LAS VEGAS — The play that some called the worst of the college football season was far behind Utah’s Kaelin Clay. Yet not everyone was over it this week.
Clay has done about all he can to make people forget, but what happens if he sets the school record for punt return touchdowns (four) in a season Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl? He’ll again be a focal point, and again have to answer the questions: How embarrassing was it when he dropped the ball a half-yard short of the goal line against Oregon? What was he thinking? Did the coaches yell at him? Did he learn from it?
Still, if there’s a stronger guy in college football, I’d like to meet him. He came back on the same night with a 41-yard return and later caught a 58-yard pass. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
If that’s the worst mistake he ever makes, he’ll have a good life.
Most of the discussion had died down going into this week. But it resurfaced again on Wednesday when the Utes met the media after practice at Bishop Gorman High School. Suddenly Clay’s fumble was again terribly interesting.
“Nobody else made that mistake but me,” he said for the umpteenth time. “I took responsibility for the whole game because if you know football, you know how swings go and we would have had a 14-point lead. So I felt it changed the whole momentum of the game. You’ve just got to learn from it.”
When’s the last time a politician said something that up-front?
The play was an Internet sensation. With Utah ahead 7-0 against Oregon in the second quarter of their Nov. 8 game, Clay caught a pass for a 78-yard touchdown. But instead of safely crossing the goal line, he dropped the ball just before finishing and proceeded to celebrate. Oregon retrieved the fumble and went 99 yards for a score.
“It was tough, because I actually had to have someone come in and drag me to the media (session), because I didn’t want to talk to anybody at the time,” Clay said of the postgame press conference. “I had my phone off, but some things you just have face up to — just man up and face that you made a mistake and suffer the consequences for it.”
So in the Department of Manning Up, Clay is the president. He could have told reporters this week that the mistake was ancient history and he was done discussing it. It would have been within his rights to say, “Don’t you people ever cover current news?”
But he didn’t. He was among the last players to board the bus after the team left practice. Nevada media thought the story was still interesting, as did I. Not because he made the mistake, but because he overcame it.
“He didn’t hide from it, didn’t dodge any reporters or media, he faced it,” coach Kyle Whittingham said, noting that Clay even went on a national radio program. “So he’s a tough guy, a standup guy, and everyone felt bad about it and let’s move on.”
That’s exactly what Clay did, scoring on a 25-yard pass against Stanford and two other pass plays against Colorado. Combining returns and catches, he has eight touchdowns for the season.
In addition, he had a 51-yard return against USC and a 42-yarder against Arizona State.
None of that drew the attention his fumble did.
He went from four return touchdowns in the first four games to infamy, to a strong finish and a bowl game.
That’s a lot of activity for one season.
“How many lives have you lived in the last few months?” I said on Wednesday.
It made him laugh.
“So many,” he said. “It’s been awhile, but it’s something I’ll remember forever and I’ll cherish the rest of my life.”
I’ll remember both the play, and the way he handled the aftermath, for the rest of my life, too.
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