When searching the record books of the greatest LSU Tigers of all-time, Michael Clayton’s name is one that can be found towards the top of nearly each receiving category. Clayton currently holds the record for career touchdown receptions (21), second in career receptions (182), and fourth all-time in yards (2,582). After compiling these record-setting statistics, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Michael their first round selection in 2004 with the 15th overall pick. The former LSU sensation responded with 80 catches, 1193 yards and 7 touchdowns in his rookie season.

Statistically speaking, Clayton seemed destined for stardom throughout his NFL career.  Unfortunately, the seven seasons following his rookie year would read like a flash-in-the-pan, and never quite measured up. However, in speaking with the former first round pick we learned that there’s much more to his story than the numbers would indicate. Beyond the statistics, Michael tells the story of how his tumultuous tenure in Tampa Bay molded him into an invaluable asset to the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.

EBONY: What would you say went wrong after your rookie year in the NFL?

Michael Clayton: A lot of things happened throughout my six seasons in Tampa. I played with 11 different quarterbacks, several injuries across the offensive line and a coach that didn’t appreciate the media attention that players received when they excelled on the field. He was a guy with a huge ego that seemed to wanna bury people who “out-shined” him. Unfortunately, I fell victim to that...I became a victim of the business of football.

Spiritually speaking, I feel that I needed to go through those things to make me into the man I am today. Fortunately for me, I hadn’t gone through too many hardships and pitfalls throughout my life, so this was GOD’s way of writing my testimonial. I feel like you’ve got to go through some things in order to get somewhere. He [GOD] took me through nearly seven years of hell, but allowed me to grow and mature into a man and true professional. I was able to endure being let go from the Bucs, to having to swallow my pride for a brief stint in the UFL, to eventually joining a team like the New York Giants and winning a Super Bowl. I became the type of character-guy that the Giants were looking for and it allowed me to help their young receivers on and off the field, as they carried the team to last year’s Championship.

I’m a believer in The Word, which says “God moves mountains.” I believe those mountains were moved and allowed me to land in the perfect position…I’m thankful.

EBONY: What’s next for you, from an NFL standpoint?

MC: As of now, I’m a free agent. At 29, I’m considered an old man by NFL standards. I still feel as though I could help a team, but I’m blessed to have had a very long career. I’ve enjoyed my time away from football by spending a lot of it with my family, so I won’t let football stress me out. Luckily, I’ve set myself up nicely for my transition away from football. I’ve got a few business ventures that are doing well, which many athletes don’t typically have in place. A lot of players go broke because they can’t make that transition well, but I’m always ready to go if a team wants me.

If not, I’m going to put all of my focus on my transition away from football. Working with kids and my foundation are passions of mine…I know that I’m where I am today, because of those that came before me. I’m also writing a book called, “Chasing My Rookie Year"... I want to teach guys a lesson that it’s the downs that you go through and how you face them that allow you to better yourself. It’s not when you’re at the top of your success because you really have nowhere to go but down, from there. I was always chasing my rookie year and I want to give the audience a glimpse of what I went through and why I’m so thankful about those moments.

Right now, I’m focused on family and my transition, but I’m also focused on being the player that a team may need me to be, if I get that call!

EBONY: Is there part of you that still feels that you have something to prove?

MC: Absolutely! A lot of my time in New York dealt with preparation and getting the guys ready to play on Sunday’s, and every day was like a Michael Clayton highlight tape. I was constantly picking apart our defense and they’d come over to the house to watch the film afterwards. It was all about teaching them how I was able to have success against them, so they could apply these things on Sundays. But, my success against our defense did a lot for my confidence because they’re so good. It’s just that with football, when you don’t get the ball, you can’t show your talents and that’s always been something in the back of my mind. I had personal goals of playing ten years in the NFL, and I’ve played eight. Do I still want to reach my goal of 10 [seasons]? Absolutely. Do I still think I’m a high caliber receiver, that if given the opportunity, I could go to the Pro Bowl? Absolutely. 

EBONY: Which 3 teams do you feel that you could step in and help, right away?

MC: St. Louis, Indianapolis and Denver. I think I’d be able to go in and help each of those teams out, especially getting a lot of the young guys in order...I know what it takes to police a locker room, and how to handle yourself when things go wrong. All of these things come into play when it comes to winning and being a high-caliber football team.

EBONY: It sounds as though your focus is more on mentoring young talent versus you benefiting personally. Why is that?

MC: At the end of the day, these are the facts: 85% of us go broke at the end of our career. I’d rather educate a guy on maintaining wealth, professionalism and how to maintain longevity in the league. I would sacrifice having a Pro Bowl year myself over being able to pass on that knowledge to a young guy. I know that those are things that are a part of my legacy. Its great hearing players that I’ve spoken to at some point, come to me down the line and say “Damn bro, you don’t know how much you helped me,” which is a great feeling!

We’re all blessed, and we need to always thank GOD for those blessings. I got a call from Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants after I was released, and he told me he didn’t understand my release, but let me know that they pray after each practice, which is something I instilled in them during my time with the team. It’s all about being able to affect players on the things that really matter. It ain’t about touchdowns, those things only matter to fantasy [football] players…I’m interested in impacting people with life lessons that they can pass on. A touchdown is only remembered for one Sunday, but a lesson that can be passed on to your kids is Paramount.

I’m interested in helping young men break that 85% statistic and help these young players with their lives on and off the field. I utilize sports to drive home principles and characteristics of being successful, which are some things I do at my [football] camp.

EBONY: With that said, what future career do you see for yourself?

MC: I did a lot of TV work while I was on I.R. and talking about football on TV is something I can do with my eyes closed. Being a down-to-earth type of individual, I feel like I can connect with people on a different level, versus the GOD-like pedestal that people tend to put us on. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from the work I’ve done with FOX, CBS, and ESPN Radio, so I’ve done a lot to make my transition a smooth one, once those NFL doors close.

I’ll also be releasing my book in mid-to-late August. I’ll be self publishing it, so let’s see where it takes me.

While Michael’s statistics won’t lead to a final stop in Canton, Ohio’s NFL Hall of Fame, his impact during his time in the league has been well documented. Surely, if the league measured a player’s lifelong contribution throughout their career, Michael Clayton would be a first ballot entry when the curtain finally closes.

Steve Rivers has contributed to The Source, ESPN Rise and a host of other online publications. Follow him on Twitter: @TheKidSkoob.