Ravens thrilled about Clayton's skills, heart

OWINGS MILLS – Flames were flickering from the carnage of an accident, plumes of smoke were rising to the sky, and Mark Clayton saw a family trapped inside a van on an Oklahoma highway.<br><br> The Baltimore Ravens' future prize rookie wide receiver was driving toward the University of Oklahoma campus two summers ago when a catastrophic two-car accident in front of him caused him to spin into the median unscathed.

A consensus All-American whom Baltimore drafted 22nd overall in the first round, Clayton, teammate Lynn McGruder and friend Kenny Gibbs, didn't hesitate to react. Unable to approach the doors because of the fire, they smashed in the back window and pulled an entire family to safety.

The driver of the other car died on the scene, but Clayton and his friends successfully rescued Oklahoma student and former Miss Oklahoma City pageant winner Makenna Smith and her family.

"There was death behind him and a fire in front him and he was in the middle and he wasn't touched," said Clayton's mother, JacQuetta Clayton, Sunday afternoon at the Ravens' training complex. "That was just a confirmation of doing right by God and being obedient. No, it didn't surprise me what he did.

"You're getting a very special kid. He's a hard worker. He's very knowledgeable about this game. He loves football and he loves people."

The Ravens feel fortunate to have Clayton, the grounded, selfless person, and Clayton, the workaholic, undersized athlete, for their formerly receiver-starved roster.

"Tremendous," Clayton said when asked about the impact of the incident on his life. "Every morning, I wake up with a smile on my face. Whether I had a good day or a bad day, I can just smile about it just to know that I'm living.

"I enjoy life, and I'm going to live it to its fullest. Being here in Baltimore and with a new team is exciting to me."

The Claytons are devout Christians from Grand Prairie, Texas, and self-described homebodies. Mere minutes before the accident, though, JacQuetta Clayton said she was in the midst of a religious struggle.

"I was going through some Christian spiritual battles at the time," she said. "Five minutes after I made a commitment, Mark called me on his cell phone to tell me he was in that accident."

Before Clayton emerged as the Sooner' all-time leader in receptions (221), receiving yards (3,241) and touchdown catches (31), he was an unheralded freshman.

He was 5-foot-9, perhaps 150 pounds soaking wet. He strained his right pectoral muscle while attempting to bench press 115 pounds.

Clayton was also a tad intimidated. Especially when he got a look at hulking offensive tackle Jammal Brown, the New Orleans Saints' first-round draft pick.

"I had never lifted weights," said Clayton, who gained 20 pounds his freshman year and lowered his 40-yard dash time from 4.7 seconds to a 4.4 clocking. "When I got to college, the first person I saw was Jammal Brown and he had his shirt wide open and a tattoo on his chest, deep voice.

"From then on, I was constantly in the weight room. It was a blessing for me."

Through diligent work since his freshman year, Clayton gained roughly 43 pounds and went from bench pressing 115 pounds to hoisting 270 pounds.

"On my desk, there's a picture of him when he graduated from high school and his shirt didn't really fit," JacQuetta Clayton said. "Every time he comes through that garage door, wow, he's just getting bigger and bigger.

"One time he was playing basketball, and he took his shirt off and I said, ‘Look at all those cuts.' Mark will do the homework to condition his body and mind to compete at the next level."

An admitted football fanatic, Clayton devoured game films as if they were filet mignon. By his junior season, Clayton was a bonafide star who caught 83 passes for 1,425 yards and 15 touchdowns.

"I like to learn and I love football," Clayton said.

For Clayton, it's always been about sports and video games, not the night life. His mother said he rarely left the house in high school besides school events and church. His friends were always over, raiding Mrs. Clayton's refrigerator.

"I didn't have any Kool-Aid because all the boys were at my house," said JacQuetta Clayton, who's contemplating moving to Baltimore for her son's rookie campaign. "As far as going to parties, Mark just never really cared to do that."

Clayton embraces blocking with passion, regularly knocking down larger defenders. He's so unselfish that he never complained when the spotlight transferred to freshman running back Adrian Peterson last season and his receiving statistics dipped.

His favorite NFL receivers are Hines Ward, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, who gushed about Clayton on television from a one-page list after the Ravens picked him.

Clayton is savvy enough that he knew before consulting with equipment manager Ed Carroll that wearing No. 19 was off-limits because it's the number of Johnny Unitas, the late Baltimore Colts quarterback. He'll wear the No. 89 previously donned by former receiver Travis Taylor, the Ravens' only previous first-round bust.

Clayton didn't bristle when asked again whether his lack of ideal size will be a detriment. He referenced how people once doubted whether a high-school runt could succeed at ultra-competitive Oklahoma.

"Coming out of high school, people said, ‘You can't play football, you're too small,'" Clayton said. "I know that my heart and my will to do great is far greater than what anyone has to say about me."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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