The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.
BY ANDY BAGGOT | UWBadgers.com Insider
John Clay owns a unique, legendary set of bookends regarding Camp Randall Stadium.
He won a championship in his first appearance there in 2005.
He clinched another while playing his final game there in 2010.
In between became one of the most productive ball-carriers in Wisconsin football history.
He currently ranks 10th on the school’s all-time rushing list with 3,413 yards, eighth in touchdowns with 41 and sixth with a per-carry average of 5.43 yards.
Clay is one of nine UW tailbacks to produce multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons “” 2009 and ’10 “” joining Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill and Billy Marek (three each) and Montee Ball, Anthony Davis, Rufus Ferguson, Melvin Gordon and James White (two apiece).
Clay, from Racine, is one of six homegrown tailbacks to record a 1,000-yard season for the Badgers, joining Gordon (Kenosha), Alan Ameche (Kenosha), Brent Moss (Racine), Michael Bennett (Milwaukee) and Brian Calhoun (Oak Creek).
What makes Clay’s career more unusual is that he had two elite experiences at Camp Randall.
One: He was a junior at Racine Park High School when he helped lead the Panthers to a 28-7 victory over Wisconsin Rapids in the WIAA Division I state title game. Playing both ways, Clay rushed 19 times for 259 yards and three TDs on offense and amassed six tackles “” including two sacks “” on defense.
Five Novembers later, as a junior at UW, Clay had 11 carries for 76 yards and a TD as the Badgers obliterated Northwestern 70-23 to clinch a share of the Big Ten Conference championship.
John Clay’s fondest memory of playing at Camp Randall fits neatly between those two championship moments.
On Oct. 16, 2010, the 18th-ranked Badgers hosted top-rated Ohio State in a Big Ten duel that had all the trappings of hype.
It was a night game. ESPN’s College GameDay was in the house. A national TV audience was tuned in. A capacity crowd of 81,194 was on hand.
“All eyes on you,” Clay said of the backdrop, “seeing what you’re made of.”
“You step out on the field and hear that crowd roaring. You get goosebumps and chills. I still do at this time. … We all came together like, you know what, this is our day and our night. We believed in each other and that’s how we went into that game.”
– John Clay
Clay didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, but he wasn’t fretting as much as he was excited.
“That whole week it was just everybody being locked in with the belief that this could happen,” he said, referring to a victory over the No. 1 team in the land. “Someone’s going to take them out. What not us?
“I had a good feeling all week that something special was going to happen, not just for me, but for the whole team.”
Clay tried to recreate the pregame scene and got shivers in the process.
“You step out on the field and hear that crowd roaring,” he said. “You get goosebumps and chills. I still do at this time.
“We got all eyes on us. The stadium’s full. The whole university is rocking and cheering for us. It’s just a feeling that you don’t want to let people down. You don’t want to let your teammates down.
“We all came together like, you know what, this is our day and our night. We believed in each other and that’s how we went into that game.”
UW prevailed 31-18 in a performance defined mainly by its first play.
The Badgers won the coin toss and elected to receive. Twelve seconds later they had the lead thanks to a 97-yard kickoff return for a TD by wide receiver David Gilreath.
According to Clay, the return opened the spigot for everyone’s competitive juices.
“I’ve got to do something special like David did,” Clay said of the mindset. “Having that mentality as a team, we fed off each other.”
Properly inspired, Clay soon went to work, setting the stage for a milestone performance.
On the ensuing Wisconsin drive, Clay carried five times for 51 yards, including a 14-yard thunderbolt to make it 14-0.
“I wasn’t getting touched until 10, 15 yards down the field,” he recalled.
On the scoring run, Clay said tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt carved out a hole “that a whole semi-truck could have went through, and I just walked into the end zone.”
On the next UW series, Clay carried seven times for 23 yards and made it 21-0 with a 1-yard scoring run.
Clay finished the night with 104 yards and two TDs on 21 carries, making him the first back to top 100 yards rushing against the Buckeyes in 29 games dating back to 2008.
The decisive victory fueled a seven-game win streak to close out the regular season for the Badgers. They finished in a three-way tie with Michigan State and Ohio State “” all at 7-1 “” but earned the Rose Bowl berth courtesy of a higher slot in the final Bowl Championship Series rankings.
It would be the last time Clay surpassed 100 yards rushing in a game at Camp Randall. He finished with 18 career 100-yard performances, including 10 at home. The Badgers were 10-0 in those outings.
The roots of that unbeaten streak go back to Nov. 18, 2005 when Clay finished off an eye-catching junior year at Park and further established himself as one of the premier recruits in the nation.
Clay wound up with 2,032 yards and 30 TDs on 162 carries “” a 12.5 average per touch “” after his Camp Randall debut.
By his own admission, Clay started slowly, which helps explain why Park owned a 14-7 lead in the second half.
“It was more about being nervous, having the jitters,” he said. “Being on a field like that as a junior in high school and being in that atmosphere, the legendary turf, it was just anxiety setting in.”
Clay helped put the game away with scoring runs of 70 and 65 yards, finishing the day with a 13.6-yard-per-carry average.
Clay bypassed his senior season of college to jump to the NFL, signing a free-agent deal with Pittsburgh. He appeared in three games with the Steelers during the 2011 season, but ultimately retired after a receiving an injury settlement.
Now 29, Clay works in his hometown for a nationwide youth intervention initiative called VFZ “” Violence Free Zone “” where he serves as a counselor for middle-school kids.
“Trying to be a mentor and guide, trying to get them to the next level of where they want to be,” he said.
Clay spoke of returning to UW to get his degree “” he majored in family, consumer and community education “” saying he was 20 credits short.
“That’s one thing that I promised my mom,” Clay said of Sara Clay.
Meanwhile, the memories of playing for the Badgers remain vivid.
“They’re a family that will never go away,” Clay said.