Sept. 30, 2008
In the opening minutes of the third quarter of NIU's 2007 home opener against Southern Illinois Sept. 8, the season came to an abrupt end for one Huskie. On a second and six for the Huskies from the NIU 47-yard line and the Huskies turn to their starting running back.
Montell Clanton was off to a great start in the game, gaining 84 yards on 10 carries in the first half, including a 59-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He earned the starting job in 2007 after wowing coaches and teammates in summer camp. Clanton was the feel-good story of 2007 for the Huskies. After suffering a knee injury in the third game of the 2006 season, Clanton worked hard to rehab his knee just to get back on the field. Earning the starting job was the realization of all his hopes and dreams.
The ball is snapped, Clanton takes the handoff and gains five yards on the play, but loses his season after suffering a knee injury and sidelining him for the second-straight year.
"The second time, it was just a feeling of why me," Clanton said of his thoughts after suffering his second setback. "You think about what could have happened, what I could have been, but it just wasn't my time yet."
For Clanton, patience truly is a virtue. During his four years in DeKalb, he has had to wait, and wait, and wait for his opportunity. The waiting started from his freshman year.
When he arrived on campus, Clanton redshirted the 2004 season. In 2005, he was in competition with established running back A.J. Harris and Garrett Wolfe, then a sophomore.
"Coming in I was eager to play, eager to start," he said. "When I came in, there was Garrett Wolfe, A.J. Harris and other guys in front of me. So I had to wait."
He saw action in 11 of 12 games for the Huskies in 2005, rushing for 102 yards on 21 carries, averaging 4.9 yards a carry. He showed flashes of his potential throughout the season. He had a nine-carry, 50-yard performance in the Huskies 42-3 victory over Tennessee Tech Sept. 17, 2005. In the Huskies 42-7 victory over Western Michigan in the regular-season finale, he ripped off a 38-yard run.
He entered 2006 ready to compete for the starting job with Wolfe. With Wolfe winning the starting job, Clanton would spend the season as his back up, just waiting for his chance. He saw action in the Huskies' first three games, before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Buffalo.
So, when Clanton got injured in 2007, it could have been easy for him to leave the game he loves and start thinking about life after football. While those thoughts did creep into his mind, they were quickly erased by his passion for the game, the support of his family and his faith in God.
"It ran across my mind after surgery and during the rehab process," he said. "The first injury took so much energy out of me to get back to my original self. To happen again a second time, it just took everything. I just prayed about it. Basically, I said to myself, I can still do this. I'm passionate about the game. This is what I do. This is what I love. Don't quit now.
"Family members told me not to quit, not to give up. They were telling me it's going to be alright."
So, once he was cleared to begin his rehabilitation process, Clanton went to work. Having already gone through the process before with his other knee, he was prepared for the tough road ahead.
"I worked really hard during the first rehab process, as well as the second," he said. "The second one was a little bit easier than the first. With the first rehab, I was new to it. So after I got the hang of it, I just pushed myself really hard the second time."
One of the other motivating factors for Clanton to return to the field is the fine tradition of running backs NIU has developed over the years. Two former Huskie running backs, Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe, are currently playing the NFL and NIU has posted nine straight years of 1,000-yard rushers (1999-2007), the nation's longest current streak.
"It's a big tradition here and one that all the running backs here are capable of continuing on," he said of the streak of 1,000-yard rushers.
When the Huskies opened up camp at the beginning of August, Clanton was there, back on the turf at Huskie Stadium for the first time since the Southern Illinois game.
"It felt great taking the practice field," he said. "Once I got back to my original form, I felt like, wow, anything can happen. God is amazing. It's amazing what he can do to people, and how you can motivate yourself to come back and be the same as you were, even with two knee surgeries."
While the new NIU coaching staff had a chance to see Clanton up close when they were on the visitor's sideline last September, August was the first chance the new coaching staff had a chance to work with Clanton. Due to his injury, he was unable to participate in spring practice. Clanton quickly made a good impression on NIU running backs coach Rob Reeves.
"He's a great student, he's already graduated, and he's working on his master's degree with a very good GPA," Reeves said. "He's focused. He knows where he wants to go with his life."
With seven running backs on the NIU roster, and Clanton the lone senior, Reeves feels Clanton is a great example for the young backs to look up to.
"He's a quiet, down to earth, very humble person," he said. "You don't hear much out of him. People know that he goes to work and he takes care of business. Whenever you can have an influence like that in the academic arena, that's a positive."
When the Huskies took the field at the Metrodome to face off against Minnesota in the season opener, Clanton was there. Any doubt he may have had to continue playing football was washed away the moment he stepped on the field.
"It felt great [to take the field at Minnesota]," Clanton said. "I'm still passionate about the game. I still get goose bumps before the game. I still feel excited and have that adrenaline rush going through my body. It felt great. You forget about everything, once the game starts."
No matter what Clanton accomplishes on the field during his career, nothing compares to the feeling he had walking across the stage in May to receive his diploma.
"It was a big accomplishment for me because I am the first one in my immediate family to graduate from college," he said. "It was a big accomplishment for my family as well. Everybody was happy for me. I was so excited. I was proud of myself at that point in time. There's no greater feeling than to walk across the stage and graduate."
Choosing to come to NIU was not a difficult decision for Clanton. While schools such as Minnesota and Ball State expressed interest in him, the Rockford product came to NIU so his family could see him play. Family is very important to Clanton. They were there for him to cheer him on, and they were there to keep his spirits up when he was down. They were there telling him not to give up on playing the game he loved. When you ask Clanton who has been the biggest influence the answer was simple, his father.
"He stayed on me all throughout high school," he said. "Growing up, he stayed on me constantly, telling me to read books, do well in school and excel in sports. He was always on my behind and that's why I'm here today."