quit. “It’s hard to break somebody who is a

wrestler. A wrestling practice is a lot more intense and grueling than a football practice. It helps give that mental edge to any player. “Being a lineman, it’s pretty much a wrestling match out there anyway. Just all the arms flailing and gaining leverage. “I learned a lot from our football coaches at Vestavia. They taught me a lot about being a football player and being a man. “But the wrestling comes in handy every day.” Whatever the key has been, it certainly has worked. Clay had 37 tackles and six sacks last season in being named second-team All-Southern Conference. And Sullivan said Clay is unquestionably one of the most important players on the Samford defense this season. “He can bring it on the pass rush, he’s

solid on the run, he can protect on our punt team,” Sullivan said. “He just does whatever you ask him to do.” That will be the case for one final season at Samford. While his parents cheer from the stands and new children slide down the hills at Seibert Stadium, Clay will take to the field and continue a journey that has been 20 years in the making. “I always thought I wouldn’t go to Samford, that I would do something different,” Clay said. “But I had an opportunity to play football here, and I couldn’t turn it down. I’m truly blessed that I did come here. “Now all I want to do is have a relationship with my teammates that I can carry on throughout the years and make some memories that I can cherish.” ❖

Over the Mountain Journal High School Football Preview  

An overview of high school football in the Over the Mountain Communities for 2010

Over the Mountain Journal High School Football Preview  

An overview of high school football in the Over the Mountain Communities for 2010