When Clay Johnston met San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o, it wasn’t to get an autograph or take a photo.
As the Chargers’ strength and conditioning coach, Kent Johnston liked to give his son the chance to work out with NFL players during the summers between high school. So Clay took the opportunity and ran with it.
“When I was in San Diego, I stuck Clay in there with Manti Te’o and all the other linebackers,” Kent Johnston said. “So he’d jump right in there. I told them, ‘If he beats one of you, all of you have to run again.’ Well, he beat one of them.”
Clay felt privileged to work out with the pro players his father trained, and always tried to apply what he learned to his own development as a football player. Now a Baylor sophomore, Johnston is beginning to make a name for himself as the starting middle linebacker.
Johnston was one of the bright spots in Baylor’s 17-10 loss to UTSA last weekend as he collected 10 tackles. His best play was a fourth-and-6 stop of Jalen Rhodes for a 1-yard gain after he caught a pass from Dalton Sturm in the second quarter.
Johnston read the play perfectly and hammered Rhodes to the ground.
“That’s a play seniors make,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule. “That’s a play pros make, and he’s making it as a sophomore. He just lets us coach him. He works hard every day. I just think what he’s going to do in six more weeks, twelve more weeks, next year.”
Johnston began to make an impact for Baylor’s defense during the second half of last season. In just the second start of his career, Johnston made four tackles in a 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl as the Bears broke a six-game losing streak.
Playing middle linebacker suits Johnston because of the physical and mental demands of the position. But he’d probably be happy anywhere the coaches put him on a football field.
“It’s cool getting to hit people and not get in trouble for doing it,” Johnston said. “I played a little running back, but I was never the shiftiest or the fastest. I didn’t have any juice. I’ll just stick to hitting people. That’s probably what I’m best suited for.”
With Kent Johnston serving 25 years as an NFL strength and conditioning coach for Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Seattle, Cleveland and San Diego before his recent retirement, Clay was always around football.
The whole family is athletic. Clay’s mother, Pam Johnston, played basketball for the University of Alabama. His two older brothers played college football as Kody played linebacker at Texas A&M and Cade played defensive end at Tarleton State. His younger brother, Cole, played for Crawford High School last year.
When the brothers got together for any athletic activity, the competition grew pretty intense.
“We’d fight half the time,” Clay said. “They were good fights, brotherly fights, I love all of them so much. We’d box and start throwing punches, duke it out, and last one standing. I’d be the first one out.”
Kent Johnston never pushed football on his sons. But they loved the game so much that they often sought out their father for advice on training.
“He always talked about the NFL and how he never wanted me to make it my idol,” Clay said. “You can idolize football and make it life. But it’s super important because whatever I do I’m going to do it to the best of my ability to glorify God. ”
Clay was born in Green Bay when Kent was the strength and conditioning coach under Mike Holmgren. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 1997 and Clay quickly became aware of Packers stars like quarterback Brett Favre and defensive end Reggie White.
But Clay grew more familiar with players as he entered his teenage years when Kent was the strength coach for the Browns and Chargers.
Kent recalled how players like Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Colt McCoy and former Chargers safety Eric Weddle took time to talk to Clay and show an interest in him.
“He’d come out to San Diego when he was in high school and Eric Weddle would take him under his wing,” Kent Johnston said. “Joe Thomas was a primo player and he’d take time to talk to Clay. Colt McCoy is as top notch as there is in the 25 years I spent in the NFL. He lived with us and he came from a family of brothers, so he fit right in there and spent evenings eating supper with us.”
Instead of just watching NFL players on TV, Clay was around them constantly and enjoyed every minute of it.
“I grew up around other football players that my dad made friends with,” Clay said. “It was cool experiencing stuff like that. Football was obviously a passion of mine, so I started going down that route.”
Clay was eager to excel as a football player, and knew his father could work him into optimal shape. He didn’t want Kent to go lightly on him, and welcomed any strength and conditioning workouts he could get from his father.
“He’s a tough dude in the weight room for sure,” Clay said. “The hardest workout I ever did with him, I was in ninth grade and we had a treadmill. He took the magnet off and put it on a 30-to-35 degree incline, and I had to do intervals. Your legs would be exploding, throbbing with instant soreness. We’d do like eight intervals of 15-minute max throttles , just burnout sessions and I’m puking after the second rep. I’ll always remember that.”
With Kent working for five NFL teams, the Johnstons moved around a lot. They had a ranch near Crawford when Clay was in junior high, but they moved to Ohio after Kent took a job with the Browns. Kent moved the family to Abilene during Clay’s high school years, and he became an all-state linebacker for Wylie High School in 2013-14.
Clay had great memories of growing up near Crawford and wanted to return to the Waco area. With Baylor coming off back to back Big 12 championships, Clay signed in February 2015.
After redshirting his first year on campus, Johnston played in all 13 games last season and made 26 tackles. One of his biggest moments was in a win over Kansas when he returned an interception 65 yards. His first start was at defensive end against TCU.
“Last year toward the end it was helpful getting a little experience,” Johnston said. “I played defensive end in some games which was weird at 210 pounds. That was a unique twist for me being that small with those 340-pound guys. It was good, it built a little confidence going into this season and I have to continue to build on that.”
Clay said last year’s defensive staff was constantly getting on him, and that hasn’t changed with Rhule’s staff. He expects to hear Baylor linebackers coach Mike Siravo in his ear all the time.
“I’m used to it,” Johnston said. “I enjoy it because I like to try to correct what they say I’m doing wrong. I do a lot of things wrong, so they’ll get on me until I’m out of here. But I’m thankful for that. I just look at it like I’m trying to perfect their plays and get into the craft of what they want me to do.”
Kent has moved to China Spring, so he can see Clay play football whenever he wants. If he wants to put Clay through a strength and conditioning session, his son is ready and willing.
“My Pops, I’m thankful for him,” Clay said. “He’s a humble, God-fearing man. He’s been mentoring me all my life and continues to do that.”