"I feel like I have experienced the highest point of a success that any athlete can be a part of and that is winning a national championship," Clayton said in a press conference Sunday. "That alone will be a memory that will last me alone the rest of my life."
Clayton thanked his parents, the Lord and finally LSU coaches, players and fans for allowing to be a part of such an exciting period in the history of Tiger football.
"It has been a privilege to be labeled as part of LSU's greatest teams ever in the history," he said. "I think it is in my best interest and my families best interest to forgo my senior year and enter myself into the 2004 draft. It is a situation I have been counseled for and I have definitely prayed about it. I feel very comfortable in doing this."
LSU head coach Nick Saban, who just a day earlier, announced on the same stage he would return to LSU, commented on one of LSU's most exciting players of the modern era.
"Michael is certainly a favorite son of Louisiana being from Baton Rouge and came to this program when no one knew for sure what we were going to be able to accomplish or who we were," said Saban. "As I told him at that time, if guys like you come to school here, it is certainly going to pave the way for other players in the future to have success and part of that success is having the type of athletic career that allows you to be a first round draft pick."
Saban complimented Clayton for being the classiest of any player he has coached in a 30-year career.
"I think that is a real possibility for Michael and as you have heard me say before, when guys represent the program in a first class way the way he has, not only on the field but off the field," Saban said. "As a person, I have never ever coached a player with more class and more integrity or is any better quality person than Michael Clayton."
Clayton becomes LSU's fifth early entry into the NFL Draft in the last four years. Last year, running back LaBrandon Toefield opted to skip his senior season, while wide receiver Josh Reed and linebacker Trev Faulk both came out in 2001 as did quarterback Josh Booty following the 2000 season. Toefield was a fourth round pick last season, while Reed was drafted in the second round and Booty in the sixth. Faulk went undrafted.
Other early entrees for LSU include wide receiver Eddie Kennison following the 1995 season and offensive guard Alan Faneca after the 1996 season.
In three seasons on campus, Clayton proved worthy to be called one of the best receivers in LSU history.
Clayton earned First Team All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2003 after leading the league in both receptions and yards, while finishing second in touchdowns. In LSU's national championship season, Clayton caught 78 passes for 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 78 receptions ranks as the third-highest single season total in school history, while the 1,079 yards ranks fourth in LSU annals.
"I think for all that he has done for this program, helping us win the national championship, helping us win two SEC championships, I think the only regret is that he won't be around to help us win a third SEC championship in his career," Saban said.
While Clayton's decision may not be the popular choice of many Tiger fans, Saban wishes Clayton well, but with a heavy heart.
"I do support him in the decision that he is making," Saban said. "I think he is making a good decision, but we are disappointed. I would be remised to say that, that my heart does not hurt right now that such a fine young man and such a good football player, such a class person is not going to be a part of this program. But we should support our Tigers, players that have done so much to help this program, when they make decision like this."
Before leaving the podium to exchange hugs with his parents, Clayton passed on one final message to everyone in Tigerland.
"By saying that, my last comment to my LSU family, faculty and staff, fans, the support from you guys has been excellent," Clayton concluded. "Every where I go, I will always carry the LSU pride with me."
- LSU Sports Information contributed to this report