Oct. 15, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- You can learn something from a person’s body language. Or body ink. UW tailback John Clay took us on a tour, explaining the significance of all the tattoos on his upper body.
The starting point was his right bicep and a sketch of his mother, Sara, with the inscription “wisdom.” At first, Sara Clay thought it was kind of a dumb thing to do.
“Initially, I was extremely upset,” she said before breaking into laughter. “I gave him a huge lecture about his body being a temple and he shouldn’t be doing that type of thing.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I felt honored because most people get tattoos out of respect to the memory of a person who has passed on. I kind of thought afterward, ‘Wow, it is an honor.’”
On the left bicep is a tattoo of a Purple Heart, which his father, John Sr., was awarded after being wounded during the Vietnam War. There’s another tattoo on the arm identifying the elder Clay’s platoon.
There’s also an apple.
For almost 14 years, John Clay Sr., has been a teaching assistant at Racine Park High School, where he has worked with young people with disabilities. His son took an active role with the kids, too.
“He was involved with them a lot,” said Clay Sr. “He’d come over during his lunch break and eat with us. When they see him today, they’ll still come up and shake his hand or hug him.”
He’s still Johnny Clay to everybody back home.
On his right arm, there’s a military slogan (Death before Dishonor) and a family crest, which he designed with his cousin. That tattoo meshes with a three-headed Panther. Clay was a prep All-American for the Racine Park Panthers and led them to a state title his junior year.
The names of his two sisters -- Amelia and Ieshia -- are on his left arm. Family is the common denominator with his tattoos. And he pointed out that they are in tribute to “everybody who means something to me or has helped me get through things or who has been a big part of my life.”
He was especially fond of his grandmother, Letha.
“We called her our godmother,” Sara Clay said. “We could always go to her with any kind of problem, and she would guide us spiritually down the right path. She was our family rock.”
The tattoo on his back honors her memory.
“Fly Wings Fly.”
“Before she passed,” Johnny Clay was saying now, “she used to tell me that God put wings on me to make me run fast.”
What do we know about No. 32? Clay’s number belonged to his dad’s favorite player, the legendary Jim Brown. That much we know. Maybe we should ask, “What don’t we know?” beyond knowing that he’s a 248-pound running back who gets downhill in a hurry.
“What don’t people know about me?” he said repeating the question. “Nothing I can say off the top of my head … I like my space… I like my time alone… But I have friends I see all the time… I like having fun…I’m a homebody…I’m very family-oriented and being around them makes me happy.”
That qualifies as a speech. He’s very pleasant in an interview setting. Just not very revealing. “John doesn’t say much, doesn’t say much at all,” Sara Clay said. “But his actions say a lot.”
What we don’t know is how he’s handling the pressure of being John Clay.
“We talk about that quite a bit as a family,” Sara said. “We wonder about that ourselves how he deals with the pressure. All I can tell you is we work at it through prayer and we try to keep him humble and focused on what’s important as far as life is concerned.”
Added John Clay Sr., “I just told him the other day, ‘You are a remarkable young man to be under all the pressure and the demands that are put on you.’ I think he’s doing very well with it. He has never been much of a talker. But if I don’t hear from him every two days, I’m on the phone to him.”
Because of his high profile within the state as an elite prep athlete and his notoriety as a blue-chip recruit, it always seems like some people demand more of John Clay than he can give. Fair or foul?
“Since he was eight years old, he has always been hit with that,” Sara said. “He has always been expected to do a lot more. But if the pressure gets too bad, he talks to us. He’ll talk to his dad, he’ll talk to his sister. He’ll talk to me, if things are getting too heavy. He knows what to do.”
John Clay Sr., thinks that maybe his son delivers too much. “Sometimes I tell him he’s almost too giving,” he said. “He has to learn how to say ‘no’ sometimes. But he finds that very had to do.”
In the locker room, center Peter Konz has seen another side to Clay.
“He’s a real quiet guy but you see him having fun all the time,” Konz said. “He has a goofiness about him. Just the stuff that he does with his hair is kind of fun.”
Every two weeks, Clay gets his hair cut in such a way that it reflects a different theme or design. For the Ohio State game, he’s recognizing his offensive linemen. On the left side of his head, he will have No. 68 (Gabe Carimi) and No. 74 (John Moffitt). On the right side, he’ll have No. 70 (Kevin Zeitler) and No. 58 (Ricky Wagner). On the back of his head, he will have No. 66. (Konz).
“I told them I would do something special for them this game,” Clay said, grinning.
Such a gesture is appreciated. So is his play on the field.
“As an offensive line, we can count on him getting those extra yards,” Konz said. “We’ll block for him and get him whatever yardage we can, and he’ll get those extra yards on his own.”
There have been times, Konz noted, when opponents have challenged Clay with trash talk. “I’m talking about one or two guys trying to get into his head,” he said. And how did Clay respond? “He gives them a strong shoulder on the next play,” Konz said, cracking up.
When Clay was quizzed on sharing reps with freshman tailback James White, he got a smile on his face and said, “It brings out the best in each of us. We feed off each other during games. James has a shiftiness and the ability to cut. I have more speed coming down hill to punish people.”
Fly Wings Fly.
“I’ve already got goose bumps thinking about Saturday night,” Johnny Clay was saying now. “I want to do anything possible to put on a show for our fans.”