Who is Toney Clemons? To Steeler fans of course, he is the seventh round pick this year and the hometown kid from New Kensington, Pa. That is who Toney Clemons the football player is right now, but who is Toney Clemons the person? Throughout his five-year college career at Michigan and Colorado, Clemons put up solid enough numbers despite the national publicity. But it’s his hometown and family that molded him into the person that he is today.
Hailing from a place just 20 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, Clemons grew up in a town filled with violence and drugs. Instead of becoming just another statistic, Clemons turned to football and education instead of crime.
“I’d say it was about seventh or eighth grade that I knew I wanted to play football,” Clemons said. ”Football was something that helped me escape the surroundings that I grew up around and it helped me in school too. I put all of my time and effort into sports, and I knew if I wanted to play, I had to keep my grades up. School and sports became my main focuses.”
For Clemons, focusing on his athletics and grades in high school ended up paying off for him. In 2006, he was rated as the No. 10 best receiver in the nation and the No. 3 player overall in Pennsylvania. With many colleges around the nation coming to Clemons in hopes of landing the promising player, Clemons picked The University of Michigan as his destination.
Michigan was still a dominant program at the time, but in Clemons’ first game as a Wolverine, Michigan suffered their now infamous loss to the hands of Appalachian State. That season, Michigan finished with a 9-4 record after an 0-2 start and Coach Lloyd Carr was shown the door. Needless to say, this isn’t how Clemons saw his collegiate career going, but if he could do it again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“If I could do it over again, I would definitely still go play for Coach Carr with no hesitation,” Clemons said. ”He sat in my living room and my library at school to tell me how he saw me fitting in with the program. I would do it again with no hesitation.”
West Virginia alum Rich Rodriguez left his alma mater and jumped at the opportunity to take over as coach at Michigan, but his spread system wasn’t the right fit for Clemons. In 2009, Clemons transferred from Michigan to The University of Colorado. While Colorado hasn’t been a football powerhouse lately, Clemons said the decision was about more than just football.
“Colorado used to be a powerhouse in the 1990′s and they have a lot of tradition there,” Clemons said. ”They needed help on special teams and at receiver where I knew I could fill that need. I knew I would play against the top talent that they play against every year, but I also knew they had a great education there and that I would be able to graduate.”
After arriving at Colorado, Clemons’ name was mentioned in a report by current and former Michigan players that were vocal against Rodriguez’s practices. Clemons said that he woke up to missed calls, and one of them was from a reporter he talk with at ESPN during his transfer. Clemons said that he didn’t have anything against Rodriguez or the school and that he wasn’t associated with the report.
“I didn’t call ESPN back, I instead texted them and said ‘I read the article and the allegations didn’t seem far fetched,’” Clemons said. ”I thought I was speaking to a friend off the record and didn’t want to be associated with the article at all. I was young and naive and didn’t know what his angle was.”
After sitting out the 2009 season per NCAA rules, Clemons hauled in 86 catches for 1,162 yards and 11 touchdowns over two season in Boulder. The next step for Clemons was achieving his dream of reaching the NFL.
“I always had my main goal and that was to graduate and my dream was to play in the NFL,” Clemons said. ”I knew I had to reach my goal before I could reach my dream.
Despite not being invited to the NFL combine, Clemons put on a show at his pro day by running a 4.36 40-yard-dash. According to Clemons, only the New York Giants and New England Patriots didn’t show interest in him leading up to the draft.
As draft day arrived, day two and day three both went by without his name being called. With the seventh round approaching, Clemons started to question if his name would get called.
“There were definitely times I felt that I wasn’t going to go in the draft or I wasn’t a draftable player,” Clemons said. ”When it comes to the sport, I’m confident in myself. I knew someone would see me and I would get an opportunity.”
With the draft in its final hours, Clemons’ hometown team the Pittsburgh Steelers were up with the 231st pick in the draft and he received a phone call he won’t ever forget.
“When I got the call from him (Coach Mike Tomlin), the emotions are just indescribable,” Clemons said with a smile as he thought back to the moment. ”It was like relief, mixed with a fire and motivation. I haven’t ever been that confident about something in my entire life.”
It’s a story that you seem to only see in the movies. A hometown standout being selected by his city’s team; or as Clemons called it, the best organization in football.
“Being selected by the best organization in the business is the highest compliment I ever got in a sport,” Clemons said. ”They liked and had confidence in my talents that they wanted me to be a Steeler. They pick great talent each year in the late rounds and do it with class. For me to be a project for this team is just indescribable.”
Clemons comes from an athletically gifted family. His sisters Mycah and Mycaiah both ran Division I track-and-field. His cousin Swin Cash is an Olympian basketball player and one of the faces of the WNBA. But no other family members can understand Clemons’ position he is in more than his NFL cousins; Terrelle Pryor of the Oakland Raiders and Steve Breaston of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I spoke to Terrelle and he told me just go out there and do what you’ve been doing since we were kids,” Clemons said.
Even more than Pryor, Clemons said that Breaston has been there every step of the way for him.
“Steve was the first to text me saying ‘congrats’ but told me it’s not over and to keep my head down and grind,” Clemons said of his cousin. ”Steve was in the same type of situation as me being drafted late and played for Coach Haley (Steelers offensive coordinator) in Kansas City. He’s my support system and tells me what to prepare for. Now and then, he will tell me he is proud of me because he saw me in the ups and downs that I had, as I did with him.”
Through his first weekend of rookie camp, Clemons said he was working hard to learn the playbook, but also having fun with it. One of his childhood friends and current teammates Wes Lyons told him to study, study, study.
“Wes and I played little league, AAU track and football together,” Clemons said of his good friend. ”We’ve been a part of each others’ lives since we were five or six up until now. Being with him and Brandon Lindsey (Pitt’s undrafted free-agent this year), gives me the familiarity with the Steelers by being around people I know.”
With Clemons now playing for the Steelers, he, by default, becomes a role model to his community and hometown.
“I love it and nothing has changed,” Clemons said with a smile. ”I’m in my neighborhood right now and when I came home after the draft, I saw little kids in the yard next to my house playing football. I never saw that before.”
“I have people texting me and sending me letters telling me their kids are bringing home better grades because they can see you can be more than just a statistic in this neighborhood. I go to the high school and run routes and catch passes with the football team. If you are in the position that you can inspire kids, you have to take advantage of that.”
Two years ago, Steelers pro bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown found himself in a similar position that Clemons is in now as he was drafted in the sixth round. Another notable receiver who was drafted late, was the Saints Marques Colston as he was selected just three picks from the final pick of the draft out of Hofstra. With their success and the success of someone like Tom Brady, does draft positioning really matter?
“In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t matter because if you can play then you can play,” Clemons said. ”Personally though, it does matter. Players take it very personal as to where and when they get picked. People such as Antonio and Marques take it as fuel and use it. It will be no different for me.”
In 2010, Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa released his song “Black and Yellow” as a tribute to his home town. For Clemons, his high school colors were black and gold, as were Colorado’s. It’s only fitting that he dons the black and gold of the Steelers for the foreseeable future. While putting on his Steelers jersey was one of the biggest moments of his life, there was another piece of black and gold attire that meant just a little bit more to him.
“Ah man, there is only one black and gold uniform that I was more proud to wear than my Steelers jersey,” Clemons said. ”That was my graduation uniform at Colorado. My main plan was to succeed. I came all that way doing a lot of different things, so getting my degree was the biggest thing for me.”
So who is Toney Clemons? Football player? Role model? Educated? Driven? Humble? Yeah, I think that about sums up who Toney Clemons the person is.
Photo credits: Getty Images