The story book ending has been a long time coming. For Antonneous Clayton and his journey in college football, nothing has been easy. Most know about his recruiting accolades. He was rated by Rivals as the #27 player in the country and the #4 player in Georgia in 2016. Heading south to Gainesville, he struggled through three injury plagued seasons, recording a total of eleven tackles in seventeen games, including one sack. He needed a fresh start.
Geoff Collins arrived on the Flats in December of 2018, and soon after, Antonneous Clayton was heading home to play for his former defensive coordinator. The NCAA saw to it that his journey home wouldn’t come without challenges. Right before the kickoff of the 2019 campaign, Clayton got word that he wouldn’t be eligible for the season, and he would seemingly only have one year at GT to make an impact and make his case to pursue his NFL dreams.
By all accounts, he was an excellent teammate throughout the 2019 campaign. He challenged the starting offensive line daily in practice, and he pushed his fellow defensive ends hard in hopes of returning for one more season in 2020. Once again, nothing would be easy. COVID threw a wrench at the world in early 2020. For months, it was uncertain whether there would be a college football season, but finally, plans were put in place to kick off with a slight delay and play a slightly abbreviated schedule. I profiled Clayton’s chances to break out on the Georgia Tech defensive line last year, and I don’t think any of those hopes were misguided.
As Georgia Tech was ramping up preparation to kick off against FSU, Antonneous Clayton went down. He posted a picture of his injured leg to social media, and he was transparent about the level of discouragement he felt. No one would have faulted him for hanging up the cleats. Clayton kept battling and initially missed only three games. He appeared for GT against Syracuse, Louisville, Clemson, and BC. But behind the scenes, nothing was easy.
Appearing before the local media last Thursday, Clayton detailed what was going on and what it has been like to persevere. As he fought to battle back from the medical issue that kept him out for the start of the 2020 campaign, he fell behind in school. As Clayton told it, “Trying to get back in football shape, catch up in classes, and be a full time dad was overwhelming.” For most, just one of those three can be enough to take the wind out of the sails. In opting out of the season’s last month, Clayton made a decision that quite frankly acknowledged his human limitations. And that’s to be applauded.
As he stepped away from the team to take care of his other monumental responsibilities, Antonneous found himself surrounded by people who cared. He recounted how coaches and teammates understood and checked in; GT provided resources to make his comeback possible; professors talked him through what it was going to take to catch up. Without stepping away, Clayton said, “I wouldn’t be eligible right now.” But he did; he made the hard choice and discovered that admitting our limitations can be a powerful impetus to connection with others and growth in ourselves. In the offseason, he noted, a lot of guys on the team were able to be vulnerable with each other in a way that felt new, and the team came closer.
Today, Clayton says, he’s “ready and glad to be welcomed back with open arms…fully committed to the team and hoping for a great season.” His position coach, Marco Coleman, mentioned that he didn’t know if or how Clayton would return to the team. But, he said, “Antonneous has been a model citizen since he’s been back. He’s the adult in the room, and his experience and tenure show.”
Down ten pounds from last season, his cardio is good, and he’s taking care of his body. He’s grown as a person, and it’s helped him to enjoy what’s before him. Looking back, Clayton notes, “I didn’t realize how much work on myself I had to do.” But stepping away and taking care of everything off the field has given him a confidence that’s now translating into every area of his life. As he rounds out his final spring and approaches the unexpected sixth and final college season of his career, Antonneous knows one thing: “This is the happiest I’ve been playing football in a very long time.”