The footage on film suggests a polar-opposite personality. Charles Clay should sound so, so much different. In the open field, he’s an adult dropped into a Pop Warner game the way he breaks tackles, stiff-arms and shucks away defensive backs.
New England’s Patrick Chung may still have two paw prints on his chest from Clay’s shove off the line Sunday.
Yet when the Buffalo Bills tight end takes a seat in his locker at One Bills Drive, there’s no scowl in his brow, no anger at all. He laughs. He speaks softly. He labels himself “the most boring player on the team.” Brainstorming for something, anything interesting, he brings up his two dogs — a German Shepherd/Rottweiler mix and a Dogo Argentino.
He’s married. He’s a fan of “Call of Duty.” He’s an even bigger fan of Family Guy — Clay has seen all 249 episodes.
But Rob Gronkowski-like ragers? Nah. Jimmy Graham-like dunks that rock the goal post? Don’t hold your breath.
“One thing anybody who has played with me will tell you,” Clay said, “is once we cross the white lines, ‘you’re a completely different person.’ You just turn that switch.”
So for as “boring” as Clay may be, he may also be the most unique tight end in the game, the one handpicked to make this Greg Roman offense go. And this week, in Miami, Clay plays the team that wouldn’t match Buffalo’s five-year, $38-million offer. An expectation, a burden, a pressure comes with the contract.
He’s the third-richest player at his position, one of many gambles made by this Bills front office.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder isn’t on edge, rather confident in his game. His skill-set.
“The only time you actually think about it is when that paycheck is in your locker,” Clay said. “But when I’m lined up on the field, I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, they just paid me this much money…’ I’m not thinking of it. Even when I came here, I know for a fact that the money is based off what I’ve done. So I don’t feel like I’m sitting here trying to prove to people why I got it — I guess that’s what keeps my mind at ease.
“I’m just trying to prove to my teammates that I can be depended on. That’s my motivation.”
Long before he was ramming through defenders, Clay was terrified of contact.
One of five children, he grew up in Little Rock, Ark. And on the field for the first time as a six-year old, he was admittedly “terrible.” Clay had watched football on TV and played in the neighborhood, but couldn’t stand collisions on the field. So he quit, on the spot, and didn’t return until he was nine.
Said Clay, “I was bad. I was so scared.”
Then, at running back, he found a home. Clay was never drawn to one player, one position as a young fan. Antonio Gates was always his favorite tight end. He liked Tony Gonzalez, too. But Clay was also drawn to Fred Taylor. He played as Taylor on Madden, thought “Damn, this dude is good,” and was suddenly glued to Jacksonville Jaguars games.
“He was tough,” Clay said. “He was quick. Physical. He did it all. Blocked. There wasn’t anything he didn’t do.”
Running back was his destiny... until Clay grew from 5 foot 8, 125 pounds to 6 foot, 175 pounds his leap from JV to Varsity. At Little Rock Central, he played both tight end and running back. On to Tulsa, he did the same. Clay was a hybrid — not quite a back, not quite a receiver — who lined up everywhere.
When Tulsa coaches told Clay Day 1 on campus that the more you do, the harder it is to get cut in the NFL, he took the words “to heart.” As a H-back his freshman year, he still studied running backs. He studied how receivers ran routes. Over the next four years in Tulsa’s spread offense, Clay didn't have one defined position in totaling 911 rushing yards, 2,544 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns.
Of course, that was the Conference USA.
Sticking in the NFL would take something extra. Would take… Brandon Marshall.
They only spent the 2011 season together in Miami. But Marshall, a Pro Bowler, saw something special in Clay, a rookie, so he invited him to work out together. They’d train from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., as most players were gone by 10:30 a.m. As Clay details, the two did cardio for 90 minutes, took a deep breath, lifted weights for 90 minutes and then would find something else to do.
“It was crazy,” Clay said. “The very first time, I was like ‘Dude, you do this every day. He was like, ‘Yeah, man, after a while your body gets conditioned to it.' It got to a point where I would do that, go home, rest for a little while and then go do another workout. It’s crazy how hard the dude works, man.”
Clay calls Marshall the most competitive person he’s ever been around. By osmosis, he became more competitive, too.
His own RB-in-a-TE-body skill-set gained a punch, a bite.
Any given night, Clay will text Marshall for advice and the receiver answers immediately. What does he do after practice? A conditioning circuit. How many massages during the week? Three. One common sight inside the fieldhouse is Clay high-kneeing away at the Stairmaster for 45 minutes after practice.
Now, comes the hard part: living up to his deal.
He's only stressed about one thing, really. Clay bought a house in Orchard Park five minutes from the stadium, but nobody told him this is where the lake-effect snow hits hardest — “I wish I would’ve known that!”
Otherwise, he’s not sweating it. Clay’s mother always told him to “control what you can control.” With a snap of his fingers, Clay repeats that he’ll keep flipping the personality switch on the field.
Gronkowski splits the seam. Graham, too. His game is more about busting through an arm tackle.
“It’s want-to,” Clay said. “You’ve got to have the want-to. If I get the ball and think, ‘Oh, shoot, how am I going to make this tackle not hurt?’—you’re going to get tackled every single time. You could be the strongest person in the league and if you don’t want to break a tackle, you won’t break a tackle.”
Adds receiver Sammy Watkins, “You can put him on a corner and he’ll beat a corner. You can put him on a linebacker and the linebacker can’t cover him. That’s the good thing about having a tight end like him. He’s going to make plays and the majority of the time, it’s a mismatch.”
In a locker room full of colorful personalities, the quieter Clay provides a balance. Just don’t call this blocking, catching, do-it-all threat a “glue guy.”
He cringes at that phrasing.
Said Clay, “I definitely look at myself as a guy who can make plays when my number’s called."
He insists his knees are fine — Clay has no clue why anyone in Miami would leak a report that he's damaged goods. And even if he won’t say it this week, yes, part of Clay will absolutely want to stick it to his former team.
The Dolphins had a chance to match Buffalo’s offer and did not. Simple. Take it from his back-up, MarQueis Gray.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Gray said. “He’s going back to show them what they missed out on. They had the opportunity to bring him back and they didn’t want to obviously. … He’s not going to say it, but that goes for any player. If a team doesn’t want you and you get a chance to play them, you’re going to do whatever you can to make sure you make plays.
“He doesn’t show it but we know what he’s thinking.”
Because with Clay, actions usually speak louder than words.