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Clayton reaps rewards of righteous childhood

The rookie's success has a lot to do with his family.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published October 9, 2004

TAMPA - Michael Clayton was usually asleep when his father, working nights as a federal agriculture inspector, called home at about midnight to check up on his family. His mother entered a darkened bedroom to deliver the familiar message.

"Your daddy says, "Did you shoot today?' "

The wrong answer meant Clayton would get up, put on his shoes and go out to the courtyard at the center of the family's house in Baton Rouge, La., to shoot baskets. It was either that or disappoint his father.

"We had to commit to doing something and let him know, "Hey, Dad, my work ethic is good. I worked out today. I shot basketball today. I did it every day this week,' " said Clayton, grinning as he recalled his late-night hoops sessions. "I learned early what got me ahead of everybody else."

Discipline.

Work ethic.

Respect.

Humility.

Those were the principles Milton and Marjorie Clayton instilled in their children. Now that Michael is a rookie receiver with the Bucs, a first-round draft pick making millions of dollars, nothing about the budding superstar's relationship with his parents has changed. They are as proud of him as he is thankful.

"I was raised in a wonderful home with two loving parents who would give their lives for their children," said Clayton, who turns 24 on Wednesday. "We grew up, "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am.' We worked 110 percent for everything we got. We were raised right."

This weekend, Clayton is going home. One week after starting his first NFL game and scoring his first touchdown in stylish fashion - the 51-yard play included a diving catch and Clayton dashing into the end zone without his helmet - the son of Baton Rouge will be in nearby New Orleans to play the Saints at the Superdome.

Anyone have spare tickets?

Clayton needs about 75.

* * *

An hour before kickoff of the Bucs' game against the Broncos, Section 207 at Raymond James Stadium was largely empty, making it easy to spot the couple in Row U: a petite woman in a red top and a large man in a No. 80 jersey. They were watching warmups, watching their son, just as they have since Pop Warner football.

"It's a dream come true," Milton said. "You imagine this when you're watching football every Sunday as Michael was growing up. And to have a son do it is very exciting."

Not so long ago, Sunday afternoon football games took place at the Clayton house. The Claytons have three children - Marcus, Michael and Marcie - less than four years apart. Milton also has an older son, Milton, from a previous relationship. Their home was the team home, and all the neighborhood children gathered to play.

"And they never broke a window," Marjorie said.

Dad was strict.

Mom was sympathetic.

"I'd say, "Milton, let those kids come in; don't work them so hard,' " said Marjorie, 50, a high school English teacher. "I babied Michael. I still call him my baby."

Though Milton was the disciplinarian, Marjorie had demands, too. Cliffs Notes? Clayton never used them. But he mastered the art of speed reading at a young age.

"My cousins hated to come visit me because we had to read a book and write a one-page summary before we went out and played," said Clayton, flipping the pages of a book as fast as they would turn. "We used to read a book like this, the first page of every chapter, every 20th page to see what they were talking about."

Clayton played youth football for the South Baton Rouge Rams, where he developed lasting friendships with boys "in the 'hood," he said, whose home lives were much different than his. He saw single-parent homes in which children did not get the attention and support he received.

"I was exposed to the good life and the bad life," said Clayton, who attended Christian Life Academy, a small private school in Baton Rouge. "It really made me appreciate everything as far as learning discipline."

An A student, Clayton excelled at football and basketball. When it came time for the consensus high school All-American to leave home, he basically didn't.

The little boy who used to cry for his mother at sleepovers turned down basketball scholarships from several Top 20 programs to play football for the hometown LSU Tigers. He spent the summer before his freshman year working at Sam's Club, collecting carts from the parking lot.

After LSU won the national title, Clayton opted to skip his senior season to enter the draft. The family gathered at a Baton Rouge banquet room and when Clayton was picked 15th overall by the Bucs, he and his parents wrapped their arms around each other in a massive embrace.

"We're huggers," Marjorie said.

* * *

The son is also a father.

Clayton's 2-year-old daughter was on his knee when his name was announced in April. Madison, who turns 3 in November, lives with her mother, Erica Hunt, in Baton Rouge. Clayton and Hunt dated for several years in high school, and though they no longer have a romantic relationship, the two remain close, cooperative parents.

During college, Clayton saw his daughter daily. Now that he lives in Tampa, visits during football season are rare.

"You just try to make the best of it," he said. "My daughter loves me with all her heart. Every time she sees me she goes berserk. It's because I've had nothing but unconditional love for my daughter and I've been there for her like my parents have been there for me. She will never want or need for anything."

But Clayton is instilling in his young daughter the values his parents taught him. Though he can afford to give her anything, he believes in making her earn things. Madison, he said, will understand the role of hard work in success.

"You can see the family values that we taught to him that he shows to his child," said Milton, 52.

More than keeping an NFL schedule, more than learning Jon Gruden's play book, more than trying to get open against Pro Bowl cornerbacks such as Champ Bailey, the biggest adjustment for Clayton is being apart from his family for the first time.

"As far as football goes, he's doing fine," Milton said. "The city is great for him. He's adapted real well. But he misses us, you can see it. He probably doesn't miss my advice in football. At home I could tell him all the little things he did wrong and what he should do. Being in Tampa, it kind of gives him a break."

Clayton lives in a spacious new home in the Westchase area of Tampa. He proudly offers that he has done all his own decorating, from the matching towels in the master bath to the sumptuous brown leather furniture in the family room to the red and gold linens in the guest room, rich colors that say royalty.

There is one exception.

"The fake grapes," he said, pointing to a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, green rubber grapes cascading over the edges. "My mom picked those, so I keep them."

He smiled.

"I'm blessed," he said, "very blessed."

[Last modified October 9, 2004, 12:42:55]

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