WR Michael Clayton (center) is getting a rare opportunity to work with some of the best NFL receivers, past and present
As he sent his players off at the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason program, Head Coach Raheem Morris admitted that he shared one main worry with most coaches around the NFL. Would the players, given a six-week break before the start of training camp, balance relaxation and preparation well and report to camp in top physical condition?
Overall, there's little need for concern. Most players are driven by a desire for success, for both their teams and their own lucrative careers, and long ago learned how to avoid backsliding. Still, with any group of 80 men, there's always a chance somebody will fail to use the off time wisely.
We can say this with certainty, however: Morris does not need to worry about wide receiver Michael Clayton. It's doubtful Clayton could have found a better way to get ready for his sixth NFL season than the five days he just spent in Minneapolis.
If you were an architect in the 1940s and you were given a chance to shadow Frank Lloyd Wright, you would have dropped everything to be there. If you were a promising guitarist in the 1960s and Jimi Hendrix offered to share a week of sessions, you would have been at his door, axe in hand, the next day.
In short, if you are pursuing a particular craft, you jump at the chance to work with a rare master of that craft.
Not long ago, 2008 playoff hero Larry Fitzgerald called Clayton, one of his buddies in the league, and offered him this opportunity: Come to Minnesota and spend a week training with me, a few other NFL receivers and one other person. A person named Jerry Rice.
Clayton mulled it over for about four tenths of a second. Actually, that's an exaggeration. The Buc wideout was so amazed by the offer he said he would have crawled to Minneapolis if that's what it took to get there.
No one has ever played wide receiver in the NFL as well as Jerry Rice. He is, indeed, a master of the craft, and few would argue that he is the master of it. He is also willing to share his secrets.
Fitzgerald, who is close to Rice (and also compared to him more often than any current receiver), persuaded the 13-time Pro Bowler to spend three or four days working with a small handful of his friends. Clayton got an invite, along with Greg Jennings of Green Bay, Antrel Rolle of Arizona and a few others. Yes, Rolle is a defensive back, but some lessons cross the boundaries of position. With such a small group working together, there would be plenty of time for Rice to interact with everyone.
"I got an invite from Larry Fitzgerald to come out here and work with [Rice] one-on-one," said Clayton, speaking from the training site shortly after the 'camp' began. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I get to spend three or four days with him. We get to hang out and talk. We talk about football, how he did it back in the day. It's a wonderful experience. Since I got here yesterday I've been thrilled with every moment that I've been with him."
Jerry Rice finished his 20-year NFL career with 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards and 208 touchdowns. Each total represents the highest in the league's nearly 85-year history, and no one else even comes close. As an example, Rice's yardage total is 7,951 higher than that of the player in second place, Isaac Bruce (through 2008). That's more than twice the margin separating Bruce from the 20th player on the list, Keenan McCardell (11,373).
Ask who the NFL's greatest quarterback is, and you'll start an argument that might never end. Good luck finding a consensus for the same question regarding running backs, defensive ends or linebackers. But the greatest receiver in NFL history? Who would back any other horse but Rice?
And unlike Wright and Hendrix, Rice is still around — and willing — to influence younger receivers.
"We're doing Jerry Rice's famous cone drills," said Clayton with a laugh. "Jerry has so many little things that he has brought to the wide receiver position and he has a lot to offer, just the things that he says. He's able to look at a wide receiver and know how to help him. Though he can't do it quite like he used to do it, he knows what it's supposed to look like, and he really helps."
That Rice became the greatest receiver in NFL history was no accident. He was legendary — remains so, really — for his unparalleled work ethic and his unforgiving training regimen. It is the simple story of Jerry Rice's success that has been admired for decades: Supreme talent taken to its highest possible level by hard work.
"Every wide receiver is different," said Clayton. "Everybody has different body types. You have big guys, you have little guys, you have slow guys, you have fast guys. But what everybody can match is effort and hard work. I think that he is at the pinnacle of where that was for a wide receiver, or for any NFL player, for that matter. His work ethic and his ability and his hard work combined to make him the greatest of all time. Even at the age of 46, to see him get out there and run routes with us, it's inspiring. I mean he's doing everything that we're doing."
Clayton has never been accused of lacking in work ethic, and his hard-edged play on the field is an indication of how much the game means to him. He won't reach Rice's career numbers — who will? — but he has shown the ability to put up big numbers in the NFL. He doesn't believe he's reached his peak yet, and at 27 he's still in the prime of his career.
The week with Rice, who sometimes runs grueling sprints up hills just to get in position to start a workout, might help Clayton reach his peak.
"It feels good to be able to work hard with your buddies, get good wide receiver work done and bringing your game to another level," said the Buccaneer passcatcher. "Not only is it an experience of a lifetime, but it's great work as well and you don't get that opportunity often."
For Clayton, learning firsthand from Rice meant more than just a peek at the great receivers' training technique. It was a chance to cross paths with one of the icons of his youth. Rice first emerged as a force at Mississippi Valley State, an institution designated as an historically black college or university (HBCU). Much of the Clayton family studied at Alcorn State University, another HBCU, and the Buc receiver remembers catching passes on the Alcorn State sideline from the late Steve McNair. Though Clayton would eventually star at Louisiana State, Rice and McNair were his idols as a child.
"The impact that those guys had, coming from black colleges and displaying hard work and setting the tone and just really showing guys how it's done, it was tremendous," he said. "For Jerry to be able to reach that level, to be the greatest of all time, it really puts a stamp on it. Everything that he's said has been true. I've listened and I'm really getting a lot of work here to perfect my game and make it better."