This time last year, Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton was watching his teammates participate in voluntary organized team activities while he recovered from offseason knee surgery.
After catching a team-high 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, Clayton seemed destined for an even better year in 2004. However, the former first-round pick admittedly waited too long to have the knee surgery, which ultimately led to what has now been deemed as a sophomore slump.
Clayton missed all of Tampa Bay's OTAs last year, and he entered training camp weighing 225 pounds, which was nearly 15 pounds overweight.
Just as Clayton started to turn a corner toward the end of camp, he suffered a dislocated shoulder in a preseason game, which hindered his ability to get healthy in time for the regular season.
As a result, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden focused his offense more around WR Joey Galloway and rookie running back Cadillac Williams, and Clayton caught just 32 passes for 372 yards and no touchdowns before having his second season put out of its misery in Week 16 when he sustained a severe turf toe injury.
"It takes a real man to be mentally focused," said Clayton. "A lot of the times last season I was mentally focused, and that's what allowed me to last as long as I did during the season as the injuries piled up. It was tough."
Tampa Bay's season abruptly came to an end in January with a home playoff loss to Washington, but Clayton's painful season wasn't quite over yet. He had to endure two more offseason surgeries - a knee and shoulder scope.
Although minor in nature, Clayton's surgeries required rehabilitation, and because of the setback he experienced as a result of putting off knee surgery the year before, Clayton made having the surgeries and getting back on track priorities.
"I made the mistake my first year of getting my surgery late," said Clayton. "I needed some more work this offseason, so I got it done early. I got to work right then and there. I went through a lot of pain rehabbing it, but the trainers told me I wasn't going to hurt it and that I just needed to fight through it. That was something I was willing to do. I just kept fighting and kept fighting, and my muscles got strong enough to go, and I was out here on the field running. I've seen the results. Once you go through the hard work and labor and you see results, it makes you want to work even harder."
Not only did Clayton feel he owed it to himself to rebound from his performance last year, he also re-committed himself to Gruden, who challenged the receiver to do the things that were necessary for him to return to his rookie form.
"When you're on a constant journey to get better, nothing can stop that," said Clayton. "I made a pact with Coach Gruden that I was going to get it right. I basically signed a contract saying what I was going to do. I've been devoted to that, and I won't change.
"Pen to paper [I signed the contract]. The Man witnessed it. [Coach Gruden] actually typed it. Well, I don't know if he typed it, but somebody did and he presented it to me with my name. 'Sign it or not.' What it said is a little bit personal, and I won't get into that. But I asked coach, 'What do you want me to do?' He pulled the contract out from his desk and put it on the table. He said, 'This is what I have for you.' I read it over and concurred, signed, sealed and delivered it, and now I am where I am. I think that's the thing that put me over the edge."
Clayton has made great strides since having two surgeries in January. His hard work has paid off, and that's allowed him get on the field with his teammates for the first set of OTAs that have included veterans at One Buc Place.
"I'm 100 percent," said Clayton. "You have your good days and bad ways in terms of how your body feels, but that's just normal. I'm back to healthy, shoulder, toe, everything.
"I've had the opportunity to better myself, and I've taken advantage of it. I've been at it since the season ended, and everything is going well now.
On Tuesday, Clayton came off the practice field appearing to be in fantastic shape. When asked about his new, slimmer physique, Clayton smiled and said, "I'm about 212 [pounds], right where I need to be. I was 217 at the end of the season."
Gruden was somewhat critical of Clayton last year, and the Bucs appeared to secure an insurance policy at the receiver position when they used a third-round pick on Maurice Stovall. However, Clayton agreed with Tampa Bay's decision to draft Stovall, who also plays flanker in Gruden's offense.
"I don't think that's a message," Clayton said of the Bucs drafting Stovall. "Coach Gruden is a smart guy. I call it intelligence because he knows how hard I play. Even if I'm healthy there still an opportunity for me to get banged up. I think it was a great job bringing in a big, physical guy who goes down and makes the blocks I do.
"If I go down we'll have a guy who is ready to step in and make plays for us."
After an offseason on the sideline and a frustrating sophomore season, Clayton appears to be on the right track. His original goal back in January was to get his surgeries out of the way and rehab in time to participate in the first round of OTAs, which started on Tuesday.
"It's good for your mental state," Clayton said of participating in OTAs. "My first day out they tried to put me out there with the big guys because they said I couldn't run yet. I was like, 'No, I'm going to get out there with my skill guys.' I went on to have a great day out there, and that basically started it off. Now they know I'm healthy."
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