To understand just how special it was for Kaelin Clay to spin and scamper and thread his way for 60 yards through a half-dozen bodies into the end zone on Sunday at Metlife Stadium, you have to understand how close he came, constantly, to not doing any of that.
People, he says, just always quit on him.
Not just once. And not just “people,” either. Teams, too. Entire programs. His own body.
“I’ve always been on the back burner,” he said. “I’ve always been overlooked. I’ve always been in the dirt, and I’ve always had to climb my way to the top.”
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So when the receiver, who was a long shot newcomer at training camp in July, got to break down the Carolina Panthers for a team cheer after a 35-27 victory over the New York Jets, and got the game ball to boot, it meant something to him.
Something so dear, in fact, that as he tried to describe it earnestly to the reporters huddled around his locker after the game, his voice wavered and quieted, and his eyes blinked back the emotion.
“That was special, especially for the journey I’ve been on,” he said. “Even after this year, leaving and then coming back. It was special for me, for coach to have me break down the team. I appreciate that, I really do.”
‘People always quit on me’
The play, for Clay, came naturally. Routine, even. A slick little spin move upon first contact after fielding a punt, then a weave around one player, a crease found. Open field. Gas pedal.
Clay has been doing this almost all his life. It’s a special talent of his, the “home run hit” a team covets to change the momentum of a game. And Clay found an opportunity to show it off, after making a name for himself growing up as the kid nobody in Long Beach could catch.
But he just couldn’t make anything stick.
First, Clay went to Cal, then he bounced to junior college as he tried to gain transfer eligibility anywhere that would have him. Utah came knocking, and for one year there, Clay became an All-American punt returner.
So he found a place to latch on to, sure, but then it was the success that turned on him. For all his talent, Clay became a national punchline in a game against Oregon in 2014, when he dropped the ball on the 1 as he trotted, untouched, into the end zone.
Social media was cruel to him. His own mind was crueler.
When he was drafted by Tampa Bay in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft, Clay expected a fresh start. He made it through camp and spent a week of the season on the team’s practice squad before they cut him.
Then he went to Baltimore and found hope and a real chance to stick to the roster, before he broke his foot and was put on injured reserve. The kid nobody could catch was standing still. And that made him vulnerable, and expendable.
Baltimore cut him.
But Clay clung on to the game like a barnacle, and finally, he met one coach who just couldn’t pry him off his roster, just couldn’t shake him – though he did try.
Back to Carolina
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera liked Clay. He thought Clay, with his speed and talent on special teams, could make something special happen for the Panthers. But he didn’t need him, at first.
Clay was part of the Panthers’ trade with Buffalo for cornerback Kevon Seymour just before the season.
Clay was brought back to Carolina just a couple of weeks later. He said when he got the phone call, he drove to the airport as fast as he could. He felt like he was going home, he said at the time.
Rivera just couldn’t shake the feeling that Clay could help. He kept recalling specific explosive moments from Clay during training camp. He saw potential in the longshot from Long Beach.
“Some of the plays he made,” said Rivera. “Laying out for the ball, I think it was in Jacksonville he made a big one. Against the Texans, he made a big catch as well. Those things just stood out.”
Maybe Rivera also saw a little flash of another West Coast-raised punt returner out of Utah who turned a part of the game usually spent on bathroom breaks and beer runs into an electric, athletic, heart-pounding show a few times each Sunday.
That man, too, was a specialist known more for his heart than his size, who set Utah’s program record for punt returns for touchdowns.
That record was tied, just four games into the 2014 season. You’ll never guess by who.
Did Rivera know that Clay and Steve Smith Sr. went to the same college?
Rivera smiled, the eye-twinkling, I-know-more-than-I’m-telling kind.
“Oh yes. Yes I did,” he said.
For his daughter
During his time in Buffalo, Clay and his girlfriend brought a baby girl, named Kennedy Ray, into the world. Clay was on a plane when she was born, and spent the next six weeks of the football season unable to speak to his daughter in person.
Sunday afternoon, Clay talked to his 7-week-old daughter for the first time. He told her he would score a touchdown for her.
And he did, in monumental fashion.
Clay’s 60-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday was the first time in 1,148 days that the Panthers had returned a punt for a touchdown, since Oct. 5, 2014. The play put the game out of reach for a Panthers team on a hot streak.
Clay didn’t even start out the game as the team’s returner. He has been splitting those duties with rookie first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey.
But when Clay’s chance came, he took it. His daughter will get the game ball in her room, he said. It’s a testament to her, but also to those who never gave up on him.
“People have always quit on me,” he said. “I’ve always taken that, and I’ve ran with it.”