The impression a football player makes when he walks through the locker room door for the first time can be misleading. It only reveals what the athlete looks like on the outside.
Je’Ney Jackson, director of the Kansas University football team’s strength and conditioning staff, remembers a couple of misleading appearances from his days working under Chris Dawson, now at Kansas State.
“James McClinton,” Jackson said. “J-Mac, if you were to look at J-Mac, you would say, ‘This guy’s not a Big 12 defensive lineman.’ But he worked his tail off, got big, got strong, and by his senior year (2007), he was Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year.”
Not to mention second-team All-American.
“We used to say he looked like a pile of chewed bubblegum,” Jackson said. “He just wasn’t well put together.”
McClinton surprised everybody but himself.
“Man, when I came out of high school, I was expecting to be the first player to be drafted,” McClinton said by phone from New Orleans, where he plays for the Voodoo, an Arena Football League team. “I had high expectations. I expected to win the Heisman. Why not?”
Confidence compensates for plenty, especially for a recent high school graduate. It helped McClinton become a terrific college football player, and Kansas hasn’t had a defensive lineman as productive as him since he left. Which of the new football players has a similar quality?
This summer conditioning period serves not only as a chance to expose newcomers to how hard a college athlete must train, but also gives coaches exposure to what players look like on the inside. They’ll be on the lookout for another McClinton type, someone convinced he has what it takes and is eager to show it on every rep.
“Coming out of high school, I always worked hard,” McClinton said. “Then you go to somebody who knows what they’re doing and has a plan, you can really make a transformation.”
McClinton’s career in the minor leagues of professional football has taken him to Green Bay, Tulsa, Des Moines, and this season alone to Jacksonville, Los Angeles and New Orleans.
Typically, McClinton said, teams will help players find jobs in the offseason. Last offseason he returned home to Garland, Texas, to work.
“Warehouse jobs,” McClinton said of the non-football paychecks he has earned. “Lot of hard work, all the heavy lifting and stuff.”
He doesn’t have the height to match most NFL defensive tackles, but still chases the dream. And he has sound advice for KU newcomers who might interested in hearing what a man who turned himself into an All-American has to say.
“Coach Bill Young, great coach, football guru, he was defensive coordinator and my position coach, too,” McClinton said. “I just looked to him and I learned a lot from him. Just keep your mouth closed and your coach will teach you something. Just trust in the process.”
More advice: “You practice like you play. It’s just going to transfer over to the game. That way, you don’t have to worry putting on a switch. You’ll just do what you know. Practice hard, you’re going to go and play hard.”
McClinton’s final game for KU came in the Orange Bowl victory vs. Virginia Tech. He has the memories of that game to bank on, but not all of the mementos.
“I lost my ring,” he said. “I left it at a gas station in Milwaukee. That ring’s gone.”
But his name lives on in Kansas football weight-room sessions and practices, invoked by coaches as an example of how to make yourself a little better every day.
Another Orange Bowl standout cited by Jackson for transforming his body has had better fortune in the professional ranks. Cornerback Chris Harris signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract last December. The Pro Bowl cornerback was not selected in the 2011 draft and signed with the Broncos for a $2,000 bonus.
“Chris Harris is 5-8-1/2 or something like that,” Jackson said of the cornerback listed at 5-10 on the Broncos roster. “You would have never thought he would be starting in the NFL. From Day 1, he was just tough, just a tough dude.”
If there is a Harris or McClinton in this class of recently arrived recruits, Jackson, head coach David Beaty and his entire staff will recognize the signs early.
“J-Mac, Chris, unbelievable minds,” Jackson said. “Just no quit. I don’t care what we did, zero quit in those guys.”