Charles Clay recently tried going vegan. It lasted for about a month.
“I felt good,” the Buffalo Bills’ tight end said. “But it’s hard. It’s expensive to do, too.”
Undaunted, Clay remained true to drastically changing his eating habits, because he was determined to find a solution, once and for all, to help cut down on the injuries with which he has dealt for most of his seven NFL seasons and all of the last three in Buffalo.
The tipping point came last Nov. 20, during the Bills’ 16-12 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, when he was carted off the field in Paul Brown Stadium with a torn meniscus and sprained MCL in his left knee. Clay underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed three games. It was one of the lowest points in his career but also provided the impetus for him to seek answers beyond training methods.
With the help of the Bills’ nutritionist, Clay said he has been following a diet loaded with plant-based foods and devoid of sugar. His meals include chicken and fish, but little, if any, red meat.
“It was something I looked into all offseason, trying to keep as much inflammation out of my body as I can and eating has a lot to do with that,” Clay said after an organized team activity (OTA) workout late last week. “I feel awesome right now.”
Through his first three seasons in the league with the Miami Dolphins, 2011 to 2013, he wasn’t at all concerned about the type of food he ate. After his third year, Clay became a bit more conscious of his diet, although he was “still eating a ton of red meat, still drinking sugars, and you don’t realize how bad that is for your body.”
He would spend one more season with the Dolphins before signing with the Bills in 2015 as a restricted free agent. Up to that point, however, Clay would experience what he didn’t realize at the time were some of the ill effects of poor eating habits. He had suffered a strained hamstring that caused him to miss two games as a rookie, another torn meniscus that landed him on the Dolphins’ injured-reserve list for the final two weeks of the 2012 season, and a pulled hamstring that sidelined him for two games in 2014.
The injury trend continued with the Bills, as he missed the final three games of the ’15 season with a lower-lumbar sprain and another unspecified ailment. The back issue persisted through the offseason, and Clay also would have a knee strain that kept him out of a game in 2016 before experiencing the bitter disappointment of not being able to play in three games last season.
He would have actually been out for four games, but the Bills had their bye the weekend after he hurt his knee against the Bengals.
“Last year, with having the surgery, especially at the time when it came, it was a little frustrating,” said Clay, who at the time had 20 receptions for 258 yards and two touchdowns. “In that situation, it’s easy to get down on yourself.”
Whenever he was feeling low, he usually could get an instant boost by checking his phone. Almost daily, Clay received supportive text messages from teammates and coaches. Most were variations of, “Keep your head up” and, “Get yourself right.”
“When you’re getting that kind of support from everybody, that’s kind of what kept me going,” he said. “I’ve never felt more like part of a family than when that injury did come, with all the support and all the text messages that I was getting. That kind of kept me in the right mind frame. It kept me motivated. Not that I wouldn’t be motivated, but it kind of prevented me from getting down on myself.
“At no point in the season do you want to get injured, so when it happened and I found out that I had to have surgery, it would have been easy to get down. But guys supported me through the whole thing and I gave it all I can to get back as soon as I could, to be back out there with those guys. Watching those three games was probably the roughest thing for me, so it felt good to get back out there with those guys.”
Clay would come back to rank second on the Bills with 49 receptions for 558 yards (11.4 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. The production actually said less about Clay’s prowess, or even that of running back and leading receiver LeSean McCoy (59 catches for 448 yards and two TDs), than it does about the sorry state of the Bills’ passing game. The team will have a new quarterback, after trading Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns, and a revamped offensive line after the retirements of center Eric Wood and guard Richie Incognito and the off-season trade that sent left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati.
Oh, and its pass-catching corps also is in dire need of improvement. Clay remains the Bills’ No. 1 tight end, but he knows he has to do much more to help the cause. One way is to stay healthy.
“Training-wise has still been the same,” Clay said. “It took me awhile to realize how big of a role food played in the way your body feels and things like that. That’s just something, as you go on, you kind of learn. You get young guys who come in here, you try to tell them, ‘Man, you shouldn’t be eating that.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I had guys early on tell me that it was something that I had to kind of try to experiment with.
“As you get older, your needs change, so you just have change what you do.”
Clay has made the changes at breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack time. In May, it’s a good-sounding plan for being proactive as a 29-year-old entering his eighth NFL season.
Whether it amounts to something greater remains to be seen.
“And who's to say? Five years from now, you don't say it now but in five years, it could be the best thing that happened to me because (his latest knee injury is) ultimately what led to me trying new diets and things like that. I believe everything happens for a reason.
“I feel good now. It taught me a lot.”