Leap and a prayer

A replay reversal gives the Bucs their first victory.

Published October 15, 2006

The wait seemed eternal for Michael Clayton.

He had waited 20 games, one year, nine months and 13 days to finally reach the end zone again.

The last time he scored a touchdown was the final game of his terrific rookie season in 2004. Since then, his patience had been worn thin by injuries that made him ineffective a year ago and reduced his role in the offense.

So when Clayton caught what appeared to be the game-winning 8-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining in the Bucs’ 14-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it figured that the celebration would be delayed.
Clayton had to wait a little longer.

Referee Mike Carey ruled that Clayton was going to the ground while making the catch, and when the ball came loose as he hit the ground in the end zone, by rule the pass was incomplete.

But instant replay official Tommy Moore notified Carey that was the play was under review (there are no coaches challenges in the final two minutes of each half). About three minutes passed before Carey determined that Clayton caught the slant pass and extended the ball over the goal line before losing control.

While Carey was looking at the play, Clayton retreated 70 yards downfield, went to a knee and prayed.

“It was a real emotional moment for me because of what I’ve been through and I’m just talking to God right there,” Clayton said. “Because I know what I did. I said, 'God, I know you wouldn’t let me down. I’m your child, I know you wouldn’t let me down.’

“I just constantly said that over and over and over and over until I convinced myself that, God would say, 'Hey, I’m going to turn it around. A catch is a catch. I’m not going to take away from you.’ I just dropped to my knees and thanked God for that moment. God knows that I needed that.”

Lord knows the Bucs did, too.

Clayton’s catch, which came on fourth and 3 from the Bengals 8-yard line, set up Matt Bryant’s decisive extra point while snapping the Bucs’ four-game losing streak. It also capped a brilliant fourth quarter comeback by rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who completed 6-of-8 passes for 57 yards on the drive. Clayton also had a critical 15-yard catch on third and 3 to sustain the drive.

“I almost wanted to shed a tear,” Clayton said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been in the end zone. ...  It was a very emotional moment for me.”

Two years ago, Clayton was a brash, first-round pick from Louisiana State who led all rookie receivers with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns.

But he delayed offseason knee surgery after his rookie year and reported to training camp out of shape. He separated his shoulder in the preseason and battled through leg and foot injuries that forced him to miss three games, including the playoffs.

Clayton’s production plummeted. He caught just 32 passes last year for 372 yards and no touchdowns.

“I think he’s really struggled, especially after last season, to find his niche,” said tight end Alex Smith, who caught his second touchdown in as many games Sunday. “He’s always telling us about how different it was his rookie season and how he’s trying to adjust to it.”

Clayton had a feeling Sunday would be his day. He celebrated his 24th birthday on Friday the 13th by having most of his teammates join him at a Tampa nightspot. On Sunday morning, he told his new wife, Tina, that he had a good feeling about the game.

As she is prone to do on occasion, Tina had already written him a note that he read in the locker room .

“She wrote me a letter and said she had a good feeling about it, too,” Clayton said, still clutching the one-page, hand-written note. “It just means a lot for my family because of what I’ve been through. To help this team is something that I wanted to come in and do from the beginning, from my rookie year. This win means a lot to me.”

It meant a lot to Gradkowski, who struggled much of the game but rallied to complete 25-of-44 passes for 184 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. It meant a lot to the defense, which rose to the challenge issued earlier in the week by coach Jon Gruden, holding the Bengals to 53 yards rushing, just 3 in the first half.

After Clayton’s touchdown, the Bengals drove to the Bucs’ 44-yard line, but Shayne Graham missed from 62 yards as time expired.

Clayton’s touchdown came in the same end zone where Edell Shepherd was ruled to have lost possession of an apparent touchdown catch in the NFC wildcard playoff loss to the Redskins last season.“You kind of worry about those replay officials because you never know if they’re going to get it right or not,” Smith said.

As Clayton knelt in prayer, and much of the crowd of 65,732 at Raymond James Stadium looked skyward, a familiar song played over the public address system by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The waaaa-ting is the hardest part.